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A Future Vision of Miami Committed to Natural Infrastructure

Updated: Jan 31

Smart Cities Americas has just launched the 3rd edition of Smart City Miami Magazine, which records the activities of Smart City Expo Miami 2023, with the theme, “Building Sustainable Communities.” The speakers and panelists highlighted the importance of collaboration between city governments, businesses, and citizens in tackling pressing urban challenges. A Future Vision of Miami Committed to Natural Infrastructure is Aaron DeMayo's contribution to the magazine, which is included below.

  Miami is renowned for its picturesque scenery, from the coral reefs and sandy beaches to the waterfront-shaded parks, mangroves, pine rocklands, and wetlands. As human activity continues to impact the local ecology, exacerbated by climate change, attention turns towards the consequences affecting the environment and quality of life.

Challenges in Current Infrastructure

As the existing grey infrastructure becomes overwhelmed by the significant rain events, it negatively impacts the environment. Extreme rain events lead to extensive flooding, damaging property and washing sediment and nutrients in Biscayne Bay. Hotter days cause people to use their air conditioners more frequently, creating a negative feedback loop of increased energy usage. The higher temperatures can also strain the Bay, leading to fish die-offs.

Can infrastructure create healthier neighborhoods and ecosystems?

Future Vision Studios designs solutions across scales, reintegrating the natural ecosystems developed over millennia. The solutions must be integrated into the public spaces we all share, but also the private sector. New requirements are needed but can be challenging to create as there is often opposition to additional project costs. Utilizing zoning incentives in exchange for resilience adaptations within development can lead to more frequent implementation.

Green Roofs Many Benefits

The current zoning in the City of Miami allows for access, indoor enclosed rooms, and shade structures on the roofs of many buildings. As the city densifies on high ground, open space is often decreasing. There is demand for open space and vegetation on the tops of buildings. Developers desire to create the requested spaces but are limited by the zoning allowances. We can make a win-win scenario by allowing additional enclosed areas on a roof in exchange for creating Green Roofs. Residents will have better indoor and outdoor amenity spaces, and new businesses can open on some roofs, creating jobs and more enjoyable destinations for the community. Green roofs can help lengthen the life of a roof, reduce the heat island effect, increase habitat for birds and insects, and hold rainwater like a sponge to slowly release it, reducing flooding effects.

Holistic Approaches to Neighborhood Resilience

There are many low-lying areas of Miami, and different strategies and timelines are needed to allow them to adapt. Some places will be too costly to preserve and will be retreated from. In the meantime, how can small-scale adaptations efficiently increase the length of life?

Coconut Grove has some of the highest and lowest topography in the County, a mere few hundred feet apart. That low waterfront ground has previously been inundated by storm surge. Creating a holistic approach to raising the seawall around this low-lying area may increase the lifespan of many of the residences and be more economical than adding flood panels to each structure. But rather than only raising the seawalls, which have been shown not to diffuse but redistribute wave energy, we chose a more natural approach for a small piece of public land. This 50’ wide property acted as a conduit for storm surge waters during an event a few years ago. We are building an earthen berm 4’ tall at its peak above the existing ground level. It will have a gradual slope on each side, with an ADA-accessible pathway. The slope will be planted with dense native foliage and should assist with lessening storm surges and creating new native habitats.

Regional Scale: Adapting to Sea Level Rise & Preparing for Storm Surge

Storm Surge is compounded as sea levels rise. There is a massive amount of property at risk in South Florida. Many areas will need to be adapted, protected, and retreated from. Often, smaller-scale adaptations that will help in the short term are being developed but will most likely not suffice with a more significant rise in sea levels. These band-aid approaches are capital intensive, from the money, the materials, and the human attention. We propose a holistic approach to addressing the rising sea level and storm surge in South Florida. Five locations have an outsized impact on the flow of water. The mouth of the Miami River affects the entire Miami River Basin. Four locations regulate flow from the Ocean into and out of Biscayne Bay. On either side of the I-395 causeway, at the Haulover Inlet, and in Broward County at the Stranahan River. By creating Tidal Locks at these locations that can be closed and reinforcing a hybrid levee berm that connects to the Miami Beach Barrier Island, we can safeguard hundreds of miles of waterfront properties within the Bay with limited intervention. We can reintroduce the native mangrove and wetland ecosystems along an earthen berm to fortify the coastline. This will also strengthen the local ecosystems by creating miles of natural coastline that was once in these locations. The locks can be closed during significant storm events.

Sustainable Future

This large-scale adaptation will allow the dozens of waterfront communities to focus on long-term comprehensive planning. This would include adaptation, as well as retreat. This should also lessen the risks and, thus, the insurance costs. This would likely protect property for longer than the life of a 30-year mortgage. In this way, communities can proactively address which areas need to be retreated and which roadways should be raised. Land use and zoning policies can be introduced,to require new developments to be constructed to a certain height to align with the height of planned roadways and incentivize the migration of residents to denser mixed-use communities on higher ground.

Realistic Bold Leadership

In the face of these challenges, policymakers, business, and community leaders must put the right analytics, processes, and governance in place to properly assess climate risk and realistically plan how to adapt with comprehensive long-term solutions. South Florida cannot afford to wait to act. The cities that act the most expeditiously and judiciously will have the best chance for success. We can implement a holistic, comprehensive strategy that considers the intertwined social, economic, and environmental impacts to safeguard our community and act as leaders at the forefront of a changing planet.


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