What Can We Learn about Resilience from the Bay Area

Guest post by Naseem Falla

The City of San Francisco (and the entire Bay Area) have historically developed innovative solutions to the social, economic and environmental challenges facing the region. Not surprisingly, the region has been on the vanguard of the growing resilience movement, addressing their challenges with a proactive approach by launching several resilient programs designed to strengthen resilience and mitigate the impacts of regional challenges ranging from social inequity, population growth and unaffordable living costs, to earthquakes and sea level rise. 

Although resilience programs launched after natural disasters are vital to successfully building back stronger, communities who have not experienced a disaster in recent years should learn from the Bay Area’s proactive approach of addressing and mitigating the impacts of vulnerabilities before a threat or disaster even occurs.

Key to the Region’s resilience approach has also been engaging a wide range of regional, national and global stakeholders in resilience initiatives. Casting a wide net when it comes to crafting resilience programs and groups allows for a more holistic resilience approach that truly encompasses the needs of all community sectors across the community.   

Three programs in the Region help to further these tactics:

Resilient San Francisco

Resilient San Francisco: Stronger Today, Stronger Tomorrow is a living document developed in 2016 that lays out the City’s resilience goals and sets forth a strategic resilience vison and plan. The study is the outcome of a successful partnership among public, private and nonprofit sectors, along with stakeholders and local community leaders.

The plan highlights the City’s “integrated approach” towards examining linkages and systems of resilience and focuses on increasing the City and Bay Area’s capacity to accommodate a predicted spike in population growth by 2040.

It integrates several existing public/private resilience initiatives, such as:

·       The Lifelines Council: Develops and improves systems that provide vital transportation, electric power, water, liquid fuel, natural gas and communication services during and after a disaster.

·       Earthquake Safety Implementation Program: Communicates San Francisco’s vulnerabilities to earthquakes and develops action plans for seismic safety.

·       Earthquake Safety Implementation Program (EIFS): A 30-year, 50-task community/city program to develop earthquake risk reduction public policy.

Resilient by Design

Always searching for new ideas to strengthen their resilience, the San Francisco Bay Area conducted a design challenge modeled on the Northeast’s post-Hurricane Sandy Rebuild by Design competition. The challenge launched in May 2017, and culminated a year later with nine winning projects – one winner for each community-identified vulnerable Bay Area site.


The competition connected local corporations, community members, government officials, and regional experts with internationally recognized resilience leaders. Winning projects ranged from “South Bay Sponge,” a natural infrastructure approach using marshlands and Salt Ponds for flood protection, to “Estuary Commons,” a network of public green spaces created from the construction of ponds, landforms and expanded streams to manage and preserve the area’s natural resources.

The regional approach fostered relationships, collaboration and a realization of just how large of an impact (positive and negative) one community’s actions can have on surrounding Bay Area communities.

Bay Area Housing and Community Multiple Hazards Risk Assessment

Completed in January 2015, this multi-agency project was led by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to develop strategies for safe growth in the area. The study included two phases: a Vulnerability Assessment, followed by Strategy Development. To improve Bay Area’s resilience, this program focuses on the intersection between housing and community vulnerability.

Like the Bay Area, other communities can benefit from taking a proactive approach to resilience by assessing their existing and future threats before a trigger event, and by engaging a wide range of stakeholders in resilience planning initiatives and actions. Integrating the perspectives of local public and private sector organizations, community members, NGOs, national and international thought leaders, and more, makes way for resilient programs that don’t just address the built environment, but also consider the social and economic elements that build more resilient communities.

Ms. Falla is a climate resilience specialist at the Institute for Building Technology and Safety, @IBTS_org, a Climate Resilience Consulting Client