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The Public Dialogue - A Blog by Public Architecture
10.09.13 Events

By Ezra Mauer

As part of the Architecture and the City Festival, Resilient SF explored resiliency strategies meant to aid San Francisco’s ability to withstand future environmental and social challenges.  Public Architecture and Shelter Media Project, with support from the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction, invited CMG Landscape Architecture, David Baker Architects, and Perkins + Will San Francisco to propose innovative solutions that focused on systemic and social opportunities rather than large infrastructural endeavors.  At the September 18th event, the three firms presented their proposals.  A stimulating panel discussion moderated by Public Architecture Founder and President, John Peterson, followed the conclusion of the presentations.  Panelists included Degenkolb Engineers Chairman, Chris Poland, strategist, designer and current Gensler Fellow, Laura Weiss, and City of San Francisco Planning Director John Rahaim.

David Baker Architects explored harnessing the citywide water cistern system to play an expanded role as sites of community engagement and gathering during times of non-disaster as well as a locus for action in emergency situations.  Though it continues to remain largely outside of public awareness, the cistern system is an historic infrastructure network that contains water for emergency use.  David Baker Architects proposed transforming cistern spaces by adding bold graphics to convey pertinent general and location-specific emergency information.  These cistern spaces would be turned into plazas with the goal of sparking curiosity, constantly disseminating information, and creating a well-distributed series of hubs for action in emergency situations.  Through this proposal, David Baker Architects sought to build upon, strengthen, and make visible existing physical and civic infrastructure to bolster San Francisco’s robust social capacity both in ordinary times and during disasters.


Perkins + Will drew inspiration from hardened community health facilities such as hospitals and fire stations.  In this case, the term “hardened” refers to a facility’s ability to withstand a severe event.  Perkins + Will noted that disaster-induced interruptions to non-hardened community health organizations constituted a significant public health challenge.  Consequently, they proposed that the City of San Francisco identify the highest priority, non-acute ambulatory care services and mandate that organizations providing these services occupy structures with sufficient seismic reinforcement to return to operation within 30 days of a severe event.  Wanting to bridge that 30-day gap, Perkins + Will devised a prototype rapidly deployable health clinic (or “RDoC,” as they termed it).  The RDoC would be used as a replacement venue for critical ambulatory health services to San Francisco’s neediest in the aftermath of a seismic or severe weather event.  In the event of a disaster-induced interruption, community organizations would be able to relocate to RDoCs until their home facilities could reopen.  Perkins + Will asserted that the RDoC would enhance community self-reliance and resiliency by providing community clinics a mechanism to continue to serve their patients in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

CMG Landscape Architecture developed a proposal that sought to fortify Golden Gate Park by retrofitting the Polo Fields with sustainable infrastructural systems.  These systems would not only improve the Park’s many events and festivals, but would also allow it to host disaster victims.  CMG noted the tremendous overlap between logistical preparations for park festivals and effective responses to major disasters; the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management recommends citizens prepare for 72 hours without key infrastructural lifelines such as food, water, waste management, energy, and shelter – the same resources required for 3-day park festivals.  The proposal focused on building upon Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields with four key layers of infrastructure: water, waste management, energy and communication, and shelter and aid.  As part of the proposal, the Polo Fields would be fitted with built-up edges housing public toilets.  The waste by-products from the toilets could be treated and then used to fertilize the 200 acres of park turf.  Through their proposed changes to Golden Gate Park, CMG hoped to reinforce the role of urban parks as both purposeful and beautiful.  As part of the Golden Gate Park: A Sustainable Retrofit proposal, CMG devised an annual preparedness event during which city parks would open for an overnight resiliency festival.  The event would commemorate the 1906 Earthquake and Fire while testing the city’s ability to mobilize and prepare for disaster response in a festive atmosphere.

After the presentations, the panelists sat down to discuss resiliency solutions and the power of incorporating behavioral change.  Solutions, the panelists noted, must be habit-forming for the community and integrated into daily activities.  By the time a disaster happens, the community would already be familiar with how to engage with the available resources.  As Laura Weiss voiced, “people are the engine of resiliency.”  Thus, by utilizing products or services to induce behavioral change, communities themselves could help ensure their own resiliency.  “San Francisco is evolving into a sharing economy; these solutions could be an outgrowth of that evolution,” remarked John Rahaim.  Indeed each of the proposals embraced the functional versatility inspired by that economic evolution.  As mentioned during the conversation, discussions around recovery and preparedness are often challenging and fraught with bureaucracy.  That the proposals were created with what Chris Poland described as “delight” added to their strength, allowing them to make difficult conversations more palatable.  The panelists agreed that the schemes presented throughout the evening were all complementary; they could all move forward and work effectively together.

This design challenge, though the first of its kind, need not be the last of its kind.  It can happen in any city as a way to engage the architecture community to be leaders in resiliency design thinking.