September 13th, 2016


Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle

Principal, Charles A. Long Properties, LLC

Competition Advisor, Resilient by Design

Science and Environment Reporter, KQED

Executive Director, San Francisco Public Press

Sea Level Rise Planning Consultant


The reality of higher tides is hard to fathom because we think it happens slowly.  But seas rose about 8 inches during the last century; scientists predict that by 2050 seas in Northern California will have risen nearly a foot. How is the Bay Area preparing for the inevitable?

A recent issue of the San Francisco Public Press took a “deep dive” into the issue, with an eye towards future construction in the Bay Area.  They uncovered nearly thirty major projects, at around $21 billion in development costs, reports editor Michael Stoll.  “These are places where they're going to put housing, commercial developments, strip malls, offices and sports complexes. These are going to be new neighborhoods that have never been inhabited before, and they are going to be with us for generations.”  Google, Microsoft and Facebook are just a few of the high-roller companies planning on a bayfront view. The Commonwealth Club itself will soon be moving to new offices on the Embarcadero, says host Greg Dalton, giving Climate One a “front row seat to sea level rise.”

J.K. Dineen, who covers real estate for the San Francisco Chronicle, says rising waters aren’t in the foreground of planning discussions, which tend to center around historical preservation, affordable housing and open space.  “Sea level rise is something that has been at most major American newspapers covered by the science reporters, not so much the real estate reporters,” he says. As a result, the development market has been slow to take the issue into consideration.  

“Climate change is this sort of overarching cloud over everything.  But in terms of the nitty-gritty and how policy gets made and how plans get developed or rejected, occasionally it's really just kind of like background noise,” Dineen adds.

It’s a gradual story that Lauren Sommer of KQED has covered many times. “We always say that environmental stories don't break, they ooze, right?” says Sommer.  “And that makes it hard for us to kind of find the news hooks.”  

Last winter’s King Tides served as such a news hook, a way to remind the public that climate change is happening.  “El Niño was in effect, and the warmer water expands,” Sommer says, “And so you had this added layer of the King Tide, which has to do with the gravitational alignment of the earth and the moon…if you get a big storm or a windy day you’ve got the added level there of the water.  

“So, I mean, there are these things that I think help the public understand, it's not just about the water slowly rising.  You’ve got these events that can be much more problematic.”

How is the development community responding?  Charles Long, of the non-profit Urban Land Institute, says there’s definite concern, both for new development and existing structures.  Among the over 100 jurisdictions affected, says Long, they’ve seen little cohesiveness or long-range planning.  

“We need to embed this in the capital planning process for jurisdictions,” he states. “We need to have some regional leadership, which has frankly been absent.  And we need to have some clear standards…we need to identify funding sources that take care of protecting existing development as much as we need to have standards for new development.”

Margie O’Driscoll of Resilient by Design says that public awareness of climate change is growing; people can see the effects.  “They’re seeing creeks overflowing, they’re seeing the water shifting over the Embarcadero, that’s sort of new imagery,” she says. “So people are starting to actually see with their eyes the changes which are happening, here on the planet and here in our Bay Area.”

Resilient by Design is holding an open design contest to come up with solutions. O’Driscoll says the idea is based on a similar competition that was launched in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. “It was an idea that you could actually use design thinking and designers to…work with communities to develop resilient solutions to protect communities which were severely damaged after hurricane Sandy.”  Some of the ideas included restoration of oyster beds and parklands to serve as buffers.

They hope that the competition will generate ideas that will not only protect structures from rising waters and storm surge, but will contribute to the quality of life in those communities.

Everyone will benefit from a forward look, says planning consultant Will Travis, even those who don’t live near the water. “We have an interconnected system; if you think about the Bay, it’s largely surrounded by transportation infrastructure.  It's either BART lines, rail lines, freeways, airport, ports.  So our whole transportation system, which is the whole aerial system that allows us to move around, is all right at the Bay shoreline.  

“So it doesn’t matter where you live; when you have sea level rise it’ll impact you.”


Related Links:

San Francisco Public Press: Building on the Bay

San Francisco Sea Level Rise Action Plan

San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission

Urban Land Institute: Tackling Sea Level Rise

Bay Area Resilient by Design Challenge