Almost every urban American city and county has a backlog of infrastructure repair/replace needs that tally into the tens to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.
In coastal cities, even if a wand could be waived to make that crushing liability disappear, a whole new laundry list of high costs has popped up like an ominous storm cloud on the horizon.
In those places — along the Eastern Seaboard, around to the Gulf of Mexico and far beyond — the cost of adaptation to climate change is a punch to the gut. Solutions include enormous flood gates; artificial barriers offshore; massive stormwater pump systems; replacing septic/sewage systems; raising roads, sidewalks and buildings; and buying out/relocating currently inhabited properties that are in areas too low to save from flooding.
Most places dealing with massive resiliency infrastructure issues are facing a one-two punch of climate-changedriven disasters: the daily infiltration of ever-rising seas and the catastrophic wallop of storm surge during increasingly frequent major storm events.
Wind and water damage from hurricanes was long the domain of the Carolinas down through the entirety of Florida and up the Gulf Coast. But Super Storm Sandy and a host of other once-in-a-hundred-years storms — happening far more frequently than once per century — are proving that New York, New England and inland places not even on the sea are becoming more vulnerable every year.
But make no mistake. Miami is ground zero. Every time a glacier wall shudders in Greenland, a Miami homeowner winces. The area, which was hard hit by the recession of a decade ago, saw tens of thousands with “homes under water.” This means the person owed more to the bank than their house was worth.
Today, when a person within the Miami Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has a home underwater, it may be literally. Just a slightly higher tide than normal may cause significant flooding to the property — no need for hurricane-force storm surge or 10 inches of tropical rain to threaten the viability of homes, businesses and more.
Since the Miami MSA is more than 5 million strong, and growing rapidly, retreat is not exactly an option. Not to mention, for those who haven’t been to the Sunshine State, points west of the Miami MSA (which includes Broward and Palm Beach counties to the north) are the fragile Everglades. Points east are the very Atlantic Ocean that is rising.
And unlike the Netherlands, greater Miami cannot build a giant series of dikes, dunes and other flood controls. Its porous limestone means the rising sea pushes up through the bedrock — even dozens of miles inland. And waterfront land is so coveted, that barely an inch of it — on barrier islands and coastal mainland — exists as open space to retain water within.
Resiliency Czar Battles Sea Level Rise and Hurricane Storm Surge
Miami’s endless cycle of condo booms and busts has lined coastal acreage with miles of homes, and some prestigious office towers, of extremely wealthy people. People who, Jim Murley notes, are not predisposed to retreating or waiving the white flag of defeat.
Murley is the chief resiliency officer for Miami-Dade County, responsible for securing the county’s fate over the next century as sea levels are expected to rise by at least one foot. He has decades of experience in planning in the Sunshine State, including serving as secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs and executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council.
Murley said even when looking at building new or upgrading old buildings operated by the county — which includes some of the largest airports, seaports and transit systems in the nation — climate adaptation looms large. Officials have to look at worst case scenarios both for the slow but inevitable creep of rising seas and the fast and devastating hit from storm surge.
“The yearly sea level rise now is about your thumb’s width or less. But as glacier melts increase, what if the annual sea level rise increases from my thumb to my fist,” he said, noting that the county is part of several compacts that monitor data and recalibrate the huge — both in terms of land mass and population — area’s vulnerability.
“Salt water infiltration is a major problem even when it isn’t causing flooding,” Murley said. “It pushes everything up, including the water table. That can cause problems with drinking water, septic systems and other systems we rely on.”
From spring to fall 2019, Miami-Dade County will be working with an expert consultant team to reach out to the diverse population to share the myriad of potential projects that could save greater Miami (where high ground is only 20 feet above sea level) from its precarious coastal location.
The county is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look at two high risk areas — Miami Beach and the bay between the beach’s barrier island and mainland Miami. Murley said the concept of cost sharing multi-billion dollar mitigation projects with the federal government is obviously very attractive to a region that would not have enough to foot the bill for all projects even if it spent every penny of tax revenue on them.
In coastal areas outside of Florida, which are not hemmed in on a narrow peninsula by the Everglades, relocating upland might be an option — especially in areas such as the Carolinas and Georgia — where the topography rises greatly once inland.
In the South Florida region, one solution may be a much-dreaded one. Identifying drainage basin areas and removing all development from them. Even in lower density areas, this is extremely costly because it involves buying out residential and commercial property owners and possibly also paying to help relocate them.
Compounding that difficult solution is the fact that virtually all coastal areas in the region are among the most highly valued. As Murley noted “our impact is in wealthy coastal areas and their approach is not to cut and run.”
Murley said the silver lining is that climate adaptation “doubles down on smart growth principles” such as density and premium transit. The county’s SMART Plan for six rapid transit corridors will concentrate jobs and housing near transit stations and reduce the cost of mobility for lower income/working class families.
Urban Designer Pins Resiliency on Smart Growth Patterns
Juan Mullerat, founding principal of PlusUrbia Design — an award-winning urban design firm with resiliencyrelated projects in Miami and overseas — coincidentally lives just a few blocks from Murley. Both are in Shenandoah, a century-old Miami neighborhood on relatively high ground but only two miles from the rising waters of Biscayne Bay.
Mullerat’s firm, also located in Shenandoah and within two major transit corridors, is part of the consultant team looking at land use, increased density, station locations and funding mechanisms for the SMART Plan. The plan aims to bring rapid transit to a half dozen major corridors, in the form of heavy rail, light rail, bus rapid transit or other premium mode. Most of the corridors follow old railroad beds, meaning they have the bonus of being located on higher ground.
“There are many aspects to resiliency — it’s a holistic approach that is not limited to heavy engineering for flood gates, stormwater pumps, [water] retention basins and redesigned coast lines,” he said. “Resiliency is very much about being prepared for shocks and stresses; it is about creating livable environments that focus on identity, equity, mobility, health and affordability. To that end, the vast majority of PlusUrbia’s public sector work has focused on responsible growth and livable democratic urbanism.
“Our plans focus on long-term solutions to the vehicular congestion that comes with population and employment growth while reducing the region’s ecological footprint,” said Maria Bendfeldt, PlusUrbia’s project director for the SMART Plan. “Transit-oriented development increases density and reduces car dependency while promoting affordability, access and street planning for pedestrians and cyclists as part of sustainable mobility management. Investing in viable, accessible transit systems is the most important component for cities to become resilient to waning oil sources and increasing impacts of climate change.”
In Coconut Grove, Miami’s original waterfront village, PlusUrbia completed a plan for the Business Improvement District that matched economic viability strategies for the village core with resiliency. The resulting, approved Action Plan includes green infrastructure such as: tree succession, maintenance, storm-water management and hurricane-preparedness plans.
The Grove plan contemplates a redesign of waterfront parks to protect adjacent properties. The historic neighborhood is one of few in Miami where a significant portion of coastline is composed of public parks, not 30- to 60-story towers located on seawalls built before sea level rise was contemplated.
Little Havana is Miami’s other historic neighborhood — known around the world for its Calle Ocho, Latin Culture, restaurants, nightclubs and decades-long heritage as landing point of hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles and other immigrants from Central and South America. Though mostly composed of low- and mid-rise development on small lots, Little Havana is one of the most densely-populated neighborhoods in the nation. It also draws more than three million visitors a year.
PlusUrbia is finishing an unprecedented comprehensive plan for Little Havana. The grant-funded Revitalization Plan, done in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, focuses on preservation and adaptive re-use of the classic 1920s and 1930s residential and commercial buildings that provided affordable housing, jobs and places for mom and pop businesses to thrive. The plan also looks at design guidelines, zoning code, transit, mobility, complete streets and a strong emphasis on increasing park, recreation and open space to promote better health for residents. The plan notes that streets make up nearly one fourth of Little Havana’s land area and that many lots are 100 percent impervious — not allowing water saturation, contributing greatly to flooding concerns. The report suggests special green gutters to collect water along rights-of-way plus a storm water utility fee, proportional to properties’ permeable index, which is a classification of estimated rates of vertical movement of water from the ground surface.
The plan also suggests that property owners increase lot permeability to minimum standards by code. An assessment of lot permeability would be conducted throughout the neighborhood. Each property that exceeds a calculated permeability index would be charged a storm water utility fee, to make it responsible for water run-off. Proceeds of the fee would be used to improve Little Havana’s aging flood control systems.
Miami Beach Spending Hundreds of Millions to Protect $40 Billion
In 2013, the city of Miami Beach initiated a 10-year, $600-million stormwater management program to address sunny day flooding and sea level rise primarily by elevating roads and installing storm water pumps. This program is funded locally by the storm water utility fee. About $150 million has been invested to date.
“Over the last three years the city commission has added more than 15 progressive land-use and zoning changes to make the city more resilient,” said Susanna Torriente, chief resilience officer and assistant city manager of Miami Beach. “In April 2018, Miami Beach invited the Urban Land Institute to host a three-day advisory panel to evaluate the current program to determine if the city was on the right track. ULI commended the city’s incremental approach and its sense of urgency and recommended several enhancements to the existing program — more integrated planning, more blue and green infrastructure to complement the pumps and pipes, and more strategic communications.”
Despite being one of the most-vulnerable barrier islands in the nation at an elevation of barely four feet above sea level, the city of less than 100,000 on a land mass smaller than 8 square miles is a densely developed and walkable cash cow. A tiny fraction of Miami-Dade County, its millions of visitors, luxury residences and endless array of restaurants, shops, night spots and cultural centers give
it a taxable value approaching $40 billion.
“This past November, Miami Beach residents overwhelmingly approved $439 million in general obligation bonds for additional infrastructure, with $198 million dedicated to resilient building enhancements. The residents’ willingness to tax themselves and the elected officials’ courage in raising fees is a testament to our desire to adapt and invest,” Torriente said.
TND Developer Brings Public Sector Expertise to Resilient Town Design
Kevin Blanchard has first-hand experience with building for adaptation — as an investigative reporter, attorney, public works director and leader of a company that builds resiliency into its Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs) and conventional subdivisions. He is the chief operating officer for Southern Lifestyle Development, based in Lafayette, La., and previously served as public works director and chief development officer for Lafayette Consolidated Government, where he helped shape the comprehensive plan and a new unified development code.
“When I was with the city, we worked on ways to handle water, not to move it. You put in a concrete-lined ditch, it moves quickly but you just flood somebody else.” Blanchard said. “We are 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, but less than 30 feet in land rise above sea level. We have to be a progressive parish, because we are low lying and vulnerable to major storm events, which seem to be occurring more frequently due to climate.”
Now that he is in charge of dozens of projects, Blanchard gets to create resilient, livable, mixed-income and mixed-use communities. Resiliency is a huge factor since 2016, when the biggest rain in 80 years flooded a considerable number of homes in the parish. “The first thing buyers ask is ‘did this lot flood in `16’,” he said.
Blanchard said Sugar Mill Pond, an ongoing phased development presented a unique opportunity to control nature with flooding, not over-engineered culverts. The Youngsville, La., development currently has 400 houses, townhouses and cottages; 187 apartments; and about 200,000 square feet of commercial-retail built around a large lake. The compact TND emphasizes walking and biking to all amenities and services.
“We have a big phase coming up and the engineers said we have to put a lot of infrastructure in (to control flooding),” he said. “We’re building a giant linear park — with walking trails, covered walkways, kayaking and other amenities bounded by boulevards.”
When built out, it will connect to another 200 acres of development. Its primary purpose is water retention and detention, but it also provides active recreation.
“I could convey that amount of water with two 72-inch pipes, but how do I market the lots that are next to the pipes?” Blanchard said. “But create an amenity, that also mitigates flooding, and people want to live along that.”
Blanchard said he learned, as a public servant, that cities can no longer ignore natural flood plains and try to engineer everything like it’s “man vs. nature.”
“You have to think about how does this sustain itself over the long term — how do I build a neighborhood that 80 years from now still looks like it belongs, still has great bones?” he said.
Strong Towns Warns Against Unsustainable Horizontal Growth
Blanchard, who understands the negative impact of sprawl, worked with Strong Towns when he was with Consolidated Lafayette Parish/City. Charles Marohn, a transportation engineer by training, runs the nonprofit Strong Towns, which is dedicated to making communities financially strong and resilient.
Marohn’s 2017 report “The Real Reason Your City Has No Money,” focused on Lafayette, a city of 125,000, as the typical example of a city that has made itself virtually insolvent by growing horizontally instead of compactly.
“When we added up the replacement cost of all of the city’s infrastructure — an expense we would anticipate them cumulatively experiencing roughly once a generation — it came to $32 billion. When we added up the entire tax base of the city, all of the private wealth sustained by that infrastructure, it came to just $16 billion. This is fatal,” Marohn wrote.
His team’s estimate didn’t include underground utilities — sewer and water — or major facilities such as treatment plants, water towers and public buildings. Adding that cost, Strong Towns estimated that just to take care of existing infrastructure, a family at the median income of $41,000 would have to spend one out of every five dollars on taxes needed to fix roads, ditches and pipes. “That will never happen,” Marohn observed.
Marohn said he isn’t picking on Lafayette, because virtually all cities buy into a “Growth Ponzi Scheme” that chases rapid growth by expanding horizontally. Growth provides immediate revenues — permit fees, utility fees, property tax increases, sales tax — but the city takes on the long-term responsibility of servicing and maintaining all the new infrastructure.
The immediate gratification outweighs the reality that the long-term cost of sprawl will leave a city either bankrupt or unable to maintain crucial infrastructure, let alone pay for very costly new projects to adapt to climate change.
Urban Consultant Says Coastal Cities Can No Longer Ignore Reality
“Psychologists call this temporal discounting. Humans are predisposed to highly value pleasure today and to deeply discount future pain, especially the more distant it is. Paying the piper is decades away, so it’s too far down the road to be a factor,” said Joseph Minicozzi, a principal of Urban3, a consulting company of downtown Asheville real estate developer Public Interest Projects.
Minicozzi has developed award-winning analytic tools that have garnered national attention for creating a paradigm shift for thinking about development patterns. Minicozzi, who worked with Strong Towns in Lafayette, creates vivid reports that show compact, center core development is far more valuable to cities than strip centers and suburban sprawl housing.
He said coastal cities, such as Charleston, S.C., will have to work to save their historic cores, which not only generate the most tax revenue but also have a huge value in heritage and culture.
“Charleston’s barrier islands will be under water. I think they know they cannot save them,” he said. But they may be able to design a lock or some system in the harbor to keep water out of the peninsula that the old town sits on. If old town went under water, it would be a tremendous loss of not just tax value, but architectural and cultural history. There are buildings older than the United States there.”
“We’ve known about this for 20 to 30 years,” he said. “If you go to the doctor and your blood pressure is off the charts, you’re not going to say ‘doc, that’s just your opinion, I’m going to ignore this.’ But we do this with the science of climate change.”
Insuring Vulnerable Properties Will Be Challenging
Though he started his training as an architect and planner at the University of Miami and later oversaw one of the nation’s first form-based codes in the nearby coastal city of West Palm Beach, Minicozzi doesn’t have much hope for the status quo in South Florida.
Miami has always been a low-wage-paying region and now its costs of living are spiraling upward toward the stratospheric heights of New York and San Francisco. In a county with a median income of $64,000, even middleclass families cannot keep up with the cost of housing, transportation, education and food while paying to insure their property. Where a modest house, far inland from the coast, can cost more than $6,000 per year to insure against windstorm damage — many families are dropping coverage altogether, despite being in the center of hurricane alley.
Jim Murley, the resiliency czar for Miami-Dade County’s nearly three million people, said from its beginning, Miami has been about resourceful souls fighting long odds to adapt to an unforgiving climate at the southern tip of mainland USA.
“Nobody wanted to live here 100 years ago, because it was miserable,” Murley said of the flood, heat, humidity and mosquito-infested frontier that was Miami. “Until we learned to manage land and water 24/7, 365, we weren’t such a fun, diverse, desirable place to be. Now, if we don’t keep learning — keep up with exponentially changing technology to lead adaptations — we won’t be here 100 years from now.”