Down and Dirty Design

Photo: students kayaking creek

Opening a Waterway and Connecting Communities 

public sediment artwork
A rendering of how Alameda Creek might look when restored.

Undergraduate design students got down and dirty — literally — learning about mud. They were part of a team of researchers and faculty from the College of Letters and Science’s Department of Design working on a project called Public Sediment for Alameda Creek. The ongoing project is designed to allow the creek to carry more sediment into the San Francisco Bay for rebuilding the tidal ecosystem, open the creek to fish migration, and better connect the community to the creek.

During the past year, 28 students attended local festivals and held workshops at schools and community centers in the Fremont/Union City area to get public input, and developed plans for educational panels and kiosks, playgrounds, and landscaping. They also got up close and personal with the mud, kayaking the edges of the bay and tramping along the creek.

“The project had me wearing a lot of hats — landscape architect, archaeologist, environmental policymaker, and graphic designer — while trying to find a way to change the mindset of 7 million people living in the Bay Area about climate change or just my own mindset about what it means to be a designer,” said student Victoria Chau.

The role of design in the project has been be multifaceted, including mapping areas at risk, developing climate change warning graphics and systems, and creating kits for citizen scientists taking part in research.

Sonia Garcia, another student participant, said the project broadened her perspective of design. “Design is meant to solve problems for the community, the people, the world,” she said.

To involve the local community, they held workshops for high school students and teamed young people with seniors, some of whom remember fishing and swimming in the creek, but also remembered damage from flooding. As the area was developed in the 1950s the creek was contained by levees, which stopped the floods but also changed the flow of the creek and sediment it moved, the plants and animals along and in it, and residents’ access to the creek.

“This project reminded me that it is critically important to consider how to involve and create awareness for people of all ages from diverse local communities in such public undertakings,” student Sabrina Perell said. “Community outreach, awareness-building, and public participation were integral components of our design challenge.”

Public Sediment is one of nine projects selected for Resilient by Design: Bay Area Challenge, an international competition to develop ways to protect the Bay Area from sea level rise caused by global warming. Design faculty Brett Snyder and Beth Ferguson are on the Public Sediment team along with graduate students and faculty from the UC Davis Department of Human Ecology and the Center for Watershed Science.

“The students took a deep dive into many of the issues around Alameda Creek looking at sediment, people, and fish flows — and how each of these has changed historically,” Snyder said. “The projects allowed students to engage with a particular site, learn methods of fabrication, and build their ideas at a scale that others could interact with.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science