Why San Francisco can lead the way on resiliency planning

If climate predictions are correct, Silicon Valley -- already below sea level and estimated by the Army Corps of Engineers to have nearly 260 companies contributing over a trillion dollars to regional GDP -- is at tremendous risk. In light of this, the Bay Area has both a sincere need and obligation to plan more resilient infrastructure and physical space.

Resilience is a word that we’ve seen often in the past few years, as urban planners and government officials have scrambled to defend cities against natural disasters that caused devastation in some of our most vibrant cities. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, this concept is a key issue in proposing long-term solutions to extreme weather events, but also future threats to urban areas that may make Sandy seem mild in comparison.

It is clear our settlement patterns globally must confront a more dynamic energy regime in our biosphere. There is more energy in the atmosphere that needs to be dissipated by climate shifts. Even in the first few weeks of this year, Australia has dealt with record heat, China has record pollution above 800 parts per million (which is 32 times the maximum recommended levels for public health), and California is dealing with a record warm January that is permanently altering snow pack. 

I was born in Australia in a small bush town, home to droughts and flooding rains, and I became a student of cities and culture vicariously and early in my life. I came to the San Francisco Bay Area almost 13 years ago, committed to joining one of the most forward-thinking urban centers in the world to help shape the cities of our future. This part of the Bay Area is where I believe the world’s most critical minds -- and potential solutions -- for urban sustainability and resilience planning are found.

As sea levels and weather patterns change, economic shocks continue and land and resources are pushed to the limit, we are examining why some of our urban systems are failing. So why is the Bay Area the place where other cities should look for tangible solutions to protect themselves against predictable and unpredictable shocks?

The burden of leadership

Resilience is a comparatively new term in the climate change discussion, but California and the Bay Area in particular have led the nation in environmental activism long before the crises that Sandy, Irene and Katrina have wrought. Starting with policy, California developed bills during the 1990s that drove new rounds of review of Western coastal cities, with the goal of reinstating regional planning and design policy as a toolkit for confronting uncertain environmental outcomes.

Next page:  Leadership in resilience