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On Higher Ground
SF's Rising Tides competition announces winners
Kuth Ranieri's ventilated levee scheme.
Courtesy Kuth Rainieri

An hour into its review of the entries to Rising Tides, an ideas  competition hosted by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) to combat sea-level rise in the Bay Area, the jury was swamped. Of 130 submissions from 18 countries, 50 concepts made the initial cut. In a surprise twist, not one but six winners were selected to share the $25,000 grand prize. The winners were announced on July 14 at the San Francisco Ferry Building.

Wright Huaiche Yang + J. Lee Stickles's "Topigraphica Shifts At the Urban Waterfront."
The winning entries represent three approaches to the problem of tidal rise: incremental, technological, and communicative. In the category of incremental, “Evolutionary Recovery,” by Yumi Lee and Yeon Tae Kim of San Francisco firm LANDplus Design, addresses the problem in stages: the creation of a physical barrier to protect major shoreline infrastructure; relocation of developments to newly created high ground; and adaptation of wetlands to function as natural flood barriers. Meanwhile, Wright Huaiche Yang and J. Lee Stickles of San Francisco firm SWA Group proposed an adaptable green infrastructure in “Topographical Shifts at the Urban Waterfront.”

With a more technological intervention in mind, Craig Hartman and his team at SOM’s San Francisco office drafted the “BayArc,” a cable-reinforced membrane anchored to the sea floor that would prevent extreme tides through the principles of buoyancy and tension. Meanwhile, local firm Kuth Ranieri conceived a more dramatic solution: Its self-sustaining “Folding Water” is a ventilated levee that would create a waterfall in the bay, mechanically regulating rising sea levels on one side while maintaining delta and bay waters on the other. The husband-and-wife team is seeking funding to continue its research. “Infrastructure has an opportunity to belong to the landscape in a new way,” said Elizabeth Ranieri.“If we look at our landscape as a text that pre-exists, we can write in the margins and extend the discussion.”

The discussion, however, begins with public awareness. Derek James Hoeferlin and Ian Caine of Washington University underline this fact in their “100 Year Plan,” which advocates for a more localized policy to solve the greater water crisis. The duo is joined in the awareness campaign by Berkeley’s Thom Faulders, whose esoteric “RAYdike”—a temporary laser light barrier surrounding San Francisco—evokes a worst-case scenario. The barrier rises about 30 feet above the water and runs the course of the SF Bay shoreline, representing what an actual earthen dike might look like in the bay. According to Faulders, an earthen dike is a possible solution, no matter how insensitive to bay life it might be. RAYdike would serve as “a wake-up call for everyone to recognize the gravity of the situation in an artful way.”

As a competition, Rising Tides, too, was a wake-up call. The jury almost immediately concluded that no single idea can solve the problem of sea-level rise. “The bay itself is so complex it will require a whole toolkit of solutions,” said David Meckel, director of research and planning at California College of the Arts. He is confident that the entries will jump-start the necessary dialogue, and expects the engineering concepts of SOM and Kuth Ranieri to advance further. Though no announcements have been made by BCDC, Meckel conjectures that one or both of these winners may receive grants to continue their research. Ranieri, who is already assembling her team of scientists, engineers, and architects, is hopeful: “I see great potential in a ventilated levee that can still maintain the natural ecology,” she said. “If we can really understand how the estuary behaves, [Folding Water] has potential beyond the Bay Area—the application could work anywhere.”

In the meantime, five of the six winning teams will present their concepts at an event hosted by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) on August 18. On September 22, BCDC’s Brad McCrea will lead a walking tour of the Bay shoreline and discuss the need to adapt waterfronts in the face of rising tides around the world. The competition winners and honorable mentions are on view at

A version of this article appeared in AN 06_08.19.2009_CA.

Chloe Harris