Posts by Jenni Zell

Image: Jenni Zell

I’ve begun to notice a sense of urgency and focus surrounding coastal resiliency planning in Southern California lately. Scientists at institutions like NOAA, USGS, Scripps, and many other organizations have been sifting through data, modeling, mapping and making projections. All the while interest in this type of research amongst the science community and public also seems to be increasing.

At AHBE Landscape Architects, we recently partnered with Cal Poly Pomona landscape architecture students, to work together focused upon the goal of resiliency strategies for the coast of Long Beach. I have also been attending a class at the Aquarium of the Pacific , a course with the pessimistic title, “Can We Make our Coastal Cities Resilient to Climate Change or Are They Doomed?” Research from scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSB, UCLA, and the National Academy of Sciences have resulted in a variety of proposals: complete coastal retreat (let nature do her inevitable thing), reduce our collective carbon footprint, and generate durable and dynamic sustainability planning efforts.


Welcome to our ongoing series of Cal Poly Pomona Coastal Resiliency posts, featuring the observations of 4th year undergraduate students in the Landscape Architecture program.


Working Scope of Site; Diagram by Amanda F.

The Lower Westside of Long Beach is an area especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Between three and six feet of sea level rise will cause significant impacts to public safety and property damage in this area. Both the NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer and the newly updated Coastal Storm Modeling System (CoSMoS v3.0) issued by USGS for Southern California help with spatial understanding of the potential impacts related to these environmental changes.

The Lower Westside of Long Beach is also one of the sites selected by a group of students to develop strategies for adaptation. According to student Amanda F., “Various strategies involving wetland habitat restoration will be implemented for the various scaled archetypes available within our overall 215-acre scope.” Her strategy is shown above.

Graphic by Iliana V.

Amphibious Neighborhood Adaptation Strategies graphic by Iliana V.

One strategy shown above and developed by Iliana V., permits the rising seas in by digging canals along existing roadways and right of way corridors, using the fill material to create new high ground. People living in this neighborhood might abandon their cars to high ground and travel around in shallow bottomed boats while waiting for water from storm events or tides to recede. This approach harkens back to a time when waterways were the dominant transportation and trade superhighways. While the strategy is burdened with a myriad of challenges, it shares some allegiance with the Dutch Room for the Rover Programme, which is redesigning the city to give the river space to flood safely.

We look forward to learning more about the student’s strategies during their final presentation at AHBE this Friday from 3-6pm.

For previous Cal Poly Pomona Partnership posts see:


AHBE Landscape Architects is collaborating with Cal Poly Pomona landscape architecture students on a coastal resiliency design studio with Professor Barry Lehrman and his fourth-year undergraduate students. AHBE Lab will be highlighting selections of the student’s work nearly every Wednesday for the next several weeks. The project site is the coastline from the Port of Long Beach to Anaheim Bay. Students are in their third week of class (field-trip week) and this week they will be meeting with Dr. Christine Whitcraft of Cal State Long Beach Wetlands Ecology Lab; Carrie Metzgar and Larry Rich from the City of Long Beach’s Office of Sustainability in addition to exploring areas around the Long Beach waterfront.



Growing up, my older brother and I spent most of our summers nearby or in the ocean. One place we frequently snorkeled and skin dived was around Catalina Island. On these trips my brother would bring home loads of large abalone for my mother to fry up for dinner. Fast forward a few decades to today, and my own ocean-swimming children will not be bringing back abalone from their trips to Catalina Island. This is not for a lack of trying. The once abundant marine gastropod is now functionally extinct; in the last decade alone white abalone populations in Southern California have decrease nearly 80% percent.

Artist Doug Aitken placed his recent work Underwater Pavilions into the waters off Catalina Island last month in the same location that my brother and I used to swim. The large geometric sculptures act as portals into the underwater environment, detailed with alternating rough rock-like and mirrored surfaces from which light reflects and refracts. The exhibit obliquely draws attention to the effect humans are having on the oceans by raising awareness of its presence.

Last weekend at MOCA, I watched a video installation documenting the Underwater Pavilions projected onto a large screen in a viewing room, part of a larger Doug Aitken retrospective. The video is visually and audibly stunning, and I was reminded of those earlier times exploring underwater worlds. One scene in the video showed a sea lion inspecting the sculpture. I know I am anthropomorphizing, but the sea lion looked simultaneously curious and concerned.

In addition to polluting ocean waters and over-fishing, human activities pump about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. According to NOAA, the ocean absorbs about a quarter of all that carbon. The result is a change in the very chemistry of the ocean waters. Because of all this extra absorbed carbon dioxide, the oceans are currently 30% more acidic today in comparison to the pre-industrial revolution era.

It is no wonder the sea lion inspecting Aitken’s bauble seemed both curious and concerned. Not only have humans radically altered the chemistry of the ocean, we have severely reduced one of its favorite foods, the abalone. The sea lion in Aiken’s video appears to recognize that human activities significantly impacts the coastal food web and their species survival. What seems less apparent to our own species  – some whom mistakenly believe America will be made great again with the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA – is the survival of all species is interconnected.

Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich, puts it this way: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”


The pre-and post-settlement history of coastal California is likely familiar to most Southern Californians, and the most well known scenario imagines a flourishing coastal plain landscape with wetlands and estuaries supporting an abundance of plant and animal species. But after decades of intensive development, less than 10% of the original coastal wetlands remains along the California’s southern coastline. In other words, post-settlement, paradise was paved.

One problem with paving, armoring, and channelizing is that the strategy does not address the fluid and dynamic character of the natural systems that provides protection. Sediment flows from the mountains and plains, depositing onto the coast via the movement of water. Ocean currents and wave action redistribute this material, with coastal bluffs collapsing into the ocean, nourishing beaches. Paving, armoring, and channelizing are brittle solutions that offer a temporary solution, but ultimately require more paving, armoring, and channelizing to continue to provide effective protection against these natural cycles and systems.

This points to another problem with applying brittle solutions to protect development: the tremendous loss of public trust land. According to the California State Lands Commission, the Public Trust Doctrine “protects sovereign lands, such as tide and submerged lands and the beds of navigable waterways, for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the public.”

While utilizing hard engineering solutions to address the fluidity and episodically destructive forces of natural systems has undoubtedly saved lives and protected private property, the long-term cumulative result is a staggering loss of California beaches, bluffs, and wetlands – all distinguishing features of the California landscape that attract people to visit, stay, and continually fuel a demand for more development.


Because our species doesn’t carry our homes on our backs like the permanent inhabitants of the coastal zone like mollusks, crabs, and shellfish, our species must find flexible solutions to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of the coastal zone – including the cycle of sediment deposit – or risk losing the hallmark of the Public Trust Doctrine:

“The trust lands belong to the public and are to be used to promote publicly beneficial uses that connect the public to the water.”