Richard Register

The Full Broad Sun of Day – avoiding or addressing sea rise issues for the San Francisco Bay Area

Rising above the floods with house and car. Not a community design alternative. (cropped from a San Francisco Chronicle photo)
Written by Richard Register

In 2009 what could have been a threshold-crossing competition into a far healthier future took place on the future of San Francisco Bay Area. As far as I’m concerned the opportunity was lost. Can we get a second chance?

The competition was called “Rising Tides” and was organized under the auspices of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. All its prize recipients, including unpaid honorable mentions, were dams, levees and dikes, that is, constructed walls against the ocean, with a smattering of restoration of wetland environments with native plants and animals. Some good in all that, but some important ideas missing, including mine.

I presume to say my solutions were valuable: 1.) building on artificial mounds well above floods anticipated in this century and 2.) building according to ecocity design, that is pedestrian, car-free, aware-of-the-value-of-the-third-dimension in city, town and village design.

It’s happening all over again…

On September 14, 2017 the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story by John King, its architecture critic, announcing to their readers a new competition, now eight years after Rising Tides, called the “Resilient by Design” competition. Once again there is no hint as to treating the whole issue of preventing the disasters of sea level rise, but rather simply adjusting to the catastrophe, calling it adaptation or resilience. Same movie, take two.

Actor Brad Pitt became active in trying to help with new housing in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, starting a project called “Make it Right,” gathering architectural ideas for replacement housing. Here’s one of the ideas: elevate houses. (From the Make it Right website)

A note on method is called for here. I was hired by a friend named Joell Jones to go to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to see if some of my ecocity ideas might be helpful there. My usual method was to try to keep an open mind looking for analogies and getting as basic as possible, even flirt with the simple approach called “simple minded,” but hopefully alert enough to avoid rank gullibility.

The place was terrifying even four months after, with shocking destruction beyond words. But thinking about low-lying places with frequent floods I remembered that in Mesopotamian cities, starting with Ur of the Sumerian Civilization 4,500 years ago, the people there simply built up artificial mounds of earthen material and constructed their city on top of that. And they didn’t even have bulldozers back then. The oil under their feet would not be dug up to power machines for another 4,400 years. Come the flooding by the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, they would simply walk up a few feet higher into their elevated town and wait it out. No property damage, no death and injury, no flood insurance payments, just a few short days with the waters passing by as if the whole town were a ship in a great river headed steadily up stream. In a way, it must have been exciting good fun. It wouldn’t surprise me if they turned it into a more or less seasonal festival. Then when the water went down in Sumer, a little more fertile silt had been deposited so that crops would do just that much better next time. Hurricanes with their merciless winds would be different, but in both cases, mound building works beautifully to avoid flooding.

Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog” known for fighting publically for his relatively shy hero and great friend, said he couldn’t believe he himself had not come up with Darwin’s evolution basic ideas, they were so simple and obvious.

Just to build on a pile of dirt?! Simple, yet so hard to get people to take seriously. Keep an open mind, beginners mind, and important “simple” things may well appear. They might be applicable in real time and place, for powerful service to people and nature alike. Such it is with the combination of “elevated fill,” or call it “artificial hill,” and building in the ecocity mode on top of such hills.

When I was visiting New Orleans after Katrina I saw that what really hits you after a true catastrophe are the small things. An example is the child’s greeting card I photographed lying on the sand and new crab grass in a desolate vacant lot.

I also remembered and pointed out in my New Orleans visit, in a college class lecture and to several architects, lawyers and numerous local social justice activists that, after the catastrophic Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the city parents rebuilt the town on 25 feet of sand and mud pumped as slurry from Galveston Bay to dry out, compact and build upon. About half of the buildings of the city were destroyed or damaged beyond repair but those that survived­ were lifted that 25 feet on large screw jacks. New foundations were built and the buildings bolted down. Streets and vacant lots were raised too. No serious flooding has happened to the elevated Galveston in the many subsequent hurricanes to pass that way since.

The Resilient by Design competition is largely funded by a $4.6 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and is supposed to help us regional citizens figure out how to deal with scientifically predicted sea level rise of from 18 inches to five feet six inches by 2100, to say nothing of after that if the cause of the problem is left unaddressed and everyone is focused on adaptation only – expect a 30 foot rise if all of Greenland’s ice melts and 300 feet if Antarctica goes. My notion was for adaptation and prevention all in one move.

Ten teams of architects, urban planners, engineers, community “liaisons” and environmental planners have been selected as Resilient by Design competitors and Mr. King’s article spotlighted some of the sites they visited around the East Bay, each team asked to select a particular site. That’s mistake number one.

Cahokia – the Indians of the Mississippi Valley over 800 years ago knew to build their villages flood-proof. They were beginning to get the idea. (Charles River Editors)

What about the overall regional issue? Even the notion that maybe a local/regional issue might influence solving the world problem of rising seas? Certainly individual sites are important, but might there not be more general solutions? The Rising Tides competition was from the get-go way ahead of this one. Specificity, in addressing locally small individual sites, and by implication addressing the larger view, both approaches were implied to be called for by the board invitation to contestants in the Rising Tides competition. Resilient by Design is actually avoiding – by design of the competition itself – the likelihood of finding “grand solutions” applicable over the whole region and even everywhere. At least the larger solutions were accommodated in the Rising Tides competition, even if almost nobody picked up on them. Certainly the judges didn’t in 2009.

An example of how remote from the large solutions one can get: The approach to the Bay Bridge, the mudflats of far west Oakland, was a site visited by the design teams selected for the Resilient by Design competition organizers. Architecture critic King pointed out it is very flat and particularly vulnerable to sea level rise there. At this time, said contestants, the site is in industrial uses and is a particularly dirty noisy location. Landscape architect Sarah Kuehl commented, “This would be a park too raucous and dirty for more pristine parks… I hope someone will pick this as their site. It needs the spotlight that a competition like this would bring.”

Excuse me but it will be under 18 to 66 inches of water and unlikely under the spotlight to be dirty and noisy but rather quite wet and beset mainly by the mournful sound of foghorns than by the clatter and crash of industrial activity – if people are anywhere near a mile from there by 2100.

A portion of my entry in the Rising Tides competition. The development here is all on elevated artificial “hills,” southeast San Francisco Bay The dashed line represents today’s edge of East Bay and Bay of San Francisco, imagining the new waterline about three feet higher. (Drawing: Richard Register)

Spotlight thinking is the last thing we need in this case. We need the full broad sun of day. On second thought, it may be a perfect place for an elevated ecotown become a fishing village island and tourist/educational draw. Boat on out for world’s best seafood delights.

Some adaptation required but prevention and serious ancient and creative new solutions far better….

With my feet walking the oily, salty, dusty disaster that was still shell-shocked New Orleans four months after the hurricane, I was thinking how much indeed ecocity solutions applied. Joell was right to bring such insights to New Orleans. Though I’ll let you know in advance if you haven’t figured it out by now, I was as roundly ignored when I set my brain back 4,500 years in New Orleans that winter of 2005-2006, as I was as a competitor in the Rising Tides exhibition space on the second floor mezzanine of the Ferry Building (wonderful building!) where the competition entries were on display in 2009.

You see ecocity solutions are mainly (the big idea) all about coordinating built infrastructure with transportation, and thus the overall structure of ecocities is basically – there’s that word again, and sounding awfully simple – car-free, compact and well-articulated “mixed use” development. The natural everyday parts of a community should all be there, not just the single house on stilts to avoid floods, with car, as you see in the first two photos I’m using here in this article. But we need homes to live in, most efficiently apartments. Then there have to be jobs, commerce, schools, food and even nature all very close together so that everything one needs is a walk, bicycle or short transit ride away. In New Orleans (as everywhere) there must also be Music and Arts – and in New Orleans, being a very special place, there are even streets by those names, plus the actual streetcar named Desire on Desire Street. That’s what you can get – everything you need – if your town structure is basically three-dimensional and not flat and dependent on massively heavy and inhumanly fast (for in-city movement anyway)… movement: cars.

Just a little detail and up-dating here: The basic form I put forward, ecocity mixed use density for people, not something to be designed around cars, is a natural partner to building on artificial mounds. Above I mentioned that we should coordinate the transportation system with the layout and structure of the city. It is actually more severe than that: Cars and low density sprawl go together, as does compact well ordered density and actual people walking about on their feet having fun and getting things done.

Me and my Car Wars T-shirt and, right, my silkscreen for making the T-shirts. Photo 2010, silks screen and T-shirt 1979. (Photo Kirstin Miller)

The relatively small area of land serving many times more people in the compact development form than served by the scattered form is more like a rigid law than something we “should” do. Don’t do it and we get punished with inefficiencies, high costs and climate change. Cars and sprawl are a co-dependent whole system. Pedestrian higher densities and streets for walking, bicycling and transit are a separate and radically more energy, land, time and money saving physical system in which recycling and clean living is much more easily accomplished, a system avoiding vast amounts of pollution and emission of gasses enough to change the atmosphere of a whole planet, the one we are living on, and even for God’s sake, enough to raise the ocean seas! Fantastic, and all because we can’t easily think basic, simple thoughts like building on constructed mounds to avoid floods. Can’t raise suburbia. That would require surrealistically absurd quantities of soil to raise such vast acreage.

So the best I can do is offer my 2009 vintage bringing together the ancient idea of building on artificial raised platforms and futuristic ecocity ideas, illustration just before the one above. 4,500 years is a long time to forget something profoundly useful. Then the usefulness is greatly magnified when what we build on those mounds is the ecologically healthy city of the future.

Why the resistance to thinking about ecocity development on elevated fill?….

Good question. For two years I’ve called the effort to spread the idea the “Bigger Bay Ecotropolis” project. I’ve arranged meetings with key people around the bay including prominent leaders of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, San Francisco Estuary Institute, Bay Area Joint Venture, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, usually aka SPUR, SOM Architects, Sierra Magazine, Congress for the New Urbanism, various wetlands and shorebird naturalists and many others. No one has ever called me back with, “Hey, you have a good idea here – what’s next?” Or, “Let’s do something about this.”

The above poster was seen by myself and Jennie Moore, Director of Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship and the School of Construction and the Environment, British Colombia institute of Technology. We were on a Skytrain Metro trip in Vancouver zipping through a station. I said we had to go back to photograph it. Here it is, an advertisement for a then current exhibition at the Vancouver Aquarium.

I suspect there is a powerful notion that poisons the entire world mindset of folks who hold an assumption that they know vaguely but strongly that the car/sprawl city is here to stay forever. But forget forever. As we know from the vicissitudes of history, the best laid plans and even whole civilizations have been blown out to sea by both storms and gentle breezes to disappear over the horizon of time far, far away.

But to look that question in the eye, I’ve recently been considering the excuses for hanging on to the car-and-sprawl-are-here-forever hang up, the reluctance to deal with the whole question of car-free life. It starts with “improving the car,” something that the basics tell us is a difficult proposition when average cars weigh as much as 30 to 40 people (liquid fuel cars 30, electrics 40) and moves ten times as fast in normal (not stuck in traffic) operation. How can we design a decent home for both them and humans? We can’t.

Safety has been a major issue. Of course putting seat belts in cars and making it illegal not to use them was a good idea. But a better idea: start changing zoning codes and even an educational project of the world to teach that cities without cars are possible. Venice, Zermatt, the Medina at Fez, Lamu in Kenya, Avalon on Catalina, that is ironically part of the first queen of all sprawl cities, Los Angeles, and a number of others actually exist and no deaths in car accidents happen there at all. If no cars, how could they?

Imagine that around the time of Ralph Nader’s famous car safety campaign that transportation in cities was made safer by moving toward layout and design that simply didn’t need cars. But we went with making cars safer instead of making cities safer. There were lights on the sides of front bumpers so cars could be better seen at night at intersections, air bags and interior cushioning on reinforced car roofs. Include here crumple zone bumpers instead of rigid bumpers.

Imagine instead that every year zoning changes and density shifts toward mixed use centers and other ecocity changes progressed at a steady rate such that an annual 2% reduction in the number of cars demanded by the city structure was achieved. The death rate on American streets and highways was awesome in the 1960s, but let’s start with 50,894 deaths in 1966, the year Ralph Nader’s hard-earned National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed.

Big question: would safety – we’ll measure it in deaths per year – be aided better by shifting to car-free urban design rather than adding automobile safety “improvements.” City changes might start off with a few car-free streets appearing, then car free small zones in cities. Meantime such places would be receiving some large share of the money that used to go into automobile infrastructure. Instead the investment would make car-free living a sheer pleasure as well as a financial savings for growing numbers of people. With time, we’d see adding such ecocity features as rooftop and terrace gardens, bridges between buildings and ever more restored waterways and close-in urban agriculture.

Assuming city changes could liberate 2% of the country’s cars every year by gradually reducing demand for cars needed to simply get around, the number of fatalities would go down consistently like this:

1966 – 50,894 deaths

1975 – 41,454

1985 – 32,625

1995 – 25,644

2005 – 21,170

2015 – 17,329

The actual number for 2015, last tally presently available for automobile deaths in the US, was 35,092 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So were all those car safety design features worth the cost of around 17,763 lives in 2015 alone, not even considering the much larger number added up in all those intervening years? Would it have saved more lives to skip those tweaks to the car or to start designing cities toward getting rid of cars in cities? Would it have been worth it, if we had thought through ecocity changes starting then, to just make cities better rather than making cars “better”? Whole systems thinking needed!

And now the race between ecocities and the next generation cars that drive themselves like robots through cities designed for them and controlled from satellites on high, completely safe of course from computer crashes, hackers and computer warfare specialists wherever enemies might lurk. But meantime you wonder – or at least I do – when will we ever really try thinking through cities designed around people instead of cars? I just don’t know the answer. Would we use elevated mounds to build upon – to avoid elevating the whole World Ocean? It is extraordinarily hard to even begin to get people thinking about that. Or will we just go with the “better” car and its sub-urbs while the sky gets hotter and seas rise higher and higher?

About the author

Richard Register

Richard Register is an eco-pioneer and founder of Ecocity Builders. He lectures and consults internationally and has authored several books of illustrations and ecocity design principles. Get his latest book, World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build online or directly from the author by emailing ecocity (at) igc (dot) org.


  • Ecocities principles and my Ecotectura principles (since 1979) are very similar ,so i enjoy seeing all your activities and articles like this! But still, i don’t see any revolution in the american way of living ,by reducing the consumption and wasting of resources ,especially energy ones and building /renewing resiliently cities and buildings. USA,with less than 5% of the world population contributes about 25% of the world pollution!
    So,it is noble and humanitarian to help developing countries but i would expect more action from you and other similar organizations, in your own country,USA.

  • Excellent article! How I’d love to live in a car-free world. It seems we’re the minority. For a long while I went car-free in West Los Angeles and I was amazed in heavy traffic areas that no one, who lived in these areas, took the bus. Housekeepers, yes. Students, yes. But I was often alone riding buses. And then one day, because of low ridership, Big Blue Bus stopped service to my neighborhood and I got back in my car. The car industry is powerful. Their commercials entice. Those students on the bus. I’d overhear talk, “As soon as I’m 16, I’m getting a ____ cool car.” I guess the city planners of San Francisco, NY, and Portland, Oregon and Maine knew better than allowing so much sprawl. I’m interested in visiting better planned walkable cities with great public transportation.