“Elevate San Rafael” is a new paradigm for responding to complex environmental change and simply what needs to be done: occupy higher elevations and raise the quality of life and social connection for everyone. It proposes evolving the city by combining time-tested approaches to coastal adaptation with a moral, financial, and infrastructural agenda for large-scale preparation. This strategic change and redefining the relationship to the bay lends the singular opportunity to elevate all aspects of life. To physically elevate habitation and community bonds and dignity. To elevate ones social and financial position, and policy for urban change. To lift infrastructure to new elevations and purposes, and allow for ecology to persist and expand.


San Rafael is a small city north of San Francisco in Marin County. The city exhibits all the stresses of the Bay Area metropolis, because it is one of the vital infrastructural, logistical, and workforce centers of the region. It is threatened by flooding today. It is also threatened by the old paradigm of mono functional infrastructure. For good, practical, and humane reasons the easiest solution for the complex pattern of urbanism and coastal dynamics in San Rafael would be to gate off its creek, raise the levees, and proceed with life as it is known today.


To continue with the paradigm of known engineering solutions would compound risk in San Rafael. It would increase the separation that the city has with its waterfront. It would perpetuate the deep issues of urban stress facing its businesses and a fragile community housed in a vulnerable area below sea level. It would further eradicate coastal habitats and interrupt coastal processes. It would be hugely expensive. If there was a technological failure or natural disaster, it would be a humanitarian crisis. As sea levels rise it would ultimately become obsolete, and a legacy offering danger and even fewer options would be left to future generations. In the old paradigm it is disaster that defines us. Finding a new paradigm is the challenge for San Rafael.


The big questions became clear: for the cost, effort, and ecological impact of known solutions, what do you get? We asked the San Rafael community - How do you want to live? And we asked ourselves- Is there another way?

“Elevate San Rafael” is a new paradigm to respond to the complexity of environmental change. We propose that the city evolve by employing time-tested approaches to coastal adaptation in combination with a moral, financial, and infrastructural agenda for large scale preparedness. In this process of strategic change and redefining the relationship to the bay, we see the singular opportunity to elevate all aspects of life. To physically elevate habitation, and the bonds of community and dignity. To elevate ones social and financial position in life, and policy for urban change. To lift infrastructure to new elevations and purposes, and allow for ecology to persist and expand.

Elevate San Rafael is a two-part proposal addressing near term needs directly, and a long-term strategy for large scale resilience. The proposal frames necessary accompanying policy and finance mechanisms to stimulate and guide change in an equitable way. Pilot and catalyst projects protect San Rafael now, enhance community resilience, test new ecological technologies, and buy time to prepare for the future. For the long-term, a strategy that engages the forces of development, economy, and the environment reposition the urban form of San Rafael to anticipate change, enhance mobility, reinvent infrastructure, embed cultural values, enable ecology, and provide enduring protection for another century or more.

The Team

Internationally recognized as innovative designers and influencers, team leaders Bionic, WXY, PennDesign, and Michael Yarne form a potent combination of urban invention. Bionic is a

San Francisco based landscape architecture firm led by Design Director Marcel Wilson. Bionic invents landscapes to enable life and stimulate culture in this complex world. PennDesign is renowned for excellent cross-disciplinary research. WXY is an interdisciplinary design practice at the forefront of resilient infrastructure. Bionic Team’s experts – Enterprise, Moffatt & Nichol, WRA, RMA, SF State, Baycat, Studio for Urban Projects, RAD Urban, KMA – have a deep Bay Area knowledge and are ingrained in its communities. With RbD, the Bionic Team partnered with the Canal Welcome Center, Shore Up Marin, and Resilient Shore for broad outreach and engagement with over 100 different stakeholder groups in San Rafael.

Next Steps

The future with Sea Level Rise is uncertain, but credible scenarios project over 10’ of increase in the next 40 years. And it is certain that over time sea levels will continue to rise. In this era, San Rafael can plan for collective action, form policy, build partnerships with regional transportation agencies, and expand the area needed to build new infrastructure that will withstand higher sea level scenarios.

Building on catalyst and pilot projects of the near term, “Elevate San Rafael” proposes that the city gradually shift resources away from the current pump and levy system and reduce the perimeter that it maintains for risk reduction. Paired with programs for upgrades to floodable buildings, acquisition of property for infrastructure protection, and equitable housing, the strategy proposes to build a city-scale apparatus of green infrastructure that would elevate life in San Rafael and the systems that support it. Through this framework future generations would have options, space, and resources for how they continue to build resilience, and could choose to persist in this place for another hundred years or more.

Elevated systems are the infrastructure of the future. Like any other regional infrastructure, they will take generations to plan, fund, and build. The elevate San Rafael framework coordinates this distant possibility with the near term need and investments, makes space, and makes it a possibility for the city whenever it is needed. And it assures that San Rafael can continue its vital function for its residents and the region.