Why San Francisco can lead the way on resiliency planning

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

The Bay Area has uniquely positioned itself ahead of California overall, assuming what I call a “burden of leadership” in planning beyond sustainability for global resilience. As a region internationally renowned for sustainability and innovation, it came to an inflection point and has begun to secure both long-term competitive advantages.

What does the Bay Area know about resilience that other cities don’t?

When it comes to one of the predictable, yet most unruly shifts in our environment -- rising sea levels -- Bay Area developers have used adaptive planning to confront this shock.

One shining example is Treasure Island, an island containing an aging Navy base, which will be developed into a neighborhood with a mix of affordable and market-rate homes that will save water and energy over the next 30 years. The project is a partnership between the City of San Francisco and developer Wilson Meany, and incorporates land planning and financing for a sea wall. This response to creeping change does not require deficit spending -- nor does it further disrupt the energy regime.

Another is the South Bay Salt Pond restoration project, the largest environmental restoration project of salt marshes and wetlands outside of the Florida Everglades. The Bay Area’s dramatic decline in marsh habitat has devastated the wildlife population, decreased water quality and increased flooding. The revitalized ponds will restore 15,100 acres of industrial salt ponds to a rich mosaic of tidal wetlands and form a valuable passive line of storm defense to Silicon Valley.

The larger scale issues are as yet undetermined, but the cities of both San Francisco and Oakland have been assessing the likely impacts of a more dynamic environment for decades, such as modified energy supply, extreme weather (including flooding and drought) and increased pollution.

Next page:  Lessons learned

Both cities have each enacted landmark urban agriculture ordinances, and the City of San Francisco is developing codes that seek to marry smart grid and eco-districts with social sustainability. Social sustainability is built on a very basic concept -- caring for our neighbors. One successful example of this was during the Chicago heat waves in the 1990s and 2000s, as communities with solid social connections between different elements of the community fared better.

The same can be said for New York City during Sandy and fire-struck towns of my home country, Australia. Communities that embrace physical connections between diverse neighbors are better able to withstand environmental shocks. PolicyLink, a national research institute advancing economic and social equity, has data to suggest social resilience produces greater economic rewards, and that more diverse communities (racially and economically mixed, and interactive) are more sustainable in the long-term.

What more can be done?

When I first left my small town and read Rachel Carson, E.F. Schumacher and other environmental and economic leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, the call was to think globally and act locally. I believe this is still true, and local leadership starts with the people.

Overall, our methods of measuring and preparing for sustainability are stoic and unpredictive -- and we cannot properly execute plans for resilience without resolving these issues. We must adapt our cities to be zero carbon and keep our most valuable of commodity -- water -- aligned with proper re-usage and clean discharge. We can and must integrate uses of food in a more complete system rather than as a series of segregated users.

Cities are also our environmental cleaners -- the centers of innovation and creativity, social invention and environmental consumption. We require a fundamental push to clean cities’ waste and offer clean discharge, rather than push it downstream. If we can create this systemic change in the next 20 years, we can clean the world. To borrow a quote from noted Bay Area futurist, Alex Steffen: “Cities will save the planet, but we need to act now to change course.”

Photo of the Oakland Bay Bridge into San Francisco provided by kropic1 via Shutterstock.