Sustainable design competition seeks to abate Bay Area climate disasters

Much of Richmond's 32 miles of coastline could be threatened by rising sea levels. (Photo by Ted Andersen)

Much of Richmond's 32 miles of coastline could be threatened by rising sea levels. (Photo by Ted Andersen)

Richmond’s northern shoreline is currently being used as the inspiration for a project aimed at slowing down the creeping specter of climate change.

In May, the Home Team, a collaboration of 10 design firms and community groups led by San Francisco-based design firm Mithun, will present its proposal for a multidimensional plan that seeks to reduce the risks associated with rising seas along Richmond’s coast, while also addressing the issues of displacement and affordable housing.

The team’s efforts are part of the Resilient by Design competition, a research and design initiative created to address climate-related disasters. In total, 10 teams, each of which is focused on a different area situated on the San Francisco Bay, are vying to have their proposals deemed the best by a panel of judges and ultimately funded through public and private investment.

The year-long competition is reaching its final stage, just as the threat of rising sea levels in the Bay Area has gained national media attention, following a study published in Science Advances which shows that sinking coastlines in the region could result in potential flooding worse than previously expected.

With 32 miles of shoreline, more than any other city in the Bay Area, Richmond is acutely threatened by rising sea levels caused by melting polar ice.

“A large portion of Richmond is subject to inundation,” says Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who is on the Resilient by Design executive board. “There are two railroad lines, there are streets, the Richmond Parkway. There’s a lot of transportation infrastructure that’s potentially at risk.”

Maps of potential flood zones created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Bay Conservation & Development Commission show that much of Richmond’s low-lying areas could be at risk by 2100, with damage being felt as far inland as the Atchison Village and Iron Triangle neighborhoods.

The Home Team’s project, which is focused on the Wildcat Estuary watershed, aims to expand the region’s marshland—which acts as a natural buffer to sea level rise—as wildlife habitat and implement a number of other greening projects. The team also hopes that a cooperatively-owned clean energy park can be constructed on the site of a landfill that was formerly owned by Chevron.

The plan also calls for “floating trails,” which would give residents access to a houseboat cooperative and make walking and biking to BART stations more convenient—but the design team hasn’t yet made public what form the trails would take. It also envisions horizontal levees to block sea water and open up more areas for affordable development.

“We must produce more housing, preserve low-income housing and protect residents from displacement, while improving the quality of neighborhoods for everyone,” the team states in their promotional video.

The Home Team has engaged with residents through community forums and has fielded ideas from a group of Kennedy High School students who are participating in Y-Plan, a research initiative run by UC Berkeley that gives students around the United States the opportunity to solve issues in their communities.  

Amanda Brown-Stevens, managing director of Resilient by Design, says the Home Team stands out as one of the groups that has encompassed the purpose of the challenge. “We really are looking for solutions that provide multiple benefits. That’s the way we need to think,” she said. “The [Home Team] has done a good job of thinking about an area that’s already very vulnerable to flooding—they already have a pumping system—but also has issues of poverty.”

The Home Team and each of the nine other design teams will present their finished proposals at the Resilient Bay Summit, hosted at the Rock Wall Winery in Alameda, on May 18. Once the summit is complete, each team starts the daunting task of finding funding to turn their proposals into real-world development projects.

Butt says that a project like the one being proposed by the Home Team would have major effects on Richmond. But it’s likely going to be up to the residents of the city if the development actually gets funded.

“I think that things like this are going to be done the old-fashioned way,” he said. “They’re going to be financed by bond issues that are based on taxes, and everybody’s going to end up paying for it.”

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