The South Bay Sponge is an innovative model for how to adapt our urban coastal areas in the face of climate change, as many cities around the world face unprecedented threats from rising sea levels with increased flooding and related storm damage to infrastructure and settlement. The Field Operations Team worked with communities around the San Francisco Bay to shape a framework for adaptation for over 20 miles of shoreline, envisioning a future where nature and technology work together to improve the resiliency of our cities and towns, our social fabric, and our collective health and wellbeing.

The San Francisco Bay includes very low-lying and vulnerable communities, which are simultaneously growing rapidly and lacking adequate housing and transit connectivity. The South Bay Sponge is an innovative model for adaptation across the region, not only for adapting shorelines, but also providing new infrastructure and development for much needed housing. As a holistic model—combining ecological design with urban planning, development, and transit—the ‘Sponge’ provides an exemplary paradigm for coastal cities around the world.

The ‘Sponge’ is a concept for using natural systems as the primary tool for climate adaptation and resiliency across the San Francisco Bay. The ‘Sponge’ envisions ecological infrastructure on a large scale: new absorptive landscapes for collecting, filtering, and dispersing flood waters during storms, while also building higher ground for new development and transit. The potential for remnant marshlands, newly restored salt ponds, and newly constructed wetlands to be assembled and interconnected—as a regionally-scaled ‘sponge’ system—points to a new use of coastal landscapes to absorb and remediate rising tides and flooding.

The ‘Sponge’ is a model for engagement with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. Field Operations customized a process to connect with communities, particularly East Palo Alto, by translating complicated issues into the accessible metaphor of the ‘sponge.’ The team wrapped a mobile Airstream with a super-graphic sponge image and traveled around to present ideas for discussion with 21 different ‘Sponge Hub’ drop-ins. Over the course of three months, over 1,000 people were engaged in the project across six cities and two counties.