By Naama Raz-Yaseef
If you read newspapers or listened to the news recently, you probably heard something about the concerns over sea level rise. Models that estimate how much and when the sea level will rise show that the San Francisco Bay could rise by up to 1.9 feet in 30 years and by up to 6.9 feet by the end of the century. The impact of sea level rise will be amplified during storm surges and high tides. In North Richmond, this means that in the next century, during large storms, most of the shoreline will be submerged, flooding the Richmond Parkway, the West County Wastewater facility, and extending inward to western neighborhood houses (Figure 1). This might sound like it’s going to happen far into the future, but when thinking about the time it takes to prepare for such dire outcomes, time is running out. Large-scale infrastructure projects take about a decade from planning to funding and to implementation, so there’s still time, but we need to act now. The Watershed Project together with architects, engineers, and community leaders, has started to work toward this goal—the North Richmond Shoreline Adaptation Project.
First, let’s answer some questions that are sometimes confusing.
Why is the sea level rising? We can say with high confidence that human-induced energy consumption, releasing greenhouse gasses into Earth’s atmosphere, is the direct cause. Because Earth is warming, the polar ice caps and oceanic glaciers are melting at a rapid rate, adding more water to the oceans. In addition, the volume of the oceanic water expands as the water warms.
What will the sea level rise look like near the shoreline? This depends a lot on local topography. Low-lying areas near the shoreline will be most vulnerable to coastal flooding. The North Richmond Shoreline, which, in pre-industrial times was a mudflat connecting the floodplain of three creeks, later artificially filled to create a low-lying area for industry and housing for incoming workers, is especially sensitive to sea level rise. As the sea level gradually rises, coastal flooding will happen more and more frequently, which will look pretty much like the Embarcadero today during king tides. Moving forward, areas near the shoreline will be permanently flooded, and areas farther away, which will then be the new shorelines, will be temporarily flooded.
What are the impacts of sea level rise? The obvious implication is the loss of land. The severity of that loss depends on the land use of the flooded area. The San Francisco Bay is densely urbanized, and buildings, infrastructure, and transportation pathways are often located right on the shoreline. Some open areas near the shoreline hold natural wetlands that provide some of the last remaining ecosystems for native plants and animals.
Another impact is that of coastal flooding on polluted and hazardous sites located near the shoreline. In sites that used to have hazardous industries such as the AstraZeneca site and current polluting industries such as the Richmond Refinery, dangerous chemicals have accumulated in and on top of the soils, and with sea level and related groundwater rise, there is a high risk that these hazardous materials will enter our water sources, upland soils, and air. According to the Toxic Tides Project, such sites unproportionally impact vulnerable communities, such as in North Richmond. This calls for actions toward a managed, controlled retreat of those areas.
Already, the impacts of sea level rise are felt globally and in the Bay area as well. During high tides and storm surges, the West County Wastewater system experiences backup, making it harder to provide services to its over 100,000 customers. The facility, like many other wastewater facilities, is located on the shoreline and is expected to be flooded by 2050.
What type of solutions can provide protection from sea level rise? Traditionally, sea walls were built to constrain the water and protect shorelines from wave erosion. These engineered solutions have proven to be less successful as they restrict access to the shoreline (think again of the Embarcadero), require maintenance, do not adapt to varying sea levels, and are not visually appealing. Today, we aim to use ‘Nature-based Solutions’, that provide sustainable features, use the natural ability of nature to endure rising water, and consider the benefit of the environment and the community.
Working to Increase the Resilience of the North Richmond Shoreline
In 2017, The Watershed Project conducted a community visioning exercise in North Richmond, and, working with community members, developed a vision for the North Richmond Shoreline. In 2018, Mithun, a firm of architectural designers participated with The Watershed Project in a competition—Resilience by Design—to imagine the impact of sea level rise on the North Richmond Shoreline, and develop ideas for key projects to increase community resilience. In 2019, the West County Wastewater District initiated stakeholder meetings to engage landowners, government, organizations, and community members toward seeking a solution collaboratively. In 2021, they received a State grant to work with Mithun, ESA engineers, and The Watershed Project to develop designs for a nature-based solution to sea level rise for North Richmond.
The North Richmond Adaptation Project works to create preliminary plans, or what is called a ‘concept design’ for a 5-mile stretch between the Whitney Dotson Family Marsh and the Richmond Refinery, with a more advanced design for a pilot project near the West County Wastewater facility.
When working on this project, three guiding principles led our work: (1) a broad stakeholder involvement, including landowners, businesses, agencies, and the public. This way, the solution will be more efficient and cost-effective; (2) a multi-benefit approach. This works to add amenities and improvements for the community, such as trails, parks, and community centers, and also thinking about employment opportunities, housing development, and project maintenance, and (3) a nature-based solution. Design plans worked to develop a ‘horizontal living levee’, which is a more natural-looking barrier (Figure 2). Toward the Bay, this will look like a restored wetland that naturally ‘knows’ how to deal with coastal flooding. Toward the shoreline, the raised structure will provide opportunities for community amenities.
Community Members at the Decision-Making Table
These guiding principles made it clear that community members living near the shoreline need to actively participate in the design process. In 2021, The Watershed Project started a series of informative webinars and meetings with various community organizations and groups in North Richmond. The purpose of these sessions was two-fold: educate residents on the impact of sea level rise near their neighborhoods, on our efforts to design a solution to that, and to recruit community members to work with us.
Following this effort, we recruited 20 community leaders to work alongside designers, engineers, and community engagement managers. These community leaders met with the team nearly every week from February 2022 to October 2022, and were paid for their work.
We started with a series of learning seminars, to bring community leaders up to speed and to a uniform level. These participatory sessions covered topics such as the San Francisco Bay Estuary, Ecosystem Services, Environmental Justice and Activism in North Richmond, the Whitney Dotson Family Marsh, Leadership, Surveying tools, etc. We also had two field tours to get to know the area closely (Figure 3) and a few sessions diving deep into project design, to get even more familiar with it.
Next, we divided into smaller workgroups, to assure that all community members can contribute and that the main topics were tackled. The Envisioning Design Approaches Workgroup explored, evaluated, and designed technical solutions for sea level rise. The Sustainability and Growth Workgroup identified mutual benefits and development opportunities for employment, housing, and education. The Community Survey Workgroup received input from the other two groups on critical issues for which community feedback is required and developed a Community Survey. These community leaders selected community members to be sampled for the Survey, coordinated meetings, and co-facilitated Focus Group Discussions to administer the survey. The Survey is also available as an online form.
This type of participatory design process ensures that instead of merely gathering community voices to inform decision-makers, community leaders are brought to the decision-making table, and work alongside the team. By doing so, the designers and engineers could better understand community needs and preferences, and community leaders could better understand why some community ideas are possible to achieve, and some, due to technical or budget limitations, were simply unattainable. Community leaders could also better oversee that their preferences and needs are equitably included in the designs.
We have learned a lot from working side by side with community leaders and analyzing the information received for the community survey. The input from the Workgroups and Community Survey was incorporated into the project design (Figure 4). These inputs have an impact on our next steps, as we aim to adapt project programming to align with issues that are important to the community.
For example, community members said that to make the shoreline and any development on it useful to them, they need better means of public transportation to this area. We also know now that community members are concerned about their safety and want designs to include means to make them feel more secure while enjoying the shoreline and parks. Last, community members said they would like to have a program based on local leaders that will provide educational, environmental, recreational, cultural, and employment opportunities at the shoreline. These are some of the topics we intend to work on in the next phases of the project.
Tim Mollette-Parks, a partner at Mithun and the lead architect designer for this project, summarizes the importance of this collaborative work: “As state and federal funding dollars are increasingly focused on coastal adaptation, it’s crucial that the design and planning process center community participation in the most integrated way possible. Particularly in communities of color, where environmental injustice and disinvestment have been endured over generations. Having direct interactions with members of the community while design ideas are being formulated is invaluable to designers. Working shoulder-to-shoulder allows design ideas to be vetted through community members’ lived experiences in real-time. It can offer important positive aspects near-term during the design process and longer term as community members can see their input being instrumental in the later implementation and management phases.”
We are thankful for the community leaders that worked with us all these months, in late evening hours, during long meetings that are sometimes detail-oriented, aiming to tackle difficult-to-understand topics, and working to reach an agreement even over sensitive topics.
We are thankful for the community members that devoted their time and shared their expertise to provide input to our Survey.
We are thankful for the designers from Mithun and engineers from Environmental Science Associates (ESA) that were eager to share their knowledge, patient with community members, and enthusiastic to work under the participatory design model. And we are thankful to the West County Wastewater District for adopting an equitable approach to project design.
We are now in the process of applying for grants to allow us to develop a more complete design and move into permitting and budgeting for the project implementation. Stakeholder meetings continue to take place. And we will continue to update community members on our progress. If you want to join our email list, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with the title line ‘Add me to the North Richmond Shoreline Adaptation newsletter’.
Thank you for reading!
All photos courtesy of Mithun.