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Rising Sea Levels: Designing A Future To Save San Francisco

Rising Sea Levels: Designing A Future To Save San Francisco

Surrounded by water, San Francisco sits as a sacrificial offering, waiting to be swallowed by the Pacific Ocean. The year is 2072 and San Francisco is an island. Downtown has been erased and gentrification in the Mission has finally laid to rest at the bottom of “Mission Gulf.” What was once a high powered tech city

View of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay, San Francisco, California

Surrounded by water, San Francisco sits as a sacrificial offering, waiting to be swallowed by the Pacific Ocean. The year is 2072 and San Francisco is an island. Downtown has been erased and gentrification in the Mission has finally laid to rest at the bottom of “Mission Gulf.” What was once a high powered tech city is now an enclave of bays, lagoons, and islands. This is San Francisco’s future if proactive measures are not taken to address the impact of rising sea levels.

Over the past century sea levels have risen 4 to 8 inches due to global warming. It is difficult to predict the future of sea level rise, but studies are telling us to brace for oceans to rise 2.5 to 6.5 feet (0.8 to 2 meters) by 2100. Even with the steady flow of climate change news and statistics, America continues to place global warming at the bottom of the nation’s top priorities list.

Pacific Ocean from Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California

San Francisco has been known to prepare for earthquakes through the design of earthquake resilient structures, but what are they doing to prepare for rising sea levels? How does a city prepare for an irreversible event? In 2009, the San Francisco Conservation and Development Commission held an international competition that asked designers to present ideas that would counteract sea level rise in the Bay Area and other vulnerable coastal environments. The “Rising Tides” competition called for designers to:

  • Rethink the building of new communities in areas susceptible to future flooding.
  • Retrofit public shoreline infrastructure.
  • Protect existing communities from flooding.
  • Protect wetlands.
  • Anticipate changing shoreline configurations.

Some design concepts included man-made marsh lands, laser beams, inflatable dikes, and water recycling systems. Architectural firm powerhouse SOM submitted the BayArc barrier, which functions as an inflatable membrane anchored beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The BayArc inflates during times of threatening water levels and recedes to the sea floor when it is not needed. Beautiful, mind-altering projects such as Folding Water by architecture firm Kuth Ranieri cuts through the bay as a dynamic levee system, regulating water levels and artificially managing ocean tides. Then there are submissions like the RAYdike which serve as a public reminder of the serious implications of climate change. It works as a visual awakening by projecting the hypothetical barriers San Francisco needs to protect the bay area from rising sea levels.

Downtown San Francisco cityscape view, San Francisco, California

Projects such as RAYdike could serve as a powerful daily reminder to climate change, but the projects through “Rising Tides” seemed to have been put on the shelf. How can San Francisco make the inevitable rise of sea levels visible today? For now, the answer is through a viewfinding device called OWL. Developed by San Francisco based start-up “OWLized,” the OWL provides a window into the future through a type of augmented reality, simulating the future impact of sea level rise in the bay area. When looking through one of the retro inspired OWL sightseeing viewfinders, you may be standing in 3 feet of water surrounded by submerged homes and roads. For most of us, seeing is believing. Allowing residents to see the future of climate change through a three-dimensional, interactive environment, is much more powerful than a list of statistics.   

In what other ways can San Francisco bring public awareness to the inevitability of rising sea levels? What other design approaches can be put in place to protect the future of San Francisco and other coastal cities?   

Credits: Images by Lauren Golightly. Data linked to sources.

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Lauren Golightly is a graduate of the University of New Mexico with a degree in Architecture and Art History. Her studies in art history are based in architectural history, theory and criticism, and focus on modern and contemporary influences. A back...

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