Something To Be Done: Local Solutions to the (Wicked) Global Problématique

Bay shoreline restoration
Image Courtesy of: Nate Kauffman, Landscape architect
LEAP (Live Edge Adaptation Project)

Nate Kauffman is a landscape architect from the East Bay. He is he founder of LEAP (The Live Edge Adaptation Project). He is also an award-winning teacher, consultant and trouble-maker extraordinaire. He is an instructor in graduate landscape architecture studios at UC Berkeley and teaches a design-build summer studio, URBANFRAME, at MIT’s School of Architecture. He is the Project Director for Owlized, a tech startup committed to helping the public discover deeper understandings of their environments. He was contracted to produce visualizations of the Horizontal Levee and helped describe them at the Treatment Plant, in a public outreach event last November.

Horst Rittel, former architecture Professor at University of California, Berkeley is perhaps best known for his description of a particular brand of planning and social policy challenge. He termed these ‘Wicked Problems’ for their vexing interplay of conditions and contingencies; their interdependencies obfuscating clear solutions; and their tendency to require stakeholders with different world views and values to cooperate in order to solve them.

In the context of global climate change and the common call for local approaches for addressing and adapting to it, Wicked Problems entail another, critical dimension: their tendency to induce an effect often referred to as analysis paralysis. The already-branded ‘climate paralysis’ is essentially described by the condition of spending so much time trying to figure out what to do (and to raise and rally support for it) that actually doing so happens too late to be effective.

Professionals the world over are earnestly contemplating this apparent fact of the human condition, writ very large on the face of a changing planet. As the globe is pushed toward unknown planetary boundaries — the physical balances in the chemistry of the water, atmosphere and soils that literally give us life — the need for scalable, replicable and sustainable applications for climate adaptation is dire.

Innovative solutions for shoreline resilience

I was brought into the Oro Loma Sanitary District’s Horizontal Levee project last year to help envision the reality of this green infrastructure approach on a local and regional level. As a landscape architect, consultant and visualization specialist, I am generally tasked with articulating an argument in visual terms: making the case for a given proposal or project. Jason Warner, Oro Loma’s General Manager, was earnestly interested in how to convey and capture a sense of what the Horizontal Levee would represent for the communities adjacent to it. Aside from his efforts quarterbacking the Horizontal Levee endeavor in general, Jason’s commitment to understanding its benefits for the societies that might invest in these kinds of green infrastructures was inspiring. SFEI’s Jeremy Lowe helped me understand the extensive benefits and actual mechanics of the approach. And what was so compelling about the Horizontal Levee itself was how much a common-sense solution to an emergent problem could actually deliver to the societies that need it most. 

Projects, policies and partnerships that successfully reimagine our built environment for multiple socio-ecologic benefits are exceedingly rare in the world of executed work. The design field’s positively brim with fanciful notions of pseudo-sci-fi futurisms: imagining Utopian societies founded on as-yet-undiscovered ways of building and development that are inexplicably and seemingly effortlessly also conducive to environmental health and ecologic stability. One of the primary reasons so many of these speculative projects fail to actually gain traction is that their underpinnings are grounded in unrealistic or unsustainable resource use models and approaches.

Restoration for climate change adaptation

Oro Loma’s Horizontal Levee project is a major pivot in this respect: it essentially represents a return to a Bayshore more physically similar to that which predated the development, Bay fill and sprawl of the 19th and 20th century (that has so badly positioned us to adapt to a rising Bay). It also closes loops on wasteful resource cycles. And it is hardly rocket science: it takes an abundant byproduct of our society (polished wastewater) and uses it to bind what is free (air, sunshine and opportunistic wildlife) with what is cheap (sediment and plants). The result is an engine driven by the discreet application of this wastewater to trigger a cascade of growth and production. And all of this happens so that a relatively simple landform intervention-based approach to flood protection can be made sustainable and affordable.

The Horizontal Levee (a pilot project whose six-month construction took over four years to permit), must prove that it’s environmental impacts are not detrimental to the broader health of the SF Bay’s various and interwoven ecosystems, nor the humans who interface with them. Before broader deployment of the technology can proceed, the proof-of-concept must be deemed “safe”. In some sense that is the bad news, but the good is that the precedent it may become could have far-reaching application potential, and even global implications for shoreline societies.

I will tell you a secret: The Horizontal Levee works. The project will validate the hypothesis driving this experiment. The reason we are collectively holding our breath to see what the effect of this critical lynchpin might represent for regional resilience has more to do with its reception, not its efficacy. The commensurate questions abound: How will we find the funding to scale up this approach? How will the rat’s nest of overlapping and competing agencies untangle itself to streamline permitting to put projects into practice? And who shall emerge as champions for a low-tech, multiple-benefit network intended to buffer our built environment from the impacts of a rapidly changing natural one?

From a planning and policy perspective, there are innumerable decisions to be made regarding what we build and choose not to (and where); what to repair or abandon, (and when); what to protect and what to attempt to prevent from happening (and how). These questions entail considerations of the fundamental economics of our built and natural environments and the consequences of their inevitable collisions and potential coexistences.

New modes of infrastructure

Infrastructure projects are notoriously expensive, for all kinds of reasons. Adapting 20 miles of the soon-to-be sub-sea level Highway 37 linking Vallejo and Novato will allegedly cost five billion dollars. That’s the equivalent of every human on earth throwing in seventy-five cents. At some point, a distinction between the cost and value of problems and projects like Highway 37 will need to be assessed.

Oro Loma’s Horizontal Levee experiment could represent a chance to make the case for a new mode of infrastructure: in its design, resource paradigms, multi-functionality, sustainability and requisite funding models. More than anything, because what it seeks to do is actually reconnect, reestablish and rebuild systems that sustain and even repair themselves, the Horizontal Levee project is a re-imagining of what investment truly means in the modern era’s climate adaptation discourses.

What we cannot lose sight of in this process is that, for all of the economic realities wound up and built into sweeping, regional green infrastructure deployments, this challenge transcends even the broadest definition of economics. Because climate change is inextricably and inexorably tied to the passage of time, the challenge is fundamentally an ethical one. Accepting that future societies, inheriting the legacy of our inactions, will find themselves armed simultaneously with fewer options in their menu, and worse ones at that, is a stark reality with which to grapple.

Oro Loma offers a glimmer of hope in this sea of societal uncertainty, historic intransigence and cultural inertia. Aside from the impressiveness of the trans-disciplinary team that actually got this project done, it is also notable in that it attracts interest and attention from taxpayers and politicians alike. There is no panacea for climate adaptation, nor a silver bullet for coastal planning in the era of rising seas and worsening storms. We cannot wait for those solutions to suddenly coalesce.

Something to be done

In the opening scene of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play, Waiting for Godot, Estragon removes his boots to wait with his counterpart for the title character, who ultimately fails to show. “Nothing to be done,” Estragon laments, kicking off an absurdist masterpiece of human existentialism. The play is a meditation on the arrival of a grand apparition, though nothing ultimately “happens”.

The plight and peril of the Bay Area, and its collective response thus-far to the complete remaking of its 1,000 miles of shoreline threatened by a rising Bay, has something of an absurd air to it: the global epicenter of innovation fumbling around for the political will, funding and proactive spirit to tackle its very own existential crisis. The upcoming measure AA, a $12 parcel tax arriving on June’s ballot, arguably represents the most profound gesture our region has made toward ecologically-based sustainability in a generation. It will be a crucial litmus test of the common awareness of and will to play a part in the direction of our very society. And as far as something “happening” to spur action in The Bay, we won’t get hit by a catastrophic Nor’Easter or Hurricane  (à la Sandy), nor a hundreds-of-millions-of-gallons oil spill  (à la Deepwater Horizon) to galvanize responses to our estuary’s shoreline vulnerabilities. The slow burn of a rising Bay is apparently thus far an easy disaster for us to ignore and avoid.

The Horizontal Levee is our proverbial ‘something’ to be done. Insofar as the broader Bay Area planning and policy circles are casting around for an application that possesses profound potential for regional replicability, there are few projects as promising on the horizon. And, more importantly, the Horizontal Levee approach is not mutually exclusive to many other green infrastructure concepts. It actually strengthens and is strengthened by complementary living systems that are more sustainable, economically feasible and ecologically viable than the catalog of coastal and shoreline engineering approaches we turned to in the era before acknowledgment of a changing planet.

Contact Oro Loma Sanitary District General Manager Jason Warner  to learn more about the organization’s ongoing role in the Horizontal Levee project.

Nate Kauffman