Photo: Courtesy of Perkins+Will

The difficult first task of planning for resilience is to get your head around the challenges before you can begin to think about design solutions to address them. The most advanced cities are still working on understanding and interpreting what climate science is projecting for their region, mapping the impacts, and working out their vulnerabilities.

I live and work in San Francisco, where we face the ongoing and fairly well understood threat of earthquakes and the slow-moving threat of sea level rise. We are lucky that we don’t have immediate and new challenges such as hurricanes and superstorms, but it does make it difficult to mobilize people to action when sea level rise seems like an abstract disaster that will happen far off in the future. However, if we want to protect our communities, we would be wise to begin to mobilize resources in the very near future to start building our way out of it.

Upon identifying and understanding your region’s vulnerabilities, you are now faced with a dilemma of how to respond. When looking at a site-scale intervention, you must assess the state of preparedness at the city level and ask the question: do you wait for the city to come up with a solution, or do you solve the problem on your own site? There are strategies that can be pursued independently at the site-scale, such as physically elevating a site out of the rising floodplain. Many developers—now facing newly revised FEMA Floodplain maps—are looking to this approach, but it is a solution that comes with its own challenges. Because many cities are still working out how to address their own vulnerabilities, there is no clear plan for how to integrate an elevated site into a larger system of lower-lying streets and open spaces. Furthermore, you run the risk of investing in infrastructure that will become redundant or obsolete in the context of a broader, citywide approach to resilience.

The Perkins+Will design for Mission Rock includes 8 acres of public open space including a 5-acre park with a shoreline walkway. Rendering courtesy of Steelblue/Perkins+Will, San Francisco Giants

Zooming out, we see the same challenges of coordination at the city scale. As a city, what if you plan to address your own vulnerabilities and your neighboring cities do not? Water knows no jurisdictional boundaries, and watersheds are often a multi-city affair, bringing even more stakeholders and more complexity to the table. Planning for resiliency is complicated by the fact that most cities struggle to provide adequate housing and maintain aging infrastructure, never mind provide solutions to an abstract, undefined challenge that is still 35 years down the road.

Designers can be instrumental in identifying the scale of the problem and working across agencies to come to an implementable solution. Thoughtful design is critical at a time when limited public funds are available. Cities can no longer afford large infrastructure projects with a single focus. A levee can no longer just stop the water; it must also create a public benefit by contributing a wonderful park and be financially linked to value generation of the adjacent land that benefits from this amenity. Instead of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed, designers can help cities, stakeholders, and developers get creative about the benefits that a major investment in our water’s edge can bring.

As keepers of the vision of what cities can become, designers also have an opportunity to help move the public conversation away from doom and gloom, and refocus on the possibilities for positive change. For example, the San Francisco Bay Area is a region that links its identity to the water—and yet, there are so few places to enjoy being by the bay, to go to the edge and actually touch the water. In the near future, the region will be spending a phenomenal amount of time, energy, and resources on adapting the water’s edge, and we can use this opportunity to start a wonderful, exciting conversation about how this investment can not only adapt the waterfront for sea level rise, but also reinvigorate our community while enhancing our access and enjoyment of our Bay and waterways.

At the San Mateo Wastewater Treatment Plant, the design of the landscape provides storage for water at varying levels of flood conditions while maintaining pedestrian access through raised paths and bridges. Rendering courtesy of Perkins+Will

Hall’s Resiliency Top 3:

1. RDoC: Developed by Perkins+Will in conjunction with Degenkolb Engineers, Mazzetti Engineers, Public Architecture, and Alliance Health of San Francisco, RDoC is a concept for a rapidly deployable health clinic that can be used as a replacement venue for critically ambulatory health services in the aftermath of a seismic or severe weather event.

2. Mission Rock: This 28-acre mixed-use district designed by Perkins+Will features 1,500 new rental homes, along with office, dining, and retail space to replace a parking lot near the Giants’ stadium in San Francisco. It’s instituting a “working waterfront” street to invite local manufacturers and makers to bring their production activities to the shore.

3. San Mateo Wastewater Treatment Plant: Perkins+Will developed a design competition submission to transform an unknown, inaccessible, undesirable municipal facility into a welcoming community asset. The goal of the design was to have the plant double as an educational Resource Recovery Center and use wastewater to generate clean energy while recovering nutrients and potable water from it—simultaneously collecting and reusing rainwater and recharging an adjacent creek with freshwater.

Kristen Hall is an urban designer and planner who specializes in complex urban infill projects. She has led the urban design of several high profile projects in San Francisco, including Mission Rock and Central Subway Chinatown Station. Through her experience both locally and internationally she has worked across many different scales and contexts to design masterplans, write guidelines, coordinate public outreach, and create implementation strategies. Kristen’s core area of expertise is delivering projects that require innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, and stakeholder engagement.

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