Addressing Challenges Before They Occur Leaves Regions Resilient for the Future

Natural disasters have left a long and tragic trail in the United States this past year. Wildfires, tornados, hailstorms and hurricanes have all taken their toll. These events left thousands of people in the dark, without potable water, constrained by blocked roads, and suffering the loss of homes and, and most tragically, the loss of life. Taken together, the economic damage is staggering: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association reports that in 2017 the US experienced 15 separate weather disasters that have each caused at least $1billion in damages.

As these regions begin to rebuild, they have a major opportunity to address their challenges through an integrated approach that will build meaningful resilience and ensure they are prepared for whatever the future might next bring. The San Francisco Bay Area, home to 101 cities and nine counties, is embarking on a major program that does exactly that. This past May saw the launch of the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge, made possible by a $4.5M grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, to identify community-focused solutions for strengthening resilience to sea level rise, severe storms, flooding and earthquakes – before they happen.

Marking a major milestone, this week the 10 international interdisciplinary design teams revealed their preliminary research findings. The proposals were the result of an intensive research stage where each team–composed of of architects, landscape architects, designers, engineers, and other experts–spent the past 3 months exploring the Bay Area, from Coyote Creek in San Jose to Sears Point in Sonoma, to gain a deeper perspective of the region’s diversity, culture and range of typologies. The teams visited over 50 sites selected by the public as the most vulnerable ecological systems and bayfront communities in the region.

The resulting proposals focused on a host of resilience challenges ranging from fluvial flooding, to the daily chronic challenges of inequity, housing and transportation. The 32 submitted proposals put forth comprehensive strategies that include proposed ferry lines and a new cross bay tunnel; decking over infrastructure to create flood barriers, open spaces and area for housing; addressing regulatory changes on natural sediment which could be used as a resource in flood mitigation; repurposing industrial land for flood protection, housing and jobs; and innovative strategies for recharging groundwater.

The Bay Area challenge is closely modeled after Rebuild by Design’s Hurricane Sandy Competition which led ten international teams throughout the affected areas of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The projects, such as the BIG U and Living Breakwaters, have garnered $1.74B in public support are all being implemented, ready to start construction in 2018. The model is now being used in partnership with 100 Resilient Cities to address all scales of City challenges from policy to geographic vulnerabilities.

In the next phase of the challenge, the Design Teams will be given access to research and public agencies to develop their plans through a board of regional organizations and governments tasked with leading the competition, and an advisory board of local experts in environmental justice, seismic risk, and other relevant areas.

The design proposals are now open for public comment. Based on that feedback, the Research Advisory Committee will pair each of the teams with one of their proposals in early December, when they will proceed to the Design Stage. Teams will then spend this spring working in close collaboration with local community stakeholders and all levels of government, as well as with public financing experts, to develop solutions with the greatest impact that are innovative, implementable and fundable using today’s technology and financing tools.

This relatively small investment in building the physical and social resilience of the Bay Area before a disaster will have payoffs for generations to come. It will help break down government silos, put communities in the center of long term investment, and ensure that the region will be be ready for whatever the future brings. The exact nature and severity of a natural disaster, or even a man-made one, is hard to predict. The only way to prepare for it is to build the kind of resilience that strengthens a region overall so that it is ready for anything that may come its way.