Posts tagged with "Sea Level Rise":
The exhibition is on view through Friday, April 19, 2019, and will be accompanied by a lecture given by Angela Brooks and Larry Scarpa at USC on Wednesday, April 10th, 2019 6 pm. For more information, see the USC website.
Right now, engineers, scientists, and officials from one country in the South Pacific are hashing out a seastead. The movement is an ambitious experiment in aquatic living that’s shaped by libertarian dreams, a pragmatic response to climate change, and a novel architectural experiment.
“Seasteaders want voluntary societies based on choice, not force,” said Joe Quirk, Seasteading Institute communications director and author, in a YouTube video on the subject. The San Francisco-based organization is on the front lines of the seasteading movement, a Libertarian-influenced crusade that borrows from the language of the American frontier to frame its freewheeling settlement at sea. Decentralized dwelling, the thinking goes, permits members to join or leave the autonomous association at will by simply detaching their dwellings and floating off, literally voting with their sea legs to leave. If this sounds far-fetched, well, the first seasteaders may hit the water in just a few years.
The community could be afloat soon—like, 2020 soon. The Floating Islands Project, as it is officially known, will be built with emerging floating-construction technology and is meant to attract investment to French Polynesia. Its sheer novelty has already garnered extensive media coverage. But will it work?
Although seasteaders can theoretically float anywhere, the Institute found a partner in French Polynesia, an island country in the South Pacific. This January, French Polynesia signed a memorandum of understanding with the Seasteading Institute in San Francisco to build a floating island prototype. The project, off the coast of Tahiti, has to demonstrate it won’t adversely impact the environment, and show what it will contribute to the island’s economy, and then the nation will establish an offshore economic zone for the seasteaders.
Although seasteading’s libertarian ideals perhaps make French Polynesia—well, any nation—an unlikely partner, the government views seasteading technology as a potential Hail Mary in the anthropocene. Many of the country’s thousands of islands are flat and narrow, a topographic combination that is particularly susceptible to climate change. Floating islands could be a vital survival strategy if (but really, when) the seas rise. In turn, the area’s shallow water and ocean conditions that don’t include high waves make the current technology—which has been pioneered on flat water—more adaptable to ocean conditions.
By the end of this year, the Institute, which was founded in 2008 by libertarian activist Patri Friedman, is working with French Polynesian officials to pass a seazone act. If the rules pass, the group will head to Tahiti to develop a pilot program. So who are the architects of the seastead?
This is certainly not the first architecture at sea, nor the first time the island-platform technology’s been used. In 2011, a series of floating islands opened in the Han River in Seoul, South Korea, while French architect Jacques Rougerie has designed a floating, partially submerged city shaped like a manta ray. As far back as 700 AD, people have been living for long periods of time on the ocean.
For the seasteaders, Dutch firm DeltaSync has built a prototype on a lake in Rotterdam. The Floating Pavilion Research suggests that buildings up to 164 feet (15 stories) tall can be built on the seas and are able to withstand storms and choppy waters. Four years ago, DeltaSync debuted a preliminary plan which estimated that a series of platforms for 20 to 30 people would cost around $15 million. With one-fifth of the space reserved for open greenery, the firm estimates living space would cost about $500 per square foot, which is just over half as much as the average price per square foot in New York City (and less than a third of the price of Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side). (Neither the Seasteading Institute nor marine engineering firm Blue 21, an offshoot of DeltaSync that’s working on the Tahiti project, could be reached for comment on these latest plans.)
It’s no surprise that the project has—or had—high-profile fans in Silicon Valley. Gawker shutter-downer and Trump supporter Peter Thiel funneled a cool 1.7 million dollars into the initiative, but has since dismissed the concept as “not quite feasible.”
But despite its ostensible freedom at sea, the project can’t escape from social concerns. By comparing themselves to American frontiersmen, seasteaders (a term derived from “homesteaders”) invoke the same tabula rasa colonialism that Europeans used to justify the wholesale genocide of indigenous people in the Americas and elsewhere. Is libertarianism, in this case, an aegis for clueless Silicon Valley tech-bro optimism?
Quirk and others at the Institute have a new company, Blue Frontiers, whose mission is to develop and build the floating seabeds, so it’s only a matter of time before these questions are answered.
President Donald Trump is all for building mega-infrastructure projects—that was one of his campaign’s trademark promises. He wants to build big and fast. But Trump's latest rescission of an Obama-era executive order, which stipulated all government-funded projects follow strict building standards to reduce exposure to flooding, may end up costing taxpayers a lot more.
Trump will revoke the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard with the goal of streamlining the environmental review of infrastructure projects, as first reported by Reuters. This move is part of his new executive order that aims to establish "discipline and accountability in the environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects," according to a statement the White House released yesterday.
The current standard for these government projects requires that designers factor in projections for climate change and flooding as a consequence of rising sea levels and increasingly intense downpours. In effect, it meant that buildings would be built to a higher vertical elevation to address all flood risks and ensure taxpayer dollars would be preserved for as long as possible. This standard, introduced by former president Barack Obama as one his many measures tackling climate change, was required for all infrastructure projects, from public housing to highways.But speaking today at Trump Tower, Trump denounced the current permitting process as "over regulated" and "a disgrace." He claimed that instead of taking twenty years to build a highway, under his new executive order a highway will be built in under two years. "We’re going to get infrastructure built quickly and inexpensively,” he said.
Demonstrating a similar lack of concern for climate change when he pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, Trump has already rolled back many of Obama’s regulations on climate change. The elimination of this requirement could ultimately do more harm in the long run—even with a faster timeline, without flood-safety measures, taxpayers could end up paying up to billions over time, flood policy expert Eli Lehrer told Reuters. And it’s not a matter of if it floods, but when.The U.S. has already suffered an estimated $260 billion in flood related damages between 1980 and 2013.
Trump’s decision is undoing “the most significant action taken in a generation” to safeguard infrastructure, Rafael Lemaitre, former director of public affairs at FEMA, said to Reuters. “We can either build smarter now, or put taxpayers on the hook to pay exponentially more when it floods,” he said. “And it will.”
Can Tampa undo its Post-War planning mistakes while embracing its environment? This competition explored how.
The (Re) Stitch Tampa project was initially conceptualized during 2010 around the advent of the announcement of what was to be the first high-speed rail line in the U.S. The Obama Administration had just announced as part of its “New” New Deal program that the region was to receive $1.2 billion in federal monies earmarked for the construction of a high-speed rail line along the Tampa-Orlando corridor. The program was reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA program, during the great Depression, where the federal government funded large-scale public infrastructural projects with the intent of jump-starting the economy. In Florida, such projects included the Rural Electrification Program of rural farms, running wire to over 54,000 farms, and the development of much of the Florida State Park System.  Plan Tampa, a post-war coastal American city, was reeling from the worst recession since the great Depression. Arguably, it was also located in one of the regions the greatest impacted in the country by the 2008 economic bust and mortgage crisis. The region had developed around car privileging infrastructures and an economy predicated principally on real estate and its speculative practices. The real-estate bubble had burst hard here, where real-estate speculation and flipping were part of the main sources of the economy. It was not uncommon, beginning in 2007 and continuing onwards, to see hand-crafted signs dotting the on and off ramps of Tampa’s highway infrastructures and byways of the city advertising short-sale, foreclosed houses, or offering flat-out cash for houses. “We buy up houses-$50,000.00 each and 3 for…”  By 2011, however, this “New” New Deal in the form of high-speed rail infrastructure had been squashed, and the $1.2 billion of federal monies returned to the federal government. The stymying of the project had been largely due to the prevailing anti-smart and, arguably, anti-urban politics which did not support the funding of public transportation. This was even despite the efforts of mayors in the six cities who would be positively impacted by the high-speed rail system, who self-organized at a local-regional level to accept the federal monies, although in the end they were not able to do so. The aggregated land for the high-speed rail station in Tampa was also left vacant, left to return back to nature. Therein existed other such aggregated plots of land or “land-banking” which had occurred at the height of the real-estate boom, such as on the north end of the Riverwalk, the northern anchor of the competition project site, where the developer had acquired and aggregated land and had then, subsequently, gone bankrupt. The Trolley Barn-Armature Works lay in decay, as a relic of the post-industrial landscape, and the former affluent trolley-car suburb and trolley system which was one of the most successful in the U.S. before it was ripped-up and replaced by the roads of the predominant automobile culture. This aggregated lot lay in urban decay; the ecology and the biodiversity returning back to it and recovering the site’s natural landscape. This urban aggregate added to the 50% of surface parking, as well as to the additional vacancies in the downtown core. The focus of the competition brief shifted, at this moment, to a critical re-thinking of the ebbs and flows of circulation and movement throughout the city, and how these might contribute to a more sustainable development and ecological practices. The competition brief posed the question, how might the re-calibrating of infrastructure serve as an opportunity to re-choreograph the flows and the movements of people and habitat to and from its natural lifeline running through the city, and how might it bring the River into the city? Paradoxically, the recession and the mortgage crisis with its foreclosures, vacancies, and halted development, had actually provided an opportunity to take stock, as well as to critically reassess a legacy during the 20th century of largely unsustainable building and development practices and seemingly unlimited growth, much of which was eating up valuable wetlands and ecologically sensitive lands. Unsustainable land development practices had been catalyzed by the rationalization of the pumping system. Dredging, as well as the canalization of swamplands pushed by real-estate speculation and tourism, had largely trashed the natural environment and its ecologies. Further, the invention of air conditioning had perpetuated the development of housing typologies divorced from their natural systems and local ecologies, dissimilar to Florida’s earlier vernacular housing typologies, such as the Florida Dogtrot. The Dogtrot’s design was more integrated with passive design strategies, such as breezeways as well as the natural Florida landscape. The competition also prompted a re-thinking of the current oppositional relationship of the city to its water, as well as the potential to re-stitch, re-cover and re-claim the landscape of the Post-War Coastal American City through Ecologies. Tampa—the Beginnings of the Post-War Coastal American City Unlike their counterparts to the North, the Sunbelt coastal cities of the south, including Tampa, did not experience the same overarching opposition to the top-down urban renewal planning practices of the 1950s, largely inspired by the Modernist City. During the 1960s, freeway revolts occurred in many American cities, opposing the byproducts of the 1958 Federal Highway Act, which included cutting highway infrastructure through swathes of the city in order to expedite commuters out to the suburbs. The post-war suburbs had been federally subsidized in the form of inexpensive mortgages to returning war vets from World War Two. Jane Jacobs, author of the seminal text, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, successfully organized her community to oppose and subsequently defeat Robert Moses’ attempt to bulldoze part of the West Village in New York City with a cross-town expressway infrastructure. Further, grassroots community opposition to urban renewal projects and the bulldozing of Boston’s historic West End and Scollay Square, as well as New York City’s Penn Station, lay the groundwork for the bottom-up preservation movement of cities and their historic fabric beginning in the 1950s. It also ushered in the establishment of the National Park Service in the U.S. Tampa’s period of urban renewal happened later, in the 1960s and 70s. Unlike their northern counterparts, many of the community leaders in the districts designated for urban renewal actually embraced it, as opposed to attempting to fight it, such as in Tampa’s Ybor City. As Tampa historian Emanuel Leto writes, “these projects were also motivated, in part, by racial divisions within urban communities, and the desire for segregation in districts and enclaves of the city.” The erasure of one such community known as “the Scrub,” was one of the three major urban renewal projects carried out by Tampa in the 1960s as part of the Federal Urban Renewal program. Its name came from its natural landscape, referring to the territory outside of the protected Fort Brooke boundary which was settled by white settlers, and referred to the small brush-like vegetation of scrub and Florida brush. The area was settled by freed African-American slaves and the neighborhood had a vibrant music scene, including Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. The inhabitants were relocated to public housing and the city became largely zoned as single use as part of the CBD (Central Business District), with highway infrastructure cutting through the urban fabric, carrying people out to the suburbs in the wetlands and the reclaimed swamplands, which lay beyond a middle landscape of trolley suburbs, largely vacated. Tampa as the Ecological City Prior to the period of urban renewal which radically transformed the urban space and fabric of Tampa, the settlement of the area had a much more intrinsic relationship to the landscape and its natural ecologies, living more symbiotically with the Tampa Bay natural estuary. Historical natural atlases and guides of Tampa from the turn of the 20th century boasted in their descriptions of Tampa’s natural landscape, as well as its estuary. “People came from miles around to eat the fish and oysters out of the Tampa Bay.” Such sites as Sulphur Springs, located further north up the Hillsborough River were, in fact, natural springs where people came from afar for their natural healing powers. Other sites of intrigue included an alligator farm adjacent to the natural spring. The site became contaminated and trashed in the middle part of the 20th century, however, although ecological remediation and recovery is currently being undertaken in the area by the City. Competition Brief The competition brief is premised on a critique of the failings of the post-war American City, the prevailing traces and conditions of which can be seen in Tampa. The brief also calls for resilient design strategies, which address its coastal location, as well as the re-articulation of its land-water edge between the city and the water. It proposes possible design strategies, which might begin to de-construct, de-engineer, as well as to de-laminate the previous infrastructures that are part of the legacy of these predominantly short-sited planning strategies. The competition framed a re-thinking and re-programming, as well as the re-articulation and re-consideration of the possible occupation of infrastructures operating at a large-scale. (Re)stitch Tampa serves as a research platform. The publication serves as a useful toolkit and handbook for disseminating design strategies which both design for resiliency, as well as addressing the conditions which are resultant from the failings of the policies around the post-war American city, and their unintended consequences. Designers are trained to be strategic, innovative and tactical in design, as well as having the ability to synthesize multi-scalar systems, and to conceptualize multiple scenarios for different conditions. The brief also encouraged designers to work across a spectrum of design scales, while addressing issues of recovering a landscape. Arguably, the state of Florida and its coastal cities will be some of those the worst impacted in the U.S. by sea level rise and climate change. Whereas human settlement and inhabitation in these locations initially co-existed in a much more symbiotic relationship with their natural landscapes and ecologies, the natural geography of this territory writ-large has been significantly impacted and altered by a manufactured landscape. Design strategies can also build on new modes of design representation, employing mapping as a process of design research. The competition brief challenged designers to develop schemes addressing the perceived failings of the post-war American city, offering solutions for the vacancies from previous failed urban renewal programs, and the ensuing urban decay and flight from the city. Perhaps, most importantly, it is the ability of design to act in a milieu not possessing the political will or agency to address the pressing issues of sea-level rise and climate change in coastal cities. The schemes should offer design strategies, which lie in more symbiotic relationships between city and nature, including the Hillsborough River and the Tampa Bay and its estuary. It should be noted, however, that recent trends currently show, in fact, the population to be actually increasing as migration flows of the Baby Boomer retirement generation move to Sunbelt coastal cities seeking warmer climates and cheaper housing prices than those available in the North.
This article appears in The Architect’s Newspaper’s April 2017 issue, which takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). We’re publishing the issue online as the Conference approaches—click here to see the latest articles to be uploaded.
Increasing economic and environmental pressures have the potential to challenge the resiliency of South Florida’s low-lying urban areas in the near future. As Florida’s population continues to grow in the midst of the increasingly obvious impacts of gentrification, global climate change, and sea level rise, economic and environmental displacement are likely to make the northern city of Jacksonville a beacon of hope for a climate-ravaged state.
Why? Because Jacksonville is huge and has room to grow. The city, named after President Andrew Jackson, also first governor of Florida, is the state’s largest by population and the 12th largest in the U.S., population-wise, with 868,031 residents. Jacksonville is also the largest city in the U.S. by land area—874.3 square miles—making it almost twice the size of Los Angeles and about three times that of New York City. The city’s corresponding 1,142 people per square mile density—L.A. and New York are many times denser—means there is plenty of room to grow.
Ruth L. Steiner, professor and director at the Center for Health and the Built Environment in the department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Florida, Gainesville, said: “I think the area is amenable to accepting large amounts of new growth,” adding that though the region could likely support an influx of new residents, its schools, transportation, and land-use policies would need a healthy dose of re-thinking to be ready.
A question regarding the massive growth in southern and central Florida, however, centers around the long-term sustainability of these new population centers as the impacts of climate change and sea level rise threaten the state’s coastal communities. With sea levels predicted to rise between four inches and up to ten feet across the region, low-lying areas of the Miami region will see massive losses in real estate and untenable retrofitting costs. The simultaneous and ongoing population growth across that region will likely ultimately push residents to flee to higher, cheaper ground.
That’s where Jacksonville comes in. Though some parts of the city lie on the coast, much of the city’s land area currently sits roughly 16 feet above sea level. As of 2010, Jacksonville had 366,273 households with an 11.8 percent vacancy rate, meaning that roughly 43,220 units are currently unoccupied. The relatively high vacancy rate means lower rents and, maybe more importantly, lower economic barriers to homeownership for first-time buyers—a growing problem for Miami’s millennial residents. Jacksonville is also home to the nation’s largest urban parks system, with 80,000 acres of parkland distributed across 337 sites, which according to Steiner, “bodes well” for any future urban development. She explained, “Investment in public infrastructure like parks has a high level of pay-back in terms of raising quality-of-life.”
Steiner added that the city faces challenges in terms of its urban layout; “another dilemma is the city’s sprawled out urban form,” she said, adding that because most of the development in the city has happened since World War II, the city is organized along “a series of major arterials and mega-blocks,” a 3,400-mile long network of roads that deters pedestrian-oriented design. Jacksonville also has a bus-only transit system that, aside from a downtown monorail line, leaves much to be desired in terms of mass transit.
The city, a short drive from the University of Florida’s Gainesville campus, is, however, poised for knowledge worker growth. Not only that, but the vast majority of Florida’s recent population growth is not from an increase in births or even migration from other American states, but from a net influx of individuals moving to the state from foreign countries, with Cuban, Venezuelan, and Haitian immigrants showing up in the highest numbers. The impact of climate change on those countries is currently unknown, but it is safe to assume that those communities would continue to grow should conditions back home deteriorate.
In a not-too-far-off future, could Jacksonville provide a relief valve for the growing state? It’s likely, and if city officials can prepare accordingly, Jacksonville’s new residents might learn to love the city. “Sometimes,” Steiner added, “I think Jacksonville is a diamond in the rough.”
Ant Farm’s Chip Lord turns his sights on Miami for his latest installment of sea-level rise documentaries
This article appears in The Architect’s Newspaper’s April 2017 issue, which takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). We’re publishing the issue online as the Conference approaches—click here to see the latest articles to be uploaded.
Video artist Chip Lord has made a career of pointing his lens at subjects he both admires and dislikes. In his early Sony Portapak experiments with the collectives Ant Farm, T.R. Uthco and TVTV, he critiqued but had fun with American subjects like car design, the Kennedy assassination, television news, and domestic habitation. His 1972 Ant Farm-designed House of the Century on Mojo Lake, Texas, both sends up the idea of a playful weekend party house in its male body design and the site of an installation of television monitors slithering out of the lake into the property of the house.Today, Lord is creating video works that bring his architect-trained sensibility to various cities facing issues of sustainability and rising sea levels including Venice Underwater, New York Underwater and next year a project about Phoenix, Arizona. Now he has created an urban portrait of the American city most immediately facing the issues of rising tides: Miami Beach. His Miami Beach Elegy focuses on the massive investment required to keep the city above water both for residents and its important tourist industry. The video focuses on the physical investment required to maintain the sea level metropolis—like a child building a sand castle that is wiped away by the tide, and a jolly convention of real estate agents as they celebrate selling property in a sinking city.
Miami Beach Elegy will premiere at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco, May 11 to May 13.
Although many in the tristate area know it as a place to just drive through, the New Jersey Meadowlands is a critical micro-region just west of New York City. A quarter-million people commute on Amtrak and local rail through the area every day, and it’s the warehouse and distribution hub for the region—Amazon just purchased a 600,000-square-foot warehouse there, near the Teterboro Airport, to expedite its shipping operations. With 800 acres of preserved wetlands, the Meadowlands also sustains fisheries and migrating birds. That ecology co-exists with critical infrastructure: power and wastewater treatment plants, as well as petroleum production, but its soil and water holds contaminants that pose great risk to human health. Together, the value of all property in the Meadowlands is assessed at $6.2 billion.
The low-lying area is also particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. Last Friday at Assembly, the Regional Plan Association’s annual conference, stakeholders convened to discuss its future. “Facing Climate Change in the Meadowlands” brought together Robert Ceberio, president and founder of consulting firm RCM Ceberio; Stephen Dilts, office leader at New Jersey’s HNTB, an infrastructure planning firm; Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper; and Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, principal of Catherine Seavitt Studio and assistant professor of landscape architecture at CUNY. The talk was moderated by Eugenie Birch, the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Chair of Urban Research and Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
The panel raised big questions: Where do we retreat from, and where do we protect? How can fixed infrastructure be adapted? How will resiliency planning sustain natural ecosystems? And—with sea levels projected to rise three feet in the next 60 to 80 years—how soon can we start?
From 1969 through the early 2000s, the Meadowland’s growth was guided by a master plan. That plan called for the major development of the wetlands, backed by literal tons of infill (the debris from Penn Station and the London blitz lives there now, below some NJ Turnpike spur). After the plan expired in 2004, the residential population dropped to 30,000 from 70,000 while commercial space more than doubled to 6.5 million square feet of warehouses, stores, and offices.
It used to be that no one cared about the health of the wetlands, Ceberio said. The former executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission added that now, though, “resiliency and flood control is on the top of everyone’s mind,” When planning the area, “we used to look at heights of buildings in relation to the Teterboro Airport. Now we’re looking at FEMA maps.”
But the will to act is another question. “Are people in state and federal government are going to step up and do it?” he asked, sort of rhetorically, but other panelists were eager to jump in.
The lack of a major plan—and a timeline—for sustaining a critical area was a running theme, foreshadowing words of warning from conference keynote Joe Biden. The former vice president told elected officials, planners, and AEC professionals in the audience to “stop being polite” and “sound the alarm” on the “shameful” state of the region’s infrastructure. “You need to start shouting about how bad things are,” he said.
In New Jersey, at least, the stakeholders are vocal. Debbie Mans said that obstacles to resiliency planning abounded. Since the state legislature dissolved the Meadowlands Commission seven years ago, she said, there’s been a piecemeal approach to what should be a comprehensive regional strategy. She took issue with grand plans put forth by Rebuild By Design, HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition. The plans called for hard and soft infrastructure, including a wall in the middle of the wetland. They're soft, Mans said, is levees and berms. But with green infrastructure already intact, “bisecting and filling it intuitively doesn’t make sense.” The implementation, too, is scattershot; she questioned what the state and the region would receive for the millions being spent in the Meadowlands.
There was a consensus among panelists that more needed to be done to re-orient the crisis-by-crisis response approach towards a more proactive planning framework. Ceberio pointed out that the Gateway Program's tunnel entry point is in the Meadowlands. (The project will build a massive rail tunnel under the Hudson River to replace Hurricane Sandy–damaged tubes used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit.) But he noted climate change puts the project in a precarious position: “If flood scenarios become reality those tunnels are gone. Gone!”
Beyond trains, around 1,900 people in the area could be displaced due to rising sea levels within the next 30 years. Despite the risks, residents want to stay. But there are hard conversations that need to happen. When people are passionate about a place like residents are about the Meadowlands, “they do things to sustain it,” Seavitt said. “In all of its tawdriness, it’s beautiful.” There's a long way to go: “If there was a reasonable, strategic, well-thought-out plan we’d get behind it,” said Mans. “But we don’t see that right now.”
Facing rising sea levels and greater insurance risk, Southern Florida braces for relocations, new flood design standards, and more
This article appears in The Architect’s Newspaper’s April 2017 issue, which takes a deep dive into Florida to coincide with the upcoming AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando (April 27 to 29). We're publishing the issue online as the Conference approaches—click here to see the latest articles to be uploaded.
The moon over South Florida looked like a swollen grapefruit in November, its reflection rippling off pools of ocean water that bubbled up through storm drains, crept over seawalls, and swallowed Miami streets. It was a “supermoon,” about 17,000 miles closer to Earth than usual, according to NASA, arriving just in time to supercharge the seasonal high waters known as king tides. The water made an island out of the lifeguards’ shack on Matheson Hammock Park, swept “No Wake” signs from marina harbors onto city streets, and marooned a live octopus in a parking garage along Biscayne Bay.
On days like these, it’s obvious that much of the region now home to about 7 million people began as a network of swampy canals meandering from the Everglades to the ocean. Sometimes nature conspires to remind the city of this fact, as it did in November 2016.
Lately those reminders have become more frequent. The rate of sea-level rise has tripled over the last decade, according to a recent study from the University of Miami, bringing with it more frequent coastal flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects that Miami-Dade County will see about 15 inches of sea-level rise by 2045. And because South Florida sits on porous limestone bedrock, saltwater is not just encroaching on coastal communities, but gurgling up from below.
Right now it’s a nuisance, but over the lifetime of a mortgage, flooding in South Florida could threaten tens of billions of dollars of real estate and upend development in the country’s 10th largest metropolitan area. Architects, planners, and developers are just beginning to overhaul the urban landscape, laying the groundwork for a sweeping transformation of building codes, municipal infrastructure, and design norms that could save the city from rising seas.
The crucial question is: Who will change that built environment? Will it be architects and city officials, safeguarding South Florida against the effects of climate change as the world’s living laboratory for so-called climate resiliency? Or is nature coming to reclaim Miami as a swampland?
South Florida’s development boom is so lucrative it seems inevitable that it will continue. Before the city was founded in 1896, however, it wasn’t clear that the mouth of the Miami River would ever be anything more than a mosquito-infested trading post—until the industrialist Henry Flagler dragged his railroad south from Palm Beach along the highest ground he could find: a coral ridge between 12 and 25 feet above sea level. The tracks reached Biscayne Bay on April 22, 1896. Three months later Miami was incorporated.
Today, Miami is a bustling, sprawling urban landscape that has been remade to suit cars, but some planners say that the same limestone ridge Flagler used could anchor climate-friendly development.
The Urban Land Institute is drafting a plan for the Arch Creek Basin, a mostly low-lying area straddling 2,800 acres and four municipalities, as well as unincorporated Dade County, around one stretch of the railroad. Primarily poor people of color, the residents of Arch Creek face a severe threat from sea-level rise—one that could eventually force them to abandon the area.
At a charette in November, designers Gustavo Sanchez-Hugalde, Max Zabala and University of Miami professor Sonia Chao presented their idea for a flood-resistant transportation hub at Northeast 125th Street. It would be transit-oriented development, dense with mixed-use buildings and affordable housing, but also with a health clinic, back-up generators and other resources that could come in handy during a disaster.
“Think of these as not just transit but resilience stations,” said Chao.
In the long run, South Florida’s scarcity of higher ground could also make its elevated areas more valuable as waters rise. That could exacerbate gentrification in minority neighborhoods with relatively high elevations like Liberty City and Little Havana.
“It’s a matter of time until investors will head for the higher land,” said James Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade County. But climate change isn’t forcing people out of their homes just yet. Asked if climate change is a driving force for gentrification in Miami, Murley is skeptical, but others are starting to look toward the future.
“Right now we’re experiencing more of the classic gentrification that comes with a growing real estate economy,” Murley said.
While the mainland mulls long-term plans to adapt to rising seas, the coastal barrier island of Miami Beach is busy building.
Planning for High Water
Over the next five years, the municipality of Miami Beach will spend $400 to $500 million on flood defenses, installing 80 new pumps, raising roads, and strengthening seawalls across the city. So far the city has funded about $200 million of that project by more than doubling stormwater fees.
A law passed last year requires the owners of buildings larger than 7,000 square feet to pay a fee if they don’t get certified as at least LEED Gold. The builders of properties that don’t get LEED certified at all get slapped with a fee equal to 5 percent of their construction costs. That could help raise money for future infrastructure investments.
Miami Beach also requires new buildings to be at least one foot above the base flood elevation of six feet above sea level. As an additional incentive for developers, the city won’t count the raised elevation of a flood-proofed site toward the project’s height limit or floor-to-area ratio.
Miami Beach environment and sustainability director Elizabeth Wheaton said the new requirements wouldn’t stunt development.
“Developers want to build here,” Wheaton said. “They’re going to do what’s required.”
The first building completed under the new elevation requirements is Jean Nouvel’s Monad Terrace, a 59-unit luxury residential tower on the waterfront in South Beach. Nouvel built Monad Terrace’s ground floor more than 11 feet above sea level, elevating all of the building’s interior spaces and its entrance high enough to ward off flooding.
Building high is an increasingly popular choice for private residences, too. The local architect Rene Gonzalez, known for his high-end modernist houses, is building four new homes in the area that are modeled on mangroves—propped up with stilts and columns for an additional layer of privacy that also affords the owner some long-term insurance against flooding. Gonzalez designed his own home on Belle Isle the same way.
“It’s a responsibility that every architect should take on,” said Gonzalez. “Building a house up is not a luxury. It’s a necessity in our current environmental climate.”
For now, however, most of that work is clustered in tony Miami Beach. In Miami-Dade County at large, where nearly half of all residents live in poverty, there are fewer options.
Because saltwater rises up through South Florida’s porous limestone bedrock, it’s not just coastal communities that are at risk. Many of the most threatened areas lie miles inland, in suburban and often low-income areas of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties that can’t afford to elevate all their homes and streets.
“It’s unavoidable that there will be relocations,” said Anthony Abbate, an architect based in Fort Lauderdale in Broward County, just to the north of Miami-Dade. “It’s a difficult conversation but I think we’re on the verge of having it. This has to be a conversation with the people, with the public.”
Miami-Dade is in the middle of a vulnerability analysis for major infrastructure, from its airport to its water system, identifying “adaptation action areas” where city planners might best focus their efforts.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and it needs to be done in short order,” said Abbate.
Some of that work is already underway. The newest addition to the county’s hospital system will pioneer a flood-friendly approach in the recently incorporated town of Doral, just west of Miami International Airport. Designed by Perkins + Will, Jackson West hospital will devote most of its 27 acres to green space and a retention pond to store runoff not just from the built-up part of the site that will house the hospital, but from the developments surrounding the site. Construction is set to begin later this year and the hospital could open in 2020.
Risk and Reward
Perhaps before it faces up to the force of nature, however, South Florida may have to reckon with its runaway real estate market. Wayne Pathman, a land-use attorney and chair of Miami’s Sea Level Rise Committee, said the face of Miami’s climate crisis might not be a natural disaster, but a collapse of the insurance market.
“Flood insurance is going to be the tip of the spear,” Pathman said. “Unlike hurricanes, which are a single event that may not happen for years at a time, sea-level rise is a constant. Once it’s here, it’s here, and it’s never going to get better.”
Pathman said some of his clients with property in Miami Beach and North Beach are already seeing a 500 percent increase in their flood insurance premiums. For now, that’s manageable, he said, because they were probably underpriced in the first place.
“When that jumps as high as $50,000 over the next 10 years, which it will, that’s alarming,” he said.
Areas that today flood two or three times each year could see water in the streets every week, and banks may stop offering mortgages there. That could have ripple effects across the region, Pathman said, jeopardizing tourism dollars and property-tax revenue that Miami-Dade and Broward counties will need to fund new climate-resilient infrastructure.
“Those are our only two industries here in South Florida,” Pathman said. “If we don’t start dealing with the insurance risk, all the ideas we come up with for future infrastructure will be cost-prohibitive because we won’t have any money.”
Reinaldo Borges, an architect who sits on the sea-level rise committee with Pathman, said the luxury houses and museums already built to deal with higher seas show climate-resilient design can provide a return on investment.
“If you design correctly,” he said, “you shouldn’t be worried about insurance risk.”
Borges has a checklist for clients who are looking to invest in the future of Miami real estate—not just flip property for a profit. It includes elevating building mechanical systems, installing hurricane-proof windows, and planning for severe floods.
“For a building like that, all you have to do before a storm is bring your pool chairs inside,” he said.
Climate-proofing one building may be a straightforward design problem. Saving a metro region of 7 million is something else.
Borges came to Miami when he was six years old, brought from Cuba by parents who sought a better life for their children. Today he has two daughters, ages 23 and 29, and he has the same hope for them.
“When you’ve got political leadership in denial, these are challenges I’m concerned about,” said Borges. “This is a world-class city, but people are starting to ask if this is the place they really want to invest.”
Like the ESCR, the LMCR visioning process will begin with extensive community engagement to figure out what, exactly, neighbors want to see on the rivers' edge. The firms plan to take lessons from the ESCR, now in its final stages of design, to this one. Besides the resiliency measures that provided the impetus for the construction, Bergmann said the East Side ESCR constituents expressed a strong desire for more green space, open space, and recreation areas.
Initial renderings for the ESCR depict sinuous parks, lighting to illuminate dark and foreboding highway underpasses, and novel play spaces that bring citizens close to the waterway. BIG and ONE Architecture are working in concert to design the 2.5-mile strip, which costs an estimated $505 million, in collaboration with local, state, and federal agencies. Construction is expected to begin in 2018.
For that project and for the LMCR, Bergmann says there's no one design solution that fits all of the waterfront, especially the working waterfront. What Bergman called the LMCR “pinch points”—the tighter areas beneath the raised FDR Drive, or the Staten Island Ferry Terminal—present distinctive design challenges, though he said it’s too early to speak to specific solutions. Public meetings began this summer, and with the next set of meetings planned for February, "we hope the community can see there is traction and movement forward from a devastating event like Hurricane Sandy."The city says that by 2018 the LMCR team is to deliver an actionable concept design for the project area, with design and implementation to follow.
The plan, as its realized in stages, differs from the original BIG U, the sexy proposal that wowed both architects and the bureaucrats at HUD. When it first debuted, the floodproofing infrastructure extended all the way up to West 57th Street. “My hope," Bergmann said, "is that the vision will reach its full intention because that completely protects the entire lower Manhattan area."
The only component that's fully funded is the ESCR, so in order to realize both components—and possibly the whole BIG U vision—government at every level would need to open their budgets. Although Trump's infrastructure plan seems like it will focus on prisons, pipelines, and border walls, maybe the president-elect will put aside his climate change denial for a moment to help out his hometown?
Partisan political discourse still pretends as if there’s a climate change “debate,” yet the government is already acting extensively to prevent crises from rising global temperatures. Across the country, local and federal agencies are working with architects and planners to protect communities and redevelop neighborhoods in the aftermath of climate-related natural disasters. But what happens to residents who are too poor to get out of the way of storms—and too poor to return—and why is anyone rushing to live in disaster zones?
Catastrophic natural disasters share a common feature with accelerated processes of economic development: at vastly different rates, both can result in large-scale displacement. An article by Brentin Mock on environmental news site Grist uses a pithy phrase for the disparate impact climate change can have on lower-income residents: it’s the “ultimate gentrifier,” he wrote, citing the exodus of more than 300,000 low-income residents from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The description may be provocative, but studies by environmental scientists at the EPA’s Climate Change Division partly support the notion. Within the 6,000-square-mile area at high risk of flooding by 2100 due to a mid-range two-foot sea-level rise, almost 750,000 residents belong to the most socially vulnerable groups. These are most likely to be disproportionately impacted by storms and least likely to have the resources to move.
But are rich people really are moving into areas where low-income residents are being displaced by storms? Sadly, in some cases, yes. A New York Times story on high-rise condo construction in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, reports that, far from retreating from flooded areas, a building boom is driving up prices.
Currently, local and federal agencies only spottily provide the necessary infrastructure and policy frameworks to protect against climate-related catastrophes ranging from forest fires in Southern California, earthquakes along the Pacific Coast, tornados and flash flooding in the Midwest, and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Adequate planning, federal aid, and environmental regulations can and should prevent disparate impacts of climate-change related severe weather events on low-income residents. In practice, prioritizing where to improve infrastructure falls to local governments that have worse financial constraints and often carry an implicit economic bias toward the most financially important areas.
In Alaska, higher temperatures are increasing erosion and thawing the permafrost, causing homes to sink in the mud. More than a dozen Inuit towns have already voted to move, including Newtok, which has acquired a relocation site through an act of Congress, and the 650-person Bering Sea village of Shishmaref, which commissioned AECOM’s Anchorage office to study the feasibility of relocation sites. Yet the cost of these moves, estimated at $214 million for Shishmaref alone, is far beyond the means of the inhabitants; a UN report on climate change and displacement notes the lack of state and federal governance structures to support these moves.
Some low-lying neighborhoods in New Orleans are undergoing a similar policy of unofficial abandonment, swallowed up by nature through neglect. These places are not gentrifying—they’re simply disappearing.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), reorganized in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security and reformed since 2009 by Obama administration appointee Craig Fulgate, now talks about what it calls a “whole community” approach, emphasizing participation and engagement of a wide range of stakeholders. It needs to do more.
“FEMA has changed its rhetoric,” said Deborah Gans, who has conducted planning studies for low-lying neighborhoods in New Orleans and Red Hook, Brooklyn, most of which flooded in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. “They don’t really know how to do it yet, but at least they’re talking the talk.”
In 2008, Homeland Security established the Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant program to encourage collaborative emergency planning in America’s ten largest urban regions. In New York’s combined statistical area, which includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, the Regional Catastrophic Planning Team coordinated a series of Participatory Urban Planning workshops that included city and state agencies, nonprofits, community groups, private sector representatives, and even local Occupy affiliates to streamline emergency preparedness, housing recovery plans, and recovery processes in five types of communities.
In the New York area, Hurricane Sandy has increased the sense of urgency. “In New York, about a third of our housing is within our six evacuation zones,” said Cynthia Barton, who participated in the workshops as manager of the Housing Recovery Program for the New York City Office of Emergency Management.
Barton leads the FEMA-supported initiative to prototype interim housing units, designed by James Garrison, which would substitute for the improvised mesh of hotels that sheltered displaced low-income residents in the aftermath of Sandy. The interim housing units, IKEA-like prefab condo boxes that stack up to three stories high in various configurations, facilitate an urban density allowing vulnerable residents to remain within their neighborhoods in the aftermath of severe storms.
“The basis for the project has always been that none of the federal temporary housing options would work in cities and that it’s very important to keep people close to home after a disaster,” Barton said. “In terms of economic stability for people and for neighborhoods, it’s important to keep people close to their jobs. It’s important for mental health reasons to keep people close to schools and close to their support networks.”
But on the federal level, long-term infrastructure improvements are not adequately funded. In New Orleans, landscape architect Susannah Drake of DLANDstudio is working on a gray and green streetscape program for 20 blocks of the St. Roch neighborhood. “The issue is that the base condition was low in terms of the infrastructure that existed,” Drake said. “We’re adding basic amenities for what would be a normal streetscape in New York, but we’re also dealing with the challenge of having very little infiltration and having a lot of water to manage…They’re not things the federal government is necessarily willing to pay for.”
Without federal insurance and public investment in infrastructure, wealthy homeowners don’t tend to move into flood zones. But storm protection, unevenly funded by federal grants, frequently has to be supported by local real-estate development tax revenues that provide lopsided advantages to upper-income residents.
“There’s a historical inequity environmentally in a lot of these neighborhoods in need, and it’s exacerbated by climate change,” said Gans, who led a Pratt Institute planning study on how to locate emergency housing in low-lying Red Hook, Brooklyn. “New York City Housing Authority projects were generally located on land that wasn’t that valuable, and guess what? It tended to be low-lying and out of the way.”
The problem centers on whether to save the threatened neighborhoods or rezone them to exclude residential use. Shoring up a city’s flood defenses can become an opportunity to improve a neighborhood’s environmental equity, but using the prevailing market-based model, focusing stormwater infrastructure in a waterfront community will only push more housing into vulnerable areas.
“As long as we keep allowing people to build market-rate waterfront property, there will be gentrification,” Gans said. “Any development that takes place on the water will be so expensive that it will necessarily gentrify the waterfront. There’s just no doubt about it.”
In Red Hook and Sunset Park, AECOM recently released a plan to place 30-50,000 units of new housing on the waterfront—25 percent of it affordable—as well as subsidize a new subway stop, and implement green and gray infrastructure for coastal protection and flood management. Arguing for the plan as a boost to Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC ambition to build 200,000 affordable units by 2020, the proposal also runs counter to the idea of limiting exposure to areas of growing risk.
“Why would you build more housing in an area that’s underserved by transportation and that’s in a really dangerous zone, a flood area,” asked Drake, who designed the Sponge Park concept as a green infrastructure element for the Gowanus Canal. “I’m not an economist, but I’m very pragmatic and down on building in flood plains.”
Officially, there is no means testing of emergency planning or recovery aid. Eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program and high insurance rates affect individual decision-makers. Not so for public housing, where residents’ lack of access to resources makes issues of planning that much more grave. Because of its 6,500 public housing residents, two-thirds of the Red Hook is below the poverty line. Economically, the light-manufacturing industries scattered among its low-rises generate relatively little revenue for the city to justify hundreds of millions in flood protection.
The conflict between access to revenues and local needs seems to underlie the rapidly advancing East Side and Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency projects, sections of Bjarke Ingels Group’s winning Rebuild by Design competition proposal for the protection of Lower Manhattan up to 59th Street. The projects essentially erect a wall adorned with parks as a bulwark against the sea. They implicitly prioritize the centrally important economic drivers of New York City.
“Ultimately there’s a cost-benefit analysis,” said Drake. “I’m not saying that lives are less valuable in other parts of the city, but when you do an economic cost-benefit analysis between Lower Manhattan and Red Hook, and you’re looking on purely financial terms, then Lower Manhattan wins because it’s an economic driver of the city.”
If it can really be done for that amount, the estimated cost for the Lower Manhattan projects is negligible in comparison to the economic benefit. The Office of Recovery and Resiliency and the Economic Development Corporation of New York have dedicated $100 million to an integrated flood protection system (IFPS) for Red Hook. City capital is supporting a $109 million Raise Shorelines Citywide project that would mitigate sea level rise in Old Howard Beach, Gowanus Canal, East River Esplanade, Mott Basin, Canarsie, Norton Basin, and the North Shore of Coney Island Creek.
“Emergency planning should really be about future planning,” Gans said. “The way you avert an emergency is by making sure you have integrative future plans that don’t put people in harm’s way and mitigate all of the bad decisions you made historically.”
In contrast to the oblivious political climate change “debate,” local governments have already learned from recent extreme weather events that they need to act to improve their planning capacity and infrastructure. Federal agencies are also acting, putting limited resources into protecting against climate change-related disasters. Highly engineered solutions are possible, but they’re unwise as a long-term strategy in the absence of a leveling off of global temperatures and will be cost-prohibitive for low-income communities. Unless the next Congress is prepared to fund a national infrastructure program, the best way to equitably protect low-income residents will be to downzone vulnerable areas and build new public housing on higher ground. Otherwise, we’ll need to accept the fact that our celebrated revitalized waterfront is mainly for the rich.