Resilient by Design: Bay Area Challenge

The Grand Bayway by Common Ground (image © TLS Landscape Architecture)
Image courtesy: Resilient by Design



At a time when sea level rise is threatening coastal communities, California’s San Francisco Bay area, together with Miami and New York, would appear to be the most immediately threatened by this phenomenon. Assuming that levels in the Bay area can rise up to five feet by 2100, Resilient by Design, a local non-profit dealing with just those issues, launched a competition early this year to solicit ideas addressing the imminent dangers of flooding for coastal residents—and for the future of a fragile environment.


According to the sponsor, “Resilient by Design is different from other design competitions. The challenge is designed as a journey to foster collaboration and leadership while also addressing big challenges that face our communities in the future. The challenge provides an opportunity to advance the profession’s knowledge base in the rapidly evolving area of resilience while listening, engaging, and elevating the voices of residents and neighborhoods along the San Francisco Bay shoreline.”


The Bay Area Challenge began with a research phase, as the teams explored the Bay Area, looking closely at places nominate by the community as especially vulnerable to the threats of sea level rise, severe storms, flooding, and earthquakes. Throughout the fall of 2017, the Design Teams explored the Bay Area to study the intricacies of our unique region, from the effects of gentrification to the impacts of climate change, regional transportation challenges, and the unique cultural history of our communities. In January 2018, each team was matched by our Research Advisory Committee with a site in our region. Over the next four months, the Design Teams and community partners developed their solutions for tackling sea level rise and creating resiliency. Finally in May 2018 the Teams each revealed their innovative designs at a two day event that both celebrated the exciting new work and created a lift off for the work that must happen in the future to make these designs a reality.


The eleven-person jury was involved in the process from the start, “providing critical input at the Challenge launch and final Collaborative Design Phase. The Jury selected the participating Design Teams and reviewed the final designs at the conclusion of the Challenge.” Based on a generous grant from the Rockefeller foundation—$250,000 per team—an RfQ attracted 52 expressions of interest from many of the most highly qualified designers. After the initial RfQ, the jury reduced the number of finalists to a shortlist of nine, based primarily on their track records. They were:


  • Elevate San Rafael (Bionic)
  • Unlock Alameda Creek (Public Sediment)
  • The Peoples Plan (P+SET)
  • South Bay Sponge (Field Operations Team)
  • Estuary Commons (ABC)
  • The Grand Bayway (Common Ground)
  • Connect and Collect (Hassell+)
  • ouR-Home (Home Team)
  • Islais Hyper-Creek (BIG+ONE+Sherwood)


Here it should be noted that mmany of the major landscape and design firms were among those on the shortlisted teams: Michael Maltzan, BIG, SCAPE/Landscape, Tom Leader, Claire Weisz, and Field Operations, just to note a few. Not only did each team have to produce plans, graphs, and renderings, their final presentations were videotaped for public consumption.


Many of the solutions might have been anticipated:


  • Creating park- and marshland areas at water’s edge to avoid the common flooding that plagues coastline communities;
  • When communities are threatened at water’s edge and beyond, elevate certain “safe” areas as refuges in case of disasters;
  • Building levies in some isolated cases to protect communities in immediate danger of flooding;
  • Elevate roads and walkways for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic as well as areas of communities;
  • Creating affordable housing in unused areas remote from flooding, to relocate often at risk low income populations from flood-prone regions.



Involvement of the individual communities was a major theme in the competition program. Thus it was clear from most of the presentations that community input was regarded as a high priority.


As important as these studies were, their implementation will necessitate funding and a considerable amount of political will for any of them to see the light of day—whether on the local, state, or national level. One example, which won special praise from the jury, was The Grand Bayway proposal, by the Common Ground team led by Tom Leader. It suggests an elevated State Route 37 in the San Pablo Bay area, creating a scenic route above the marsh area instead of its present location on top of a levee. Not just the cost, but getting all the stakeholders to cooperate on this venture would be a major accomplishment.


On the other hand, the Public Sediment proposal by SCAPE, unlocking the potential of creeks flowing into the Bay, is a logical and very doable idea and could be replicated at various locations without incurring serious funding considerations.


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Recent Archive Updates

Interview: James Mary O’Connor FAIA (Winter 2017)

After receiving his Diploma in Architecture from the Dublin Institute of Technology and BS in Architecture from Trinity College in Dublin, James received his Masters in Architecture from the University of California, Los Angeles while a Fulbright Scholar in the U.S. Shortly after his time as a student in Charles Moore’s Master Class at UCLA, he joined the Moore firm in Los Angeles, now Moore Ruble Yudell. Beginning in the late 1980s, he was involved in the firm’s many projects in Germany, many of which dealt with masterplanning and the construction of large housing, primarily in Berlin. Subsequently, he was involved in the Potatisåkern Master Plan & Housing, as well as the Bo01 Housing Exhibition, both in Malmö, Sweden.
James was MRY’s point person in its subsequent involvement with the firm’s many projects in the People’s Republic of China, beginning with their winning competition proposal for the Century Center project in Beijing. Although unbuilt, it didn’t escape the notice of the Chinese, who invited the firm to participate in a competition for the Tianjin Xin-He large neighborhood masterplan—which they won. This was followed by the 2004 Chun Sen Bi An Housing Masterplan competition in the city of Chongqing, located in central China—completed in 2010. This high profile project resulted in a number of affordable and high-end housing projects throughout China. The firm’s most remarkable sustainability project was the COFCO Agricultural Eco-Valley Master Plan project outside Beijing, envisioned to become the first net zero-carbon project of its kind in the world.
In the meantime, the firm’s focus in China has evolved from its concentration on housing to institutional projects, such as the Shanghai University of Technology‘s research buildings. In the meantime MRY has been noted as a leader in the design of campus projects in the U.S. and abroad, as well as numerous government projects—courthouses and embassies.



Interview: James Mary O’Connor FAIA (Winter 2017)

Playing the China Card: The MRY Example



Chun Sen Bi An Housing, Chongqing (competition 2004; completion 2010)


COMPETITIONS: Moore Ruble Yudell (MRY) has had a reputation as an international player since the 1980s. How did you manage to become involved in China?


James O’Connor: We were first invited to take part in a (developer) competition in Beijing in 2002, the Beijing Century Center. We won, but the project was never built. The client was not that serious, and we never got paid. After that, we said that we would never enter another competition in China. But, what turned out to be a real clientele kept after us to participate in one of their projects. After turning them down several times, we finally relented. That was a competition for the Tianjin Xin-he New Town Master Plan and Housing in Tianjin—which we did win.



Chun Sen Bi An perspectives (above)

Chun Sen Bi An Housing Master Plan


COMPETITIONS: Once you have become established in China, it would seem that you almost can pick and choose between competitions and projects.


O’Connor: Right before the time of the Olympics, there were few foreign firms working there so we were interviewing clients as opposed to clients interviewing us. And every time we would go out, we would be involved with another project, or another competition. It all started in kind of a shaky way; but that’s kind of how it evolved.