Toward Resilient Cities
Lewis Knight in Planning & Urban Design, Resilience, San Francisco, Sustainability, Urban Planning

With historic landmarks like the Ferry Building immediately adjacent to the Bay, rising sea levels would have a severe impact on the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo courtesy of Flickr user sirgious.

In November 2012, as the Bay Area hosted Greenbuild—the world’s largest conference dedicated to sustainable building—designers across our region and beyond gathered to evaluate how urban planning solutions can bring value (and stability) to our cities.

Having shaped these critical conversations, the start of a new year presents the opportunity for the Bay Area to assume what I call our “burden of leadership” in planning for global resilience, which in turn will position the city and its organizations and communities for long-term competitive advantage.

There are many reasons why the Bay Area should take a global lead in planning for resilience. We’ve been at the forefront of environmental legislation for decades. In the late 1960s and 70s, both the California Coastal Commission and the Bay Conservation & Development Commission (BCDC) were relatively early moves to contend with rising sea levels in direct response to over-aggressive coastal development, loss of natural lands along the coast line, and privatization of the foreshores—all critical issues to address in any resilient coastal city.

What do I mean by resilience, in this context?

Cities have faced increased ecological and societal changes for decades, but as sea levels rise, weather patterns change, and land and resources are pushed to the limit, it is time to examine whether even the most modernized urban systems are prepared for predictable and unpredictable shocks that can ripple a landscape over time—or in a matter of minutes. The impacts of Katrina and Sandy are an all-too-clear reminder of this, as are the 2008 financial crisis and changing energy costs.

Planning for resilience is creating cities that are able to adapt to shock effects of varying levels and recover from disasters quickly. Resilience acknowledges the reality that we will face these challenges and prepares us for them.

Although planning sustainably for resilience is a necessary element for any urban system, the Bay Area is in a unique position to lead the way for innovative, resilient planning to ensure more efficient, stable, and prepared urban communities. We can show other urban centers around the world how we can best future-proof against natural and man-made events.

Researchers and planners in the Bay Area and larger Pacific coastline have seen some of the earliest effects of one of the predictable, long-term shocks that will come with global climate change. Over the coming century, wave heights could amplify by as much as 30% as sea levels are expected to rise—enough to flood Silicon Valley, forcing the companies headquartered there to relocate. Climate change will most likely cause our grain and rice belts to migrate, snowpacks to shrink, and shipping lanes to change—with cascading effects throughout the global economy.

Building for resilience is a key factor in shifting the direct effects of rising sea levels to structures in the cities. However, trickle-down effects particular to the Bay Area—such as gradual damage to agriculture and energy production—can only be offset by strategic urban and regional planning.

There are also the disasters that are unpredictable, and not so gradual, such as the increasing risk of a major earthquake within the next 30 years. As proven by the magnitude of power of Sandy, which caused unprecedented flooding and damage to the Eastern coastline, we are faced with the undeniable reality that our coasts are now subject to higher numbers of natural disasters, and they are leaving larger, permanent traces behind.

Without global or even national consensus, we need a model of resilient urban planning that provides a position on how cities should approach climate change. The Bay Area is obviously a world leader in technology, and its position on the edge of the Pacific Rim is important. This region will represent a center of world development for generations, as developing nations urbanize and become vulnerable to climate change. This places an even greater leadership imperative on the Bay Area. Today, the BCDC is leading efforts to establish a robust agenda to adapting to sea level rise, and planned developments including Treasure Island and 5M lay out best-in-class proposals for resilient communities.

We in the Bay Area are known and respected for our forward thinking. We now have the opportunity to bring this knowledge to a future of severe ecological change that will directly affect the region and, eventually, the entire nation. Preparing our urban settings for resilience against the most extreme of shocks will cement innovative building and promote socially based principles that other cities on a global scale may emulate—which is a wonderful opportunity for us to export knowledge, technology, and services.

Lewis is Director of Urban Design at Gensler, San Francisco. Lewis dedicates himself to creating great spaces, both public and private. He has written about the ongoing metamorphosis of our cities and seeks to find the poetry in the rhythms of an ever-changing urban landscape. Lewis sees the greatest opportunities in an integrated approach between urban design, planning, architecture, and landscape; in this fusing of disciplines, he finds approaches to urban life and sustainability that are inspiring, dynamic, and marked by hopefulness for the future. Contact him at
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