Shaping Tomorrow’s Coastlines

Mar 20, 2023

Margaret A. Davidson Fellow Olivia Won saw first-hand how shoreline adaptation projects can contribute to gentrification processes during her time volunteering at Lake Merritt as a child.

Olivia Won is working to shape a more equitable future for the Bay Area by integrating principles of social and environmental justice into shoreline adaptation planning. The most recent Margaret A. Davidson Fellow, working with the San Francisco Bay Reserve and NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management (OCM), Won says that the Reserve and OCM have been the perfect hosts to develop and grow her project.

“It’s been so wonderful to work with people who are so supportive and invested in my research,” she says. “I couldn’t have anticipated how kind the mentors would be and the incredible connections I would be able to make.”

Growing up in Oakland, California, Won volunteered for cleanups around Lake Merritt and was stunned by the positive impacts of tidal restoration there. She also witnessed how this greening contributed to gentrification processes, observing firsthand how well intentioned environmental projects can yield unintended social consequences. She could not ignore the lack of consideration of social issues in coastal adaptation planning.

During her undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, Won learned about the intersection of conservation and environmental justice, in particular how disconnected restoration often is from areas where the need is greatest. Won went on to pursue a masters in the Coastal Science and Policy program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studying coastal adaptation to sea level rise and estuarine restoration. When the San Francisco Reserve put out a call for fellows with projects concerning green infrastructure and its challenges, she knew it was right up her alley. 

“The Bay region is so developed and has so many actors managing it for various ends and goals,” she says. “The Reserve is one of the few places looking at stewardship in the Bay as a whole, regional entity. Their research and stewardship are very place-based.”

For her fellowship project, Won is analyzing how shoreline adaptation projects have been distributed across the Bay to date, specifically considering how project siting relates to social, economic, and biophysical site characteristics. She wants to see if certain kinds of projects have been concentrated in specific areas. The second part of her research involves case studies of nature-based projects in the region, interviewing people to see how equity factored into the projects and lessons they learned. 

Once her analysis concludes, Won hopes to share her findings with regional adaptation actors, incorporate some of what she learns into nationally available trainings offered by OCM, and publish a peer reviewed journal article. She hopes her work will contribute to a more equitable distribution of adaptation efforts moving forward that are reflective of and responsive to community needs. Ultimately, she says, “the Bay is for everyone and today’s projects shape tomorrow’s communities.”

All in all, Won is grateful to have been able to conduct her interdisciplinary research with a Reserve. “It’s wonderful that the Reserves are open to research that isn’t physically located there and contributes to the region as a whole.” She hopes the fellowship and research draw more awareness to the reserves. “I didn’t know about the Reserve System before I applied,” she concludes. “It’s such a wonderful, special resource. The more I tell people about the Reserves, the more they want to go check them out.”

Want more Reserve stories delivered to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter.

ReservesShaping Tomorrow’s Coastlines