Planning For the Rising Tide To Lift More Boats in the Bay Area

Challenge pairs communities with world-class designers to tackle sea-level rise.

A rendering of a planned horizontal levee in North Richmond, which will reduce wave action, protect infrastructure, and form a transition zone for the marsh to move up slope as waters rise, while also creating a place for people to walk, and ride, and work along the shore. (Credit: Resilient by Design/Mithun)

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A lifelong resident of North Richmond, Princess Robinson has observed how outsiders have treated her community like it’s disposable.

“North Richmond gets a lot of people and a lot of groups … just doing steady on North Richmond. They’re just using it for themselves,” says Robinson, community outreach manager for Urban Tilth, a North Richmond nonprofit that focuses on urban farming and environmental sustainability.

Approximately 5,000 people live in North Richmond, an unincorporated community located northeast of San Francisco. Just south, in the city of Richmond, Chevron operates an oil refinery. Once a predominantly African-American community, demographics in North Richmond have shifted as Latinx immigrants have moved to the area.

Over the past eight months or so, Robinson and Urban Tilth have participated in a research and design process that partnered world-renowned designers with local communities to develop solutions to sea-level rise as if those communities weren’t disposable — as if people wanted to live in those communities for as long as the planet will let them, and maybe even extending that time horizon. That research and design process recently concluded with the unveiling of nine approaches developed as part of “Resilient by Design | Bay Area Challenge.”

“Resilient by Design really broke that barrier for us,” Robinson says. “They really wanted to know what was going on, and they really wanted to hear from the people.”

A project of the Trust for Conservation Innovation, Resilient by Design invited nine Bay Area teams last fall to research the way sea-level rise could affect their communities. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the project was modeled on the Rebuild by Design program that aimed to help parts of New York and New Jersey recover from Hurricane Sandy. For the Bay Area, Resilient by Design focused on preventing disasters by incorporating resilient structures and systems before catastrophe strikes.

“There are some similar themes in the projects,” says Amanda Brown-Stevens, managing director for Resilient by Design. “We live in a relatively built environment. There are a lot of areas along the Bay where there’s not a lot of room to build up or move back … ‘How do we live with water?’ is how a lot of the teams framed the question.”

After a three month research phase, participating groups had five months to develop design proposals focused on how to cope with severe storms, flooding and earthquakes.

For its proposal, North Richmond formed a community advisory board, consisting of local residents, elected officials, public agencies and community organizations. To help ensure direct community benefits, a third of board members are North Richmond residents and the board intentionally reflects the racial diversity of the community.

With guidance from Mithun, a San Francisco- and Seattle-based interdisciplinary design firm, the community advisory board drafted the “ouR-HOME” proposal for North Richmond, putting racial justice and social equity at the center of the approach.

The final proposal includes planting 20,000 trees to help filter water and air; building a horizontal levee that can change over time to protect a crucial road as well as the neighborhood and the local wastewater treatment plant; creating a marsh that can co-exist with industrial uses; and completing a multi-use path overpass to provide shoreline access.

In addition to physical resilience, the proposal addresses the resilience of the community to remain in North Richmond even after the proposed improvements potentially boost the value of their land, by inclusion of measures meant to boost affordable homeownership. Such measures include making it easier for low-income residents to purchase homes by using small-lot housing, redeveloping existing neighborhoods and potentially the creation of a community land trust. A green mitigation fund promises to continue to grow local jobs.

The proposal, in concept and in practice, builds on previous work in North Richmond.

Six years ago, The Watershed Project began working with North Richmond residents on creating a park, the Richmond Greenway, that could double as a flood-protection and stormwater-management tool. That project helped build understanding of water systems and flooding among local residents.

Robinson had a hand in that work, previously coordinating Urban Tilth’s watershed apprenticeship program, which aims to help low-income women and men, often with criminal justice system experience, learn skills that can land them living-wage jobs in watershed management while contributing to environmental sustainability and resilience.

Both Urban Tilth and The Watershed Project were represented on the community advisory board that drafted the ouR-Home proposal, and will remain core partners in implementation.

“In California, we’ve had fires and drought years, which has opened our eyes to the fact that water is going to be an issue in California,” says Juliana Gonzalez, executive director of The Watershed Project, who also served as community liaison throughout the Resilient by Design process. “But we always think about the drought piece, and we don’t often think about sea-level rise and flooding as another risk factor.”

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Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.

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Tags: resilient citiesbay areasea levels

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