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sustainable cities
South San Francisco residents dropped into the community space established in a vacant former bank. They left comments and ideas on the HASSELL+ map over the period of the design stage.

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Inside the green cities revolution

The UN has called for a decade of ecosystem restoration from 2021 to 2030, aimed at reversing centuries of damage to ecosystems, addressing climate change, food and water security, and creating an unparalleled opportunity for job creation. For architects, designers and urban planners, this decade calls for a shift in focus, onto exploring the potential for architecture and design in combatting emerging global challenges, and preparing cities for the future.

It also represents a chance for the industry to take on board new, and more meaningful goals, and to embrace a more regenerative and restorative role: with schemes that don’t just extract value from a site, but observe and address the specific environmental and societal challenges that each one presents.

As cities increasingly look to sequester carbon, enhance water security, improve air quality, and adapt urban shorelines to rising sea levels, so our role must, and will change.

This revised approach calls on architects, designers and urban planners to involve local communities more than ever, drawing on local knowledge and local understanding of longstanding eco-systems, and empowering local communities to ensure the successful delivery, and ongoing stewardship of the local environment they know so well – urban or natural. Rather than focusing our attention on instantly constructed outcomes, ecosystem restoration presents the challenge of growing and evolving socially sustainable solutions over time, from the ground up.

As part of the goals for the decade of ecosystem restoration, the UN specifically links outcomes for the environment to sustainable development outcomes, for social equity and economic prosperity. Whether we are working in international development, policy making, or architecture and urban design therefore, the decade calls on us to step out of our silos and look to how disciplines can inform one another to reach these shared goals. At the same time as presenting opportunities to deliver resilience for our connected urban centres, this decade will look to restore the livelihoods of communities including agro-ecology farmers along the Mekong and nomadic grazers across the Mongolian step.

Hassell is an international design practice, with projects in some of the most over developed parts of the world, and also in some of its most vulnerable regions. Recently we have worked on a project set up by The Rockefeller Foundation to make the South City San Francisco Bay Area more resilient in the face of dynamic threats including rising sea levels, storm water flooding and earthquakes. The project is one that has taught us how natural systems and community initiatives can combine to offer up sustainable and long-term restorative solutions to complex global challenges.

Working with community collaborators and other specialists, as part of an international design collective, the year-long program combined the creativity, knowledge and experience of residents, public officials and local, national and international experts to develop inventive, community-based solutions – seeking out an alternative approach to the hard-edged, engineering based interventions such as concrete protective barriers, that have previously failed the region.

The project commenced with a detailed research and analysis phase of the Bay Area, community by community, giving way to a responsive design strategy, to redesign the region’s network of creeks and streets as green linear corridors for water management and community gathering – transforming the regional structure from a vulnerable loop into a connected and resilient network. The project also aims to align with local schools on higher ground to collect, treat and reuse water, as well as making them better equipped as community shelter points in times of disaster.

On a day-to-day level, this approach is designed to bring communities closer to the creek and to the Bay itself, to enjoy the waterside and the healthy and active lifestyle that it offers; returning a historical connection between communities and the Bay that has been lost with recent urban development. It also includes replanting local species of flora and fauna within public spaces to support the biodiversity needed to create native landscapes that are more resilient to extreme weather events.

Throughout the project the design team actively sought and drew on local South City voices, transforming a vacant heritage building into a community meeting place, design hub, education centre and display space. The centre became a storefront from which the community could come to learn about the project and chat with the design team, and from which the design team could hear from community partners and talk to city and county officials. Alongside this physical space, the team also used social media channels to widen community engagement and reach. 

The project, ‘Resilient by Design’, is a good example of where principles of architecture, urban planning, eco-restoration, and community engagement converge. It has taught us the value in turning back to nature for the solution to future global challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, human poverty and migration. Ultimately it has taught us that we need to use humility as our strength when it comes to understanding and facilitating nature’s own systems, when looking to implement large scale design interventions to restore, rebalance and protect natural environments and ways of life. It’s a project we hope will help to prepare us for the decade to come, as the role of design moves towards connecting the environment and communities in the restoration process.

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Richard Mullane
Written By

Richard Mullane is the Environment & Communities Sector Leader for Hassell, San Francisco. Richard has worked as architect, urban designer and urban planner, across Hassell’s Sydney, Shanghai and San Francisco studios, regularly contributing to Hassell’s international work, and playing key roles in award-winning projects in transport, education and waterfronts – including the Resilient by Design challenge in San Francisco.

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