Resilience on the Oakland Waterfront

Resilience on the Oakland Waterfront

by Gail Schickele

LWVBAE’s Eva Alexis Bansner Award for Sustainable Communities recipient Johanna Hoffman discussed landscapes at risk from sea level rise talk in her talk Sea Level and the Built Environment presented to Environmental Concerns November 10.

The Bansner award supports UC Berkeley graduate students studying integration of natural resource, land use, economic development planning and urban design and honors late League leader and city planner Eva Bansner’s work for sustainable land use planning and healthy, urban environments.

Hoffman says the approach toward water in our landscapes is no longer appropriate as current waterfronts largely don’t address realities of potential five-foot sea-level rise by 2100. Her research explores sea level rise as a chance to cultivate a cultural shift that positions landscape change as a foundation for planning and design.

Hoffman’s radar is on SOAKLAND, a soaked West Oakland Redevelopment Area encompassing 170 acres of coastal land South of the Bay Bridge East span toll plaza slated for redevelopment since the Oakland Army Base closed in 1999. SOAKLAND invites bay waters into the site, creating a landscape designed to engage Bay dynamics that redefines our relationship toward water to negotiate human presence in landscapes at risk.

Original bay shorelines of Oakland ended far East of present day coast, creating diverse littoral zone and productive bay edge. SOAKLAND reintroduces that bayside diversity to Oakland and strengthens surface connections between stormwater and bay. In a big earthquake, the ground of the site – built on squashy mudflats – may liquefy, comprising all developments in the area and endangering the people who live and work in them. The SOAKLAND plan averts this risk by removing permanent settlement from the site. The industrial landscape surrounding the site is largely inaccessible to the public, creating a disconnect between urban Oakland and the bay. The project site is characterized by severe risk of sea level rise and high toxicity. SOAKALND provides open space, air and water filtration, biofuel production, protection from rising tides, toxin reduction, and flexible commercial space.

Hoffman’s studies have included Iraq marshlands; Chinampas of the Aztec Empire; Crissy Field, San Francisco; Back Bay Fens, Boston; Brooklyn Bridge Park, NYC; Wynard Quarter Waterfront, New Zealand; Riverside Park South NYC; Harlem River Park, Hammarby-Sjostad, Stockholm, Sweden; Hafen City, Hamburg, Germany; and Bishan Ang Mo Park, Singapore.

Hoffman is a Masters candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning awarded  $2,500 award toward her work to provide a framework for designing spaces with multiple benefits to humans and surrounding ecosystems. Her specific research and action toward ecological approaches to coastal defense in Oakland and development of wetland systems, both constructed and natural, will provide crucial buffers to flooding and storm surge, as well as water filtration, recreational space, wildlife habitat, and opportunities for environmental education.


by Johanna Hoffman

Jutting into the water east of San Francisco and just north of the Port of Oakland, the sOAKLAND project site is a place where the San Francisco Bay’s landscape dynamics have been buried for decades. Built into the Oakland Army Base at the dawn of World War II, the site was once a swath of mudflats bordering tidal wetlands. The site’s transformation into military industrial complex is emblematic of the larger development trend to allocate urban waterfronts to industry, to separate cities from water, and to build on unstable ground.

Devising equitable design strategies for such an area — rife with poor air quality, high liquidation risk, soil toxicity, and risk from sea level rise – is dependent on addressing the question of how humans can best live in fraught environments. Letting go of the hard edge between land and water in favor of a landscape that embraces inundation and earthquakes is a crucial step in preparing ourselves for the climatic instability headed our way. Rather investing in status quo recreational and economic development, building on this site in ways that highlight its vulnerability is a way for design to cultivate disinvestment from vulnerable spaces.

The sOAKLAND intervention is crafted to both engage users with their bay waterfront and cultivate an appreciation of the vulnerability that comes with inhabiting the area. Wetlands are designed at a series of elevations to create a range of socially and economically productive spaces, from algae production to biofuel harvesting. Raise-able walkways designed to gently sway with use provide dynamic circulation systems elevated to protect the complex processes of wetland systems. A series of towers structurally support the walkway system and provide space for commercial development. Newly raised streets connect back to the surrounding grid, allowing pedestrian and bicycle traffic into the site without compromising it ecosystem function.

In its form and function, sOAKLAND creates a place where city and bay can change together, reminding people that settlement in the Bay region is a process of ongoing negotiation.

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