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January 2019: Resilient by Design, Protecting East Oakland from Rising Sea Levels


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By Brad Leibin, AIA; Joel Millar, AIA, LEED AP; Erin Feeney, AIA, LEED AP; and Laura Williams

January 2019

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy slammed the northeastern United States, wiping out thousands of homes, leaving millions temporarily without power, and testifying to the increasing threat climate change poses to the safety of our cities. In the wake of Sandy, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) partnered with nonprofits and the philanthropic sector to launch Rebuild by Design, a design competition aimed at helping vulnerable communities in the greater New York City area achieve resilience.

In May 2017, inspired by Rebuild by Design, a local version was launched—The Bay Area: Resilient By Design Challenge. Unlike its New York counterpart, which occured in the aftermath of a natural disaster, Resilient By Design aimed to take a proactive approach by finding implementable solutions for sea-level rise in the San Francisco Bay Area in advance of the next major natural disaster.

Map of sea level rise threat in the Bay Area.

Resilient by Design selected 10 teams to engage in a research and a design phase, assigning each to focus on a particular vulnerable area. The effort also involved a significant community engagement process, whereby residents were involved in imagining what kind of solutions were possible and developing an understanding of what the problems actually are.

The All Bay Collective team worked with local residents in order to involve them in understanding the specific ecological challenges facing their communities and potential solutions. Image: All Bay Collective

One of the 10 teams, the All Bay Collective, was led by our friends at CMG Landscape Architecture and AECOM. The team was quite large and diverse, including architecture and landscape architecture faculty from California College of the Arts and U.C. Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, the Berkeley Center for New Media, the Terner Center, Silvestrum, SKEO, and modem. Assigned a focus on the San Leandro Bay, the All Bay Collective team approached DBA to join their efforts as a housing expert, because it became clear after the research phase that affordable housing would have to play a significant role in the design solution for this area.

 

DBA brought affordable housing expertise to the All Bay Collective’s efforts to achieve a "Quadruple Bottom Line." Our holistic approach to resilience focused on four pillars: ecology, social, economy, and governance.

The team took a Quadruple Bottom Line approach, because resilience isn't just about ecological resilience. It’s not just dealing with groundwater infiltration or storm surges: “Resilience” has to also include social resilience, economic resilience, and governance. It’s crucial to address affordable housing and displacement issues in order to ensure social resilience.

The All Bay Collective brought East Oakland community groups together with BART and Caltrain—agencies with whom they might not normally speak. Part of the point of the community process was to understand ongoing and existing efforts so our efforts could support them. That proved complicated for our site in particular, where multiple jurisdictions around San Leandro Bay overlap—the cities of Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro, plus the Oakland International Airport, the Oakland Coliseum, and other stakeholders. Residents in this area are often very skeptical of big planning processes like this, so a certain amount of trust-building was necessary. But, ultimately, residents seemed to be more willing to work with us than with governmental entities, and they saw the Resilient By Design process as an opportunity to put their ideas for the neighborhood down on paper.

Rather than getting into a level of master-planned detail, we assembled a tool kit of ideas that the community can take forward to identify the right sites, the right stakeholders, and the right funding. We weren't casting ourselves as decision makers, saying, “This is what should happen,” but instead offering ideas and inspiration for what could be done.

The In It Together board game, developed by Janette Kim of California College of the Arts, acts as a decision-making tool for communities. Image: All Bay Collective

The process also raised awareness among the public beyond those who participated directly in the community engagement. A lot of the community members understood sea-level rise and climate change, but this process allowed them to learn more about the ways these threats will impact them and their community specifically. In communities flanking the San Leandro Bay, one of the major threats is groundwater rise, a fairly unfamiliar concern.

In May 2018, the teams assembled to give presentations on our work. In our proposal, ABC identified both achievable, short-term actions—such as creating better governance strategies for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in East Oakland—and longer-term strategies—like developing a master plan to address sea-level rise and groundwater infiltration.

During the research phase, before DBA came on board, the ABC team had come up with the concept of “tidal cities,” which involved excavating land along the San Leandro Bay where groundwater rise was expected and using that earth to form berms. In between the berms, ponds would host floating housing that could rise and fall with the ebb and flow of the groundwater.

DBA took that idea further, envisioning a diverse, affordable, mixed-use, vibrant urban place. We determined a good density target for the neighborhood, so that it could be vibrant and support the right kind of services and retail—30,000 people per square mile.

Tidal Cities pondscape with two- and three-story walk-up floating housing connected by pontoons. Higher density mixed-use development is located on the berms beyond. Image: All Bay Collective

We also looked at neighborhood character, applying ideas we use in our more typical urban planning—like basic street design and standard block sizes—to the floating-city concept. Then we investigated how we could tie those into the existing city fabric to create something that was a comfortable scale, while also integrating well with the engineered tidal ponds CMG and AECOM had designed. We wanted to break the precedent that waterfront housing is only for the wealthy. Our proposal considered some of the typologies that are commonly built on land, such as walk-ups and townhomes, exploring ways to adapt them to the floating cities while achieving affordability and bringing in community programming and community space. We wanted it to feel like East Oakland.

The floating structures would have to be smaller, walk-up units, perhaps two or three stories high, simply because of the buoyancy issues. The linear berms separating the ponds, however, could support streets and higher density mixed-use. Together these create a good urban mix of densities and help foster a vibrant urban environment.

The reimagined San Leandro Bay. Image: All Bay Collective

Learn more about the All Bay Collective's final proposal, Estuary Commons.

If you are interested in partnering on bringing the All Bay Collective's vision to reality, please contact DBA Associate Brad Leibin 
here

Unlike New York’s Rebuild by Design, Bay Area Resilient By Design did have long-term funding in place for implementation and did not select specific proposals to move forward. Many of the teams focused on developing and documenting actionable, fundable strategies in inspiring ways to attract future funding. Hopefully, funding can be obtained and implementation can occur before it is too late. In the meantime, other metropolitan areas could really benefit from a similar process—always keeping in mind the Quadruple Bottom Line.

Map of sea level rise threat in the Bay Area.

The All Bay Collective team worked with local residents in order to involve them in understanding the specific ecological challenges facing their communities and potential solutions. Image: All Bay Collective

DBA brought affordable housing expertise to the All Bay Collective’s efforts to achieve a "Quadruple Bottom Line." Our holistic approach to resilience focused on four pillars: ecology, social, economy, and governance.

The In It Together board game, developed by Janette Kim of California College of the Arts, acts as a decision-making tool for communities. Image: All Bay Collective

Tidal Cities pondscape with two- and three-story walk-up floating housing connected by pontoons. Higher density mixed-use development is located on the berms beyond. Image: All Bay Collective

The reimagined San Leandro Bay. Image: All Bay Collective