Our Frankenstein (Blog Post #2)

In college I was obsessed with paddling. I would often ditch class if the weather was good to take an outrigger canoe out into the Bay, launching from a boat dock in Alameda. The view of San Francisco from the water is stunning. The city seems to exist as one massive entity, not a collection of a billion moving parts. And yet, the infrastructure of the city is mostly invisible from the water, with the exception of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges, as buildings and houses line the shore and obscure the active city beyond.

Islais Creek
The view of San Francisco taken from the water.

Of course, it’s not always easy to take a picture of the city from the water, because the water in the Bay can be quite tumultuous. A lone mariner in a non-motorized boat has to be careful of the undulating waves, large cargo ships, and the occasional curious seal hoping for a rest on a smooth hull. During my college years, I wanted to find a stretch of water to train sprints on nearby that was flat, smooth, and protected. I pulled up Google Maps one day and didn’t find much in the East Bay that I didn’t already know about. But upon looking onto the eastern shores of San Francisco, I came across a little channel named “Islais Creek.” Intrigued, I drove my car out there a few days later and met with someone from the local paddling group, Kayaks Unlimited. From then on the creek would become an important part of my training, my community outreach, and my relationship to San Francisco.

Little did I know that each time I paddled at Islais Creek, I was launching a canoe from diminishing shores and into polluted and unsanitary water, unknowingly skimming the surface of problems surrounding urban development and climate change. Like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, I was scorning a monster that I, as part of the human race, had helped create. Years later, I reflect upon how my ability to enjoy the waters of the Bay Area may drastically change in the coming years. For me, water is not only a source of life but a source of true joy. Islais Creek features prominently in my nostalgia of San Francisco, yet I have never thought to reflect on its resiliency, its precarious future in the face of climate change. Until now.

Urban-water nexus and urban resilience

What does it mean for a city to be “resilient”? According to the UN 2017 report, Trends in Urban Resilience, “the resilience of a city is directly dependent on ‘the capability of all the physical components of the system, including buildings and transportation infrastructures, to absorb the damages due to an external shock and to quickly restore their state before the shock.’” Resilience can be viewed from engineering, ecological, and socio-ecological perspectives, but across these frames, is still “viewed as a process, a state and a quality.”

Water is an important facet of resiliency thinking and planning. Floods account for the most deaths by natural disasters worldwide, and has resulted in an estimated 6.8 million deaths in the 20th century. The UN Sustainable Development Goals include several agendas for directly addressing global issues dealing with water, including clean “water and sanitation” and “life below water.”

Islais Creek
Some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals that specifically relate to “water.”

Progressive cities are taking notice of the increasing costs of flood and climte change mitigation, and are attempting to make cities more resource efficient. One project, CRUNCH (Climate Resilient Urban Nexus CHoices), takes an urban-nexus approach that treats water, energy, and waste in one interconnected system, rather than independent silos. By doing so, they present evidence that amidst growing population in urban areas, cities can become more competitive by being more energy efficient, resource productive, and healthy:

“The visible structure of any city is laid out by its pattern of streets, boulevards, parklands and building blocks, and its network of public spaces, waterfronts, gardens, squares, and infrastructural systems. But much of the infrastructure remains invisible (both actually and metaphorically), underground and out-of-date. Our increasing demand for food, water and energy often exceed the capabilities of any one city, region or government. A collaborative approach is required to meet these demands and develop better integrated approaches to food, water and energy management.”

Dr. Steffen Lehmann

Its apparent that daylighting Islais Creek would help increase San Francisco’s urban resilience, but how feasible is it to actually do so, and what would it involve?

The feasibility of daylighting Islais Creek

A 2004 study by UC Berkeley scholars sought to answer this very question, and highlighted the benefits of daylighting the creek.

“Removing housing and reintroducing open water into an urban community would require community outreach and education to help people appreciate the stream and visualize the potential for neighborhood improvement. Daylighting Islais Creek for stormwater conveyance would reduce combined sewer overflows into San Francisco Bay and the city streets, reduce the threat of flooding, reduce the inflow to wastewater treatment plants, create aquatic habitat, create public recreational space, and advance understanding of urban water management.

Rosey Jencks and Rebecca Leonardson

San Francisco can look to other cities as evidence of the success of daylighting. In cities such as Cheonggyechun, South Korea; Seattle, Washington; Providence, Rhode Island; and Vancouver, Canada, old train tracks and roads were removed, new riverwalks and bridges were constructed, native plants were reintroduced, and in some cases, habitats were restored and animals returned to the area. The Bernal Heights Nature Walk is further bringing positive attention to Islais Creek, even if the water itself remains hidden. Bonnie Ora Sherk was heavily involved with this project through the San Francisco’s Better Streets Program, and was looking for “places where water can be liberated.” As reported in S.F. Gate: “She sees San Francisco’s Better Streets Program as a chance to redefine and redesign the city’s streets: ‘I’d like to see Cesar Chavez Street redesigned as more serpentine to reflect the water underneath. There’s no reason a street has to be straight. That’s Cartesian old thinking. Solutions will become obvious - the place will tell us what it can be.’”

Depending on who you talk to, Islais Creek can be different things for different people. The Berkeley scholars further conceptualized Islais Creek in a vast network of waterways, transportation links, and people, connected by their shared use of the creek and its surrounding areas. This network framing is critical to urban resilience thinking–systems that are too interconnected can be vulnerable to cascading failure, but, a disconnected system is already broken, and at some level a stability can be reached if the proper links are connected.

Still, can we do more?

I often think about the ways I can help bring attention to Islais Creek using my skill set. I come from a background in spatial analysis. GIS (geographic information science, or systems) practitioners often let spatial data types affect our representation of the real world. We count things in points, lines, and polygons, but the world often cannot be reduced to such clear phenomena. Water is a particularly difficult entity to model. Watersheds, rivers and streams, water flow directions, these are all modeled in different ways.

Even in the picture at the top of this post, one sees the city and the imagination fires with thoughts of the people, places, and things that make San Francisco so unique. But the water is a part of the infrastructure of the city just the same. The boundary of SF is uniquely defined by its surrounding water, and yet water flows in, out, and around the city in a constantly churning aquatic system. Those of us who make maps and perform spatial analyses need to remember this. As GIS practioners, we must take on multi-layered approaches to viewing water in all its facets. It is only in this way that we can accurately bring to light how ever-present, how all-powerful, and how immensely important water is to everything it touches.

One group in particular is making Islais Creek the focal point of a monumental project in urban resilience. The topic of the next blog post takes a closer look into the controversial new proposed “Hyper-Creek”, and whether or not this intense form of daylighting actually transforms or upholds the Frankenstein-like character of Islais Creek.

Written on November 20, 2018