Kristina Hill
[Different] Landscapes
6 min readNov 18, 2020


Race, history, ecology and design in the SF Bay Area: A Marin City case study

Chinaka Green, a community intern for Shore Up Marin City, bikes on the flooded coastal bike trail near Marin City during the highest tide of the year (this past Monday).

How is design for climate and biodiversity connected to social justice? The example of Marin City, a culturally-important community on the San Francisco Bay, might help us understand the answer.

African-American workers were welcomed to the Bay Area during World War II, when shipyards in places like Marin, Oakland and San Francisco needed to achieve heroic levels of production.

Bechtel operated the Marinship yard during WWII. Black and White, women and men worked side by side.

When the war ended, those same workers were confronted by the paranoid racism of White communities who took away their housing choices using “covenants” among White neighbors, forcing them to live in unincorporated County land (like Marin City, North Richmond, and Alviso), or in urban industrial areas (like East and West Oakland, and Hunter’s Point in San Francisco). These neighborhoods, where White people forced people of color to live, are also some of the lowest-lying land in the whole Bay Area. They have always been vulnerable to flooding from rain because of under-built or poorly-maintained storm drain systems.

When Marin City floods, it’s because Hwy 101 blocks rainwater from flowing out to the Bay. Engineers who designed the highway didn’t design an “emergency overflow” drain, and Marin City has no back door — there’s only one road in and out. When it floods, people can’t get to their dialysis appointments or pick up their kids at school. No other Bay Area community experiences this extreme an impact from flooding. (SF Chronicle image)

But it’s not just flooding — it’s also a health problem. High groundwater levels can contribute to indoor mold problems, and prevent sanitary sewer lines from working properly. The water at the surface and underground in these neighborhoods tends to be more polluted than in most Bay Area communities, because of industrial or military-era pollution. Some of that pollution is not well-mapped, or has been concealed by bald-faced lies — as at Hunter’s Point, where left-over radiation from a WWII-era military port remains in the soil but was concealed by fraud and sub-standard investigations. Marin City residents have said for decades that they remember dumping by the shipyard in their neighborhood as well, but no public agency has ever opened an investigation into those sites.

Kids in Marin City perform plays each year to remind everyone about the history of their community, but many of the community elders who remember toxic dumping have passed on, and those stories are being lost. (Image by Alan Dep, Marin Independent Journal)

Today, leaders in the Marin City community are still trying to get the kind of professional help and investment that other Bay Area communities already have — basic help to prevent flooding and health impacts, and to bring back the wonders of nature and wildlife using wetland restoration. Their neighbors in Tam Valley have wetlands that attract birds and fish. Marin City has a Target in a half-empty shopping center, with a huge parking lot and a small, polluted detention pond that is still directly connected to the Bay, and once was a wild and beautiful marsh. Kids in Marin City can’t walk to the Bay edge within their own community and show their grandparents pelicans or crabs or pygmy blue butterflies. They can’t dip their fingers into clean Bay water, or watch grebes land on their lagoon, because the grebes know there are no fish to eat there.

Marin City’s lagoon at the edge of the Target parking lot. The tide comes in and out through a tunnel with a tide gate that has been partly broken for decades, but a dozen acres of Highway 101’s dirty traffic lanes drain into the water here, along with stormwater from the Mall parking lot. (photo by Bradley Tomy)

As both a learning opportunity and — more importantly — a chance to draw regional attention to Marin City’s needs, UC Berkeley students in landscape architecture have been visiting and proposing designs for the future that could protect residents from flooding. Last year we focused on the long-term risks of sea level rise, which will affect Marin City’s flooding problems very early.

Ms. Terrie Green from Marin City checks whether UC Berkeley grad student Tucker McPhaul has a clear understanding of the community’s history, during one of our student presentations in 2019.

This year, we focused on the future of the lagoon — listening to the vision of local teens who imagined designing it as a place where they can be proud to bring their grandparents, and where they can learn about the amazing animals and plants of the San Francisco Bay. And we have continued working with our partner, Ms. Terrie Green, who leads the local non-profit known as Shore Up Marin City. Ms. Green is also an elected member of the local Community Services District (which is the only local government in many unincorporated areas, equivalent to a city council). Her insights, patience and ability to form a synthesis of Marin City’s current problems have been critical to our work, since we are outsiders to the community.

With the pandemic, the grad students in my studio course are all over the world — from Nigeria to China — and can’t visit the Marin City lagoon themselves. Students who live in the Bay Area have taken photos to help them understand Marin City, and Ms. Terrie has spent time with us on Zoom to patiently tell the story of how they got to where they are, once again.

Each team of 3 students was asked to come up with a design for the lagoon and for a proposed park on the shore that would live up to the local teens’ vision — making a place they can be proud to share with their families, someplace they can talk about as a symbol of how special Marin City is, and where they can experience the beauty of the Bay. Each team was also required to choose a native species that might be able to live in the lagoon, and whose life history could be inspiring and engaging for local kids to learn about.

One team of students proposed using the community’s desire to deepen the north end of the lagoon to make habitat for Dungeness crabs, whose life history includes the fantastic voyages of tiny crabs that travel through the Golden Gate hanging on to jellyfish. (Image by Mafe Gonzalez, Victoria Bevington, and Yuetian Wang.)

Through all the student work, there’s a theme of empathy — for wildlife, for children, for neighbors who need a break. And a theme of wonder and possibility — the possibility of seeing butterflies on a lighted screen at night, or seeing bat rays swim into the lagoon if the highway culvert is converted to a tunnel, or of hearing the water boatman insect make the loudest insect sound of any species underwater, using amplification devices.

Special evenings at the lagoon park could include a dramatic light-and-shadow theater, set up to reveal tiny butterflies.
What if we raise highway 101 to protect it from sea level rise in the future, and that creates a corridor for bat rays to enter the Marin City lagoon?
A proposal to clean the runoff from Highway 101 and the Mall parking lot before it reaches the lagoon.
Boats for rent on the lagoon, so people can experience the sounds and behavior of the water boatman insect.

Our next step was to enter finalized versions of these proposals into a national competition called “Creature,” that was organized to promote designs that might create empathy between people and wildlife through design. We brought in expert reviewers like Stephen Engblom, Executive VP at AECOM, and Kevin Conger, one of the founders of the design firm CMG. Kevin became so engaged in the student work and Marin City’s situation that he is bringing in his colleagues at CMG, to provide free professional services to local residents and help develop a vision for their lagoon and park. Stephen is helping us imaging how adaptation for transportation projects could help fund major work in local communities near highways and transit.

CMG’s Kevin Conger visits with local residents, including Ms. Terrie Green and Shore Up Marin City interns, to see the lagoon in Marin City and talk about their home-grown vision for a park.

Next, we’re taking the lessons learned from Marin City to other places around the Bay. Student teams are looking at Hunter’s Point, Alviso, East Oakland, Richmond, and East Palo Alto- not to tell those communities what to do, but to help regional leaders understand the challenges and opportunities in these low-lying places. Our argument is that investing in these frontline communities — according to local visions and creating local jobs — is the best way to jump-start the resilience of the Bay Area as a whole.

Stephen Engblom, VP at AECOM, talking with UC Berkeley students about transportation projects and adaptation in coastal San Francisco.
Sketch notes for understanding the armatures of water flows and levees around Alviso, and their potential to support adaptation. By UC Berkeley grad student Yuyao Jin.



Kristina Hill
[Different] Landscapes

Director of UC Berkeley’s Institute for Urban and Regional Development (IURD), Assoc. Professor, teaching students to design cities for flooding.