CMG 2019 Summer Interns Experience

Through the course of their 3 month internship, the CMG summer interns were able to participate in site visits to Crissy Field, Bothin Marsh, Treasure Island, and more! On their last day, the summer interns presented their research and findings to the entire office. The CMG Summer Interns, Sarah Fitzgerald, Jeff Milla, and Yutong Wu reflect on their summer internship project “Emergent Ecologies of the Bay Edge: Adaptation to Climate Change and Sea Level Rise”, writing about their experience over the course of 3 months of research and traveling around the Bay Area.

From getting our hands dirty identifying marsh plants at Crissy Field to spotting a sea otter munching on oysters near a Living Shorelines restoration site at Point San Pablo, our summer research was grounded in our experiences visiting iconic landscapes across the Bay. These site visits were crucial to informing our understanding of Bay ecologies, and reflecting CMG’s recognition that there is no substitute for experiencing a place firsthand.

Though it’s hard to pick a favorite site, we all agreed that visiting Marin and seeing Bothin Marsh and Corte Madera Marsh was a uniquely noteworthy experience. In preparation for the visit we had poured over sea level rise projection maps of the area, cynically concluding that it was not the best use of our time and money to try to save wetlands that will be inundated with just one foot of sea level rise. And yet, as soon as our bikes rolled up to the edge of Coyote Creek, we were awestruck by the beauty of Bothin Marsh. There are few places in the Bay where you can walk through a living marsh. We all felt the power of the wetland landscape surrounding us on all sides. Site visits like these led us to conclude that, while we can’t save every marsh from rising tides, we must find a regional framework to help adapt at least a few.

Another site visit that really hit home was our trip to Treasure Island and visiting Ildiko Polony at the LEJ nursery. As a native plant horticulturalist, we were interested in getting her take on how to work with native plants as temperatures, rainfall, fog regimes, and other climate factors to which native plants are adapted begin to change. We had previously come across a USGS study predicting that California will have no marshes left by the end of the century, and were quite dismayed by this and similar dire studies. Ildiko’s response was stoic and poetic: “When I become overwhelmed with all of the terrible predictions, I like to remind myself that they are still only predictions. We have to focus on building landscape corridors that allow plants to possibility to adapt and move by themselves, instead of replacing native plants with those found in ecosystems farther south. And plus, though the marshes might not be here in 100 years, they still matter for the bees, the birds, and the fish that are here today, tomorrow, and in a year’s time. We can still do a lot of good with the time we have.”

In addition to our site visits, our in-office research days enabled us to dive deep into the science and processes of ecological change. We studied the marsh migration process by which upland will convert to marshes, marshes to mudflats, and mudflats to subtidal habitat; we probed the physics of land subsidence and discovered how filled land subsides at a much faster rate than the historical shoreline; we analyzed the Bay on a region scale to discover where tactics like ecotone levees, near-shore reefs, or elevating land might be appropriate adaptation techniques. Ultimately, we compiled a matrix summarizing the various landscape tactics we encountered, cataloguing a toolkit of methods for responding to SLR.

By the conclusion of our internship, we had come to appreciate the simple truth that adapting the existing ecologies of the Bay to the rising tides is possible, but incredibly costly. Ultimately, we leave this project with more questions than answers:

  • How can we make collective decisions about which habitats to focus on?
  • How can we pool our resources to make regional decisions, rather than only disjointed local actions?
  • How can we ensure that socially vulnerable human communities can access these fast-disappearing natural wonders?
  • How can we move from designing at the discrete site scale to a regional level? Is this shift even possible in a paradigm of client-driven work?

We also recognize that landscape architects must become more proficient in our understanding of ecological processes and climate science in order to stay relevant as climate change accelerates. We humbly hope that this research contributes to this proficiency within CMG, and that it is useful in informing the firm’s future work.

 On August 9th, CMG’s summer interns presented their final research project, “Emergent Ecologies of the Bay Edge: Adaptation to Climate Change and Sea Level Rise”, to the rest of the office at lunch! A culmination of their work this summer, the research focused on how designers must anticipate fast-changing conditions and design toward adapting to and mitigating the effect of climate change.