Crisis Actors

Designers find new ways to tell communities about climate change.

By Sarah Cowles

Members of the James Corner Field Operations team give out cotton candy from the Sponge Hub at a South Bay farmers’ market. Image courtesy James Corner Field Operations.

In the early 1920s, leaders of the Soviet Union had a communication problem: how to relay the abstract and complex communist ideology and economy to their scattered constituents across several nations, languages, and varying literacy levels. Enter the agit-train, a multimedia spectacle covered with constructivist supergraphics that drew crowds at every stop. The agit-trains carried agitprop (agitation propaganda) acting troupes, movie theaters, printing presses, pamphlets, and posters.

Today, leaders of coastal cities are facing an urgent communication issue: how to draw public attention to the looming threats of climate change and sea-level rise. Last winter, 10 teams in the San Francisco Bay area were selected to participate in the Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge, “a yearlong collaborative design challenge bringing together local residents, public officials, and local, national, and international experts to develop innovative, community-based solutions that will strengthen our region’s resilience to sea-level rise, severe storms, flooding, and earthquakes.” Resilient by Design, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, built on the success of the Rebuild by Design initiative, which focused on the post-Hurricane Sandy landscape of New York and New Jersey. Each team was assigned to a swath of bay lands, where a confection of urbanization, predevelopment remnants, and infrastructure collide. A significant component of the initiative was public outreach, to address the issues germane to the most vulnerable communities that are already facing pressure from gentrification.

A significant, and perhaps unexpected, outcome within the Resilient by Design process was a revolution in public outreach, one that echoes Soviet agitprop methods. Three teams, Field Operations, Bionic, and HASSELL+, designed new physical devices, events, or spaces that kick-started public participation in the design process and informed residents on methods of climate change adaptation. Bionic and Field Operations wrapped vehicles with supergraphics to create a striking visual presence at community events, while the HASSELL+ team repurposed a former bank as an info shop. Their agitprop works were especially suited to the constraints of Instagram. The supergraphics make striking backgrounds for selfies, and all teams made liberal use of hashtags. These bold environments prompted action in real and virtual communities.

The Field Operations concept for urban resilience is simple: sponges. Its plan for the South Bay lands (located near many Silicon Valley headquarters) includes building wetland “sponges” on both sides of the existing flood protection levees that line the site. The Field Operations team, led by Senior Principal Richard Kennedy, ASLA, and Senior Associate Veronica Rivera, ASLA, wagered their sponge concept would be easy to grasp, literally and metaphorically.

“If perspectives on [climate change] are too complex, too dark, they won’t lodge in people’s minds,” Kennedy says. The Sponge Hub, a modified Airstream trailer wrapped with a photograph of a Day-Glo green sponge, plays tricks with scale: It scales up a household sponge, while simultaneously disarming the scale of climate change issues. Rivera adds, “We believe optimism will be met with optimism.”

The sponge is a simple idea, “something palpable,” Kennedy says. The Sponge Hub was a presence at farmers’ markets, schools, and places of worship on weekends. Like agitprop, the team’s methods reached different generations. The designers created play kits for children that included hydroponic tubs and all manner of sponges, and handed out lime-colored cotton candy from the Sponge Hub as a lure to conversations about how landscapes will change in the next 30 years.

Kennedy underscored how the Sponge Hub was a product of the Resilient by Design forum. “Our outreach campaign was a gamble. We needed to act quickly, cover a large territory, draw attention, and capture imagination. With a more traditional client and process, the many unknowns would have made our improvised, mobile effort harder to pull off. The openness of the Resilient by Design process both enabled and required us to come up with an idea and make it happen.”

Bionic design director Marcel Wilson, ASLA, leads community members on a tour of the Flood Mobile in San Rafael. The Flood Mobile’s “classroom on wheels” enabled Bionic to engage and educate residents on local issues related to sea-level rise. Image courtesy Kingmond Young.

The Sponge Hub was not the only iconic vehicle seen on Bay Area freeways and community events. Principal Marcel Wilson, ASLA, and Senior Associate Sarah Moos Thompson of Bionic dispatched FloMo (the Flood Mobile), a modified Ford Econoline, as an agitprop information and supply vehicle for low-lying areas of San Rafael in Marin County. FloMo’s graphic wrap shows a map of flood-prone areas in San Rafael and includes laser levels for demonstrating sea-level rise.

Like many Bay Area communities, San Rafael citizens are stratified by economic class and elevation. Much of San Rafael’s workforce lives in low-lying areas that now flood during king tides and storm events. At one of the lowest elevations is Pickleweed Park, where San Rafael Creek flows into the bay, and where Bionic staged a “Flood Fair” that featured FloMo and information graphics hung on the park’s fences. At the Flood Fair, children played with flood kits—3-D-printed models of the local topography, designed in collaboration with PennDesign, with blue-dyed water to demonstrate the extent of future flooding. “The simplicity of the model works with all ages and learning abilities,” Moos Thompson says.

Wilson demonstrates the “Flood Kit,” a 3-D-printed model of San Rafael that illustrates multiple scenarios for coastal flooding in a low-lying area of the city. Image courtesy Kingmond Young.

Wilson describes these methods of creative public outreach as a “gratifying process, unlike [in traditional practice] where you are waiting 10 years to plant a tree.” He believes the Resilient by Design initiative will be transformative, and “help show the agency of creativity to local government.” Once Resilient by Design concludes, the Canal Welcome Center and Shore Up Marin will continue to use the FloMo as a communication tool.

With the success of these examples in hindsight, some teams overlooked the agitprop potential of their community partners. The All Bay Collective, led by AECOM and CMG Landscape Architecture, had a ready-made mobile outreach program in their midst: East Oakland’s Original Scraper Bike Team. Scraper Bikes are customized cruiser bikes, painted in candy colors with tinfoil-covered spokes, a true East Oakland invention with a workshop serving youth in the community.

The HASSELL+ team created a temporary info shop in a long-vacant bank on Grand Avenue in South San Francisco. The space appropriates the punk and anarchist storefronts of the Bay Area, like Berkeley’s Long Haul and the Mission’s Epicenter Zone, which provide spaces for community meetings, poetry readings, art shows, and the making of zines. Richard Mullane, a principal at HASSELL, adapted its storefront from a previous project in London: “HASSELL had success with a similar approach in Croydon High Street, London, when we were working on the streets’ rejuvenation after the 2011 riots. The storefront and the project brand became a great way of inviting the community into the project there, as they did here in South San Francisco as well,” Mullane says.

The team’s South San Francisco storefront hosted community and chamber of commerce meetings and introduced youth groups to urban planning and social equity. The space functioned like a pop-up interpretive center to a complex landscape, with one wall dedicated to an enormous aerial photomural of the region. Visitors were encouraged to make notes on the map with Post-its to note memories, favorite sites, or trouble areas, or to respond to existing notes. The format invited people’s bodily engagement with geographic imagery and underscored that the public’s input is important to the future of their community. Unlike the temporary nature of a public meeting, the mural accrued information over time.

The HASSELL+ storefront demonstrates the potential of architectural spaces dedicated to landscape issues. The Bay Model, located in Sausalito and designed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1957, is a significant artifact illustrating the era’s view on blue infrastructure. This resource is ripe for reinterpretation, but one created in the spirit of the hacker-maker culture of rapid prototyping methods and Arduino (an open-source, interactive hardware platform) electronics.

Though contemporary in implementation, Sponge Hub and FloMo are linked to a lineage of underground culture situated on the edges of the San Francisco Bay, like Ant Farm and Survival Research Labs. In Ant Farm’s “Ultimate Media Event,” staged in 1975 in the parking lot of Daly City’s Cow Palace, members Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier drove the Phantom Dream Car, a customized 1959 Cadillac El Dorado convertible, through a wall of burning televisions. In the 1990s, Critical Mass began at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco as a gathering of bike messengers on the last Friday of each month to ride in solidarity together after a week of dodging downtown traffic.

Visitors to the HASSELL+ storefront make notes and suggestions on a photomural of the project area. Image courtesy HASSELL+.

In the 1990s, much of the bay’s former military and industrial edge lands were redeveloped as parks that reconnected communities to the bay shores, including seminal works by Hargreaves Associates at Candlestick Point, Byxbee Park, and Crissy Field. In 2001, Aaron Betsky, then a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, assembled an exhibition called Revelatory Landscapes and commissioned four site-specific installations by Kathryn Gustafson, FASLA; Tom Leader, FASLA; Hargreaves Associates; and Walter Hood, ASLA, to interpret the bay’s forgotten edges. From today’s perspective, the installations seem blissfully ignorant of the future, in contrast to Resilient by Design’s proposals, in which every linear foot of spare bay lands is conscripted into service as green infrastructure.

The final technocratic visions presented by the nine teams in May (one team dropped out) are radical and conservative simultaneously—radical in the amount of material displacement and infrastructural realignments proposed, yet timid in the imagining of how bayside culture will evolve. What is missing is hearty imagination and speculation on new culture that will grow from the coastal realignment projects’ culture beyond the prescriptions of medium density, upper middle class-leaning housing, green streets and industry, and REI-sponsored images of bayside recreation. In other words, Resilient by Design Within Reach.

Resilient by Design’s leaders have hinted that pilot projects, influenced by the proposals generated in the forum, will be funded and implemented in the future. Pilot projects that grow from Resilient by Design might benefit by building on tactics of the agitprop experiments such as Sponge Hub and FloMo, and draw from precedents in the history of social and site-specific work in the Bay Area. The success of FloMo and Sponge Hub demonstrates that didactic ecorevelatory works—like the Mithun/Home Team’s fields of poles installed in mudflats that measure sea-level rise—are ineffective in provoking new forms of culture and engagement. Those moving the initiative forward in the coming months should consider the agitprop works as the seeds of a media series, building on the narrative and subjects from “season one” and introducing new characters, like the Original Scraper Bike Team.

Although the leaders of Resilient by Design should be lauded for recognizing the great scale of the issue and involving a diversity of designers and planners, some team members expressed frustration with the model of asking “creatives” to solve these pressing issues without the necessary political and private sector muscle for implementation. The question of political will for change remains, but with a groundswell of public support—and with maintained momentum by the Resilient by Design forum—the tide may yet turn.

Sarah Cowles is a landscape designer, artist, and writer based in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.

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