The challenge of climate adaptation in the SF Bay area highlights a shift taking place in our collective consciousness about sustainability. The need to mitigate impacts to the climate is still urgent; however, the threat of climate change that is already underway demands attention and proactive planning.

The Urban Land Institute began sounding the alarm within the SF Bay Area real estate business community with a 2015 report. The report spoke to the need for innovation in governance, finance and design to meet a challenge that is no longer in the distant future, noting that over 280 square miles of low-lying land in the nine county Bay area region is vulnerable to being inundated as soon as 2050.[1]

North Richmond Resilient by Design study area with proposed green infrastructure. Image courtesy of Mithun.

While initial conversations about climate adaptation and shoreline resilience have been led by engineers, designers have an opportunity to shape both the projects and the messaging around the shift to a resilience mindset to reinforce a vision that focuses on people and multi-benefit solutions that benefit communities and ecosystems. Laura Tam, Sustainable Development Policy Director, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR)—an influential Bay area think tank—put it this way: “The sustainability conversation we were having prior to resilience becoming more of a prominent concept was in some ways lacking a human focus. We can’t address environmental goals without taking care of people today, not just the environment for tomorrow, but resilience could be the agenda for those that don’t want to care about future generations. The concept of resilience without sustainability is not holistic enough—we need to have both … we need to think forward.”[2]

The concern is that if resilience planning takes an overly “defensive” approach, investments could prioritize shortterm solutions protecting individual assets, with energy re-directed away from sustainability goals and many underinvested areas left behind. Thinking forward means working holistically to invest in multi-benefit solutions that restore the health and vitality of all living systems, while strengthening communities and addressing the challenges of inequality and structural racism.

Strategies that restore the urban forest, creeks, parks, greenways and coastal marshlands provide valuable “ecosystem services” that improve air and water quality, moderate temperature and offer protection from flooding and rising tides. When embedded in a multi-benefit planning approach, resilient infrastructure investments can integrate housing, transportation and jobs as part of a holistic resilience framework. Deb Guenther, landscape architect at Mithun and design partner for the Home Team, calls this a “both-and” approach that “moves away from designating places as priority development or priority conservation areas—instead creating priority resilience areas that do both, using hybrid ecologies to build resilience while also creating healthier and stronger communities for the people that live there.” [3]

Richard Mullane of the Australia-based firm Hassell noted that the shift from sustainability to resilience has been happening for some time internationally. “We work a lot in Australia and Asia, and sustainability had been a selling point for new city development, but it has lost meaning and relevance … too much focus on cool technology, resilience makes the conversation more human and less tech focused. In China there has been a shift from EcoCities to Sponge Cities with a focus on major green infrastructure.”[4]

Either way—whether as hard infrastructure or integrated multi-benefit natural systems, or a combination of the two—the cost of climate adaptation will be high. Preliminary estimates of the cost to protect infrastructure and assets in the nine-county bay area put the price tag at about $35 billion.[5] The investment needed in public infrastructure creates an opportunity for designers to envision multi-benefit projects that increase their value to communities bearing the cost, and it may be that making the case for multi-benefit projects is the best way to win the support needed to get them done.

This article provides a brief overview of key discoveries and lessons learned from the recent yearlong Resilience by Design Bay Area Challenge, with a focus on how design professionals can evolve their practice, build skills and form partnerships to play a leadership role in the transformative projects that our communities need. The projects developed during the Resilient by Design (RbD) challenge provide compelling images together with implementation planning and preliminary funding strategies demonstrating the potential of this integrated framework.[6]

Resilient by Design (RbD)
The Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge was launched in the summer of 2017, a year-long process to spur creative community-driven design to address resiliency challenges throughout the nine-county Bay area. The challenge brief encouraged a comprehensive approach to environmental and social resiliency with a focus on equity and inclusion for under-served communities.[7] Nine multi-disciplinary design teams participated, comprised of leading firms locally, nationally and internationally.

Affordable home ownership opportunities are an integral resilience strategy. Image courtesy of Mithun.

The driving idea behind the RbD process was that design thinking would promote more holistic problem solving and engage communities with a more public process. Amanda Brown-Stevens, managing director of Resilient by Design, explained that “RbD was an extreme version of design professionals leading an engagement process. Typically, local government would be the ‘client’ for a large-scale planning process like this. We wanted to flip the dynamic so that designers are leading—multi-disciplinary collaboration was the goal, but we also wanted to bring experience from other places—this was a key part of the competition.”[8]

RbD was modeled after Rebuild by Design, a competition launched by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force in response to over $65 billion in damages and economic loss in NYC and surrounding areas from the 2012 hurricane.[9] The NYC Rebuild competition had a sense of urgency, strong local government participation and significant funding from US Housing and Urban Development (HUD), whereas SF Resilient by Design had none of these. RbD was about developing ideas to avert disaster. It had interest from local governments, but no identified sources of funding nor a process for implementing the plans. This difference led to important learning opportunities for designers, as financing training and advising was integrated into the program.

What is different?
Like the comprehensive planning process in California, which integrates planning across silos from housing and transportation to natural systems and infrastructure, resiliency planning requires even more inputs, a scale that typically extends beyond political boundaries, and a very intentional focus on social impacts and equity. Resilience is fundamentally about protecting people and their community support systems, not just the physical assets of the city.

Input data are changing as climate change impacts everything from predictions of 100-year storm events, which are occurring more frequently, to projections of increased rainfall alternating with increased drought. Alexis Roberts, economic and policy analyst focused on climate change at Hatch, notes that “all of the levels of service and rules of thumb are changing, not just based on climate change but ‘climate weirdness’ because even when predictable it is more extreme.”[10] Geophysicist and climate expert Klaus Jacobs of Columbia University advised the teams at the outset of the design challenge to get used to change, because we are in the midst of a shift, from climate that has been stable for thousands of years to one that is changing, and the change is accelerating. Projections for sea level rise in the bay area vary—from three feet to six feet or more by the end of the century—however, the water will continue to rise, and future stabilization of the climate is a long way off.

Spaces for community gathering, arts and culture are integrated into resilient development plans. Image courtesy of Mithun.

Another major difference is the planning scale, with resilience projects often defined by the watershed, which can include multiple cities and counties with complex overlapping jurisdictions. This becomes especially challenging given the increased importance of community engagement and government partnership as a part of the design and planning process. And finally, the issue of equity needs to be front and center. The SF Bay area is in the midst of a severe housing crisis and inequality is increasing by all measures, from income inequality to unequal health outcomes, as low-income people and people of color are being displaced to areas far from transportation, jobs, parks and open space, and healthy food, while enduring exposure to environmental hazards from industry and roadways. Holistic multi-benefit resiliency strategies address both current and future needs that enable people to thrive.

New expertise is needed
The intensive yearlong RbD process brought design teams together for extensive information sharing and group learning, and ultimately revealed the complexity of a challenge that is about so much more than shoreline protection. Expertise is needed to fill information gaps and model complex interactions throughout the watershed, to seek out synergies between natural and built landscapes, and to address governance and ownership issues related to green infrastructure. Teams also need to build communications and engagement skills to be effective.

More expertise is needed to understand the complex interrelationships between land and water; for example, the region is experiencing subsidence with land in some areas sinking even faster than sea level is rising. Dr. Kristina Hill, assistant professor at UC Berkeley and member of the All Bay Collective team, was a vocal proponent of the need to address subsurface dynamics: “To imagine how our coastal areas are going to change, we need to be able to anticipate the impacts of higher water tables as well as higher tides. Rainwater won’t seep into the ground anymore as water tables rise—and that’s going to be a big change. Water will actually seep up out of the ground when it rains, and tides are high … this has big implications for seismic risks, pipe capacity, and exposure risks from existing soil pollution.”[11]

Restoration of the shoreline environment protects the community from storm surge and sea level rise while providing a valuable open space amenity. Image courtesy of Mithun.

Teams also need to help build literacy around the watershed and its management, to inform the public and the agencies that steward these systems. For example, the Public Sediment team developed a multi-benefit proposal called Unlock Alameda Creek with new public open spaces along the Alameda Creek including “flood rooms and mud rooms” to restore the flow of the sediments, replenishing mud along the edges of the bay.[12] The team engaged extensive community education about sediment and raised important questions about how flood management districts will need to either partner or expand their expertise to take on habitat restoration and parks management as well as flood control.

In addition to technical expertise, resilience planning requires strong communication and engagement skills to engage communities when resilience situations feel far off and other priorities seem more pressing. Richard Mullane described their approach to the Resilient South City project in South San Francisco,[13] which included renting a storefront for use as a community meeting place for gathering input and sharing ideas, and also talked about the importance of engaging youth: “This helps us to set an ambitious agenda—it is easier to do with kids—they are more optimistic and have less preconceptions. … Ultimately, our goal is to focus on what communities love about their place.”[14]

And finally, there is collaboration and the importance of engaging local expertise. Landscape architect Tim Mollette-Parks, with the Mithun Home Team, cautions that “While we need data and tools to model dynamic conditions, our local partners are such important contributors to the design process. … There is always someone in the room that understands what is really happening and has ideas on what to do about it. Designing with the community creates projects that are better informed and more meaningful to the people that live there.”[15]

Design the financing
Bold vision that requires collaboration among many parties doesn’t typically originate with a conventional client or single funding source. Because of this, the RbD teams were challenged to design a financing strategy as an integral part of the planning and design process. This idea of integrating a community- driven design process with creative financial planning is a strong opportunity area for designers. It is possible that de-coupling early project visioning from conventional development constraints helps to unlock alternative funding ideas and partnerships that enhance community benefit.

Winning support for resilience projects can be difficult, especially given that “success is defined as something that doesn’t happen” explains Shalini Vajjhala, founder and CEO of re:focus. Her advice is to focus first on value capture from avoided losses by looking for the “biggest losers”—those that lose money if the resilient infrastructure does not get built have an incentive to contribute to funding.[16] Another theme from Shalini and others is that multi-benefit design enables access to diverse funding streams. Laura Tam emphasizes the stacking of financing using different “colors of money” which each have different rates of return.[17]

Finally, given the growing inequality in the Bay area, and the fact that infrastructure investments tend to increase land values, the ripple effect of resilient infrastructure investments needs to be considered carefully. Current development processes tend to concentrate both wealth and poverty, and the SF Bay area is a stark example of this. Dr. Kristina Hill cautions that “systemic racism has left a lot of Black and Latino people at risk of displacement from low-lying areas—and nowhere to move to in the Bay Area. … The challenge with existing models, such as public benefit districts, is that cities aren’t good at making their districts equal.”[18]

New financing tools are needed to build wealth in communities that are chronically under-invested. Strategies include community land trusts, increased affordable home ownership opportunities, community benefit districts run by nonprofits, local hire provisions, green jobs and local business incubation to spur reinvestment and community wealth building.

Community-driven design process
A truly community-driven design process fundamentally shifts the roles of client and consultant and the relationship between local government and its citizens. Communities become client and collaborating consultant, and local government empowers community groups and residents, rather than setting direction and delivering services unilaterally.

Community Advisory Board for North Richmond Home Team. Photo by Sam Holman.

As an example, to produce the Our Home project,[19] the Mithun-led Home Team gathered a community advisory board (CAB) to engage in a collaborative process that began by building on the recently completed North Richmond Shoreline Vision,[20] as well as listening carefully and exploring opportunities and synergies together through a series of collaborative workshops. Important community benefits were identified—affordable housing and home ownership opportunities, renewable energy incentives supporting local jobs, tree planting to improve air quality and stormwater, and greywater as a resource for local nurseries, together with places to gather and places to make their history and culture visible. The collaborative design process requires designers to step back and “lead from behind” so community members can actively participate.

While community strength is needed, Amanda Brown-Stevens noted the need for government buy-in so that there is ownership and desire to follow up on projects. Chris Guillard of CMG Landscape Architects and the All Bay Collective team agrees: “Design professionals can catalyze project ideas through research, but inevitably it is community members, local government and the private sector that need to be the project catalyst.”[21]

Visioning the resilient future is an exciting process—and one that leverages naturally appealing ideas. Multi-benefit resilience projects may also provide a pathway to address urgent social justice challenges, with community-driven projects that produce more livable and more affordable communities. While financing and governance challenges are significant, these challenges are opening new opportunities for designers to engage with communities to co-create meaningful projects. Designers need to position themselves as collaborators in an engaged community-driven process, bringing expertise in climate resilience, green infrastructure, finance, community development and facilitation to develop multi-benefit resilience solutions.


Sandy Mendler is an architect, planner, researcher and design industry thought-leader, working with visionary clients to design buildings, campuses and urban neighborhoods that inspire, integrating innovative solutions to urgent climate, resilience and social equity challenges. She is principal with Mithun.
This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly 3Q 2018 edition.



1 Urban Land Institute (2015), “Tackling Sea-Level Rise: Best Practices in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Tackling-Sea-Level-Rise1.pdf

2 Personal interview with the author.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 From the Finance Guide for Resilient by Design, Bay Area Challenge Design Teams, Final Version 1.0, December 1, 2017, available at team

6 For information, images and videos describing the nine completed projects for the Resilient by Design, Bay Area Challenge, see:

7 To access the design brief for the Resilient by Design, Bay Area Challenge, see design-brief/

8 Personal interviews with the author.

9 For information on the Rebuild by Design, Hurricane Sandy Design Competition, see: http://www.

10 Personal interview with the author.

11 Ibid.

12 For more information on the Unlock Alameda Creek project, see

13 For more information on the Resilient South City project, see

14 Personal interviews with the author.

15 Ibid.

16 For more information about re:focus partners and their research, see:

17 Personal interview with the author.

18 Ibid.

19 To learn more about the Our Home project, see http://

20 For access to the North Richmond Shoreline Vision, see uploads/2017/06/N.-Richmond-Shoreline-Vision.pdf

21 Personal interview with the author.