Designing for the Future

Sea level rise caused by global climate change is one of the most pressing concerns facing bayside cities
and ecosystems, including the San Francisco Bay Area, where the water level is expected to rise 1.4 meters over the next century. Flooding could damage estuaries, leading to the loss of prime seaside habitat and perhaps even ecosystem collapse. It could take a toll on people as well; there could be water shortages, large-scale, costly property damage, parts of cities could become inaccessible, and cherished cultural areas could be lost.

So this year the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission launched an international
design competition asking for new ideas to help coastal areas adapt to sea level rise. Designers from eighteen different countries submitted an impressive 130 plans to the Rising Tides competition. Though organizers had planned to name one $15,000 grand prize winner, plus award another $10,000 in prizes, when the results were announced this July the judges insisted that the money be split six ways. “The judges said the six winning proposals tell a story together, and that awarding just one winner was simply not possible,” says Will Travis, the commission’s executive director.

Four of the winning teams are from San Francisco, one from Berkeley, and one is from St. Louis, Missouri.
Together their proposals lay out practical ideas for how the Bay Area could adapt its infrastructure to sea level rise while suggesting artistic visions of how to raise public awareness. For example, winner Faulders Studio, based in Berkeley, proposed a network of laser beams, dubbed the RAYdike system, that would be visible at night thanks to the bay’s perpetually foggy atmosphere, and would depict a twenty-foot tall dike system surrounding the bay, a sort of virtual barrier protecting the shore against rising waters, and warning new developers away from areas subject to inundation. “[The RAYdike system] retains a surprise element,” says architect Thom Faulders, who believes the project’s strikingly visual nature would increase public awareness about sea level rise and encourage people to combat local problems due to global warming.

One team thought that sea level rise might have some redeeming qualities. Derek Hoeferlin, Ian Caine, and Michael Heller, part of the winning St. Louis, Missouri architectural team that submitted the 100 Year Plan, proposed that rising sea level can actually help solve California’s water shortage problems, if the appropriate tools are used to harness it as a way to replenish the state’s freshwater sources. Currently, too much water from Northern California watersheds is shunted to the southern half of the state. The group’s winning entry, which frankly states that it is “political first and foremost,” advocates an end to “watershed-hopping.”

The group proposes instead that marsh regeneration powered by rising tides could generate freshwater for each watershed—including those in Southern California. Tidal energy would be used for the desalination and water recycling efforts. Water would no longer be a commodity to be shunted across the state, but would be a local resource.

The team points out that fresh water access is a problem nationwide. “Being from St. Louis, a city at the confluence of the nation’s two largest rivers in the middle of the nation’s largest watershed, makes us very aware of these water issues,” says Hoeferlin. The team says that other areas affected by sea level rise could adopt similar water reclamation strategies.
“We suggest that all communities engage in a localized examination of these issues. In this case, the term ‘local’ refers to ecological as well as political systems,” says Caine. “The policy-based toolkit that we propose in the 100 Year Plan is designed specifically for Northern California. The challenges and solutions for other communities may be quite different.”

Among the other winning ideas were concepts for a tidal barrier—a “submerged, cable-reinforced membrane anchored to the seabed” beneath the Golden Gate Bridge—that would rise to the surface during extremely high tides to protect the shoreline from floods, as well as a plan for how to manage development along San Francisco’s shoreline while anticipating a changing topography. Altogether, the contest produced a diverse, thought-provoking collection of possible futures for the bay. Says Travis, “One idea and another idea can equal amazing things.”

The winning entries, as well as information about public events discussing sea level rise in the Bay Area, can be viewed at

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