The Future of Miami: Welcoming the Flood With Open Arms

Little Cuba won't stay dry and that's just fine.

Daniel Piraino

By far, the biggest challenge that will face Miami over the next century is the changing sea levels. A reputation for eye-grabbing curves aside, it’s a flat town currently unprepared to deal with the expected four feet rise by 2050. Much of the city (and half the population of Florida) resides below that level.

But Miami is no stranger to flooding. Already, the city is developing ways to deal with flooded roads and buildings by helping people adapt to a saline environment. Inverse spoke to architect John Stuart, a professor at Florida International University, to learn more about what the city has done so far, and how locals are preparing for the deluge.

How do you view sea level rise in Miami? What is your approach?

The way I personally think about the predictions is that they are a little bit like the weather — we can kind of predict larger movements and larger context, but how those play out in particular regions down to even particular streets or places are very difficult to define. If sea level rose 10 feet over the next 50 years, then that would imply a certain kind of urgency to provide solutions over the next 50 years. My personal feeling is that we should start moving water faster and more effectively. I feel that’s what we’ll be doing: looking at how to manage and move and live with and around more water than we’ve been living with before.

Some people are focused on “Earth 2.0,” but that’s kind of the opposite of my personal thinking on this, which is to study and understand in a more nuanced way how [water] works…. With water, we have an opportunity to understand how to move it, and how every aspect of our life will change with the changing climate. I kind of compare it to the industrial revolution, which essentially changed everything about us as humans — from when we wake up, to what we eat, to what clothes we wear, to what we laugh at and what entertains us…Climate change will impact all of those things once again.

Does Miami have urban design elements and infrastructure currently equipped to deal with drastic rises in sea level?

Well that would be like asking someone who owns a horse-and-buggy, ‘To what extent can it handle being fed petroleum?’ Probably not so much. And yet there are still horses — its not like horses have left the planet because they’re no longer a big part of human transportation. And so it goes with current things that are in place — they’re not really designed to meet future changes, but that doesn’t mean we need to tear it all down.

What are some specific strategies or projects the city is working on, or ought to be working on?

There are several different strategies that are being undertaken now. One of the most basic ones is to increase resiliency by raising the roads and create new channels along the roads which directs the water away. It’s similar to what you yourself might have seen in some parts of New York or Brooklyn, where buildings have steps leading up to the first floor, and also down to a floor that sits half-below the sidewalk. That’s kind of what’s being done here. There are cafe tables or other things placed in those areas when it’s dry. When it rains, the water goes into those channels, keeping roads from being flooded.

Another strategy is to raise buildings themselves. These strategies have to be placed together and utilized in tandem, so that you can move water along the channels, as well as keeping water out of existing buildings and structures. Right now for some buildings, I’ve seen these kind of blades come down and prevent street water from coming in the storefronts.

There are also ideas to use pumps in drain systems — something no bigger than a kitchen faucet — but you can turn it on and it will move the water out away from streets and threatened buildings. Miami has already established several kinds of pumping stations located in the urban core as well as further out to sea to create a barrier against water environments.

Those kind of flexible, mass-customizable solutions that keep water out are really easily to build and utilize, and still go a long ways to dealing with rising tides, rains, and unpredictable floods.

But we might also have to consider outright moving buildings and communities out of flood paths entirely. The moat-like strategies are a short-term way of keeping buildings and people dry. But the US has a tradition of moving buildings, especially in the 1930s and ‘40s. We haven’t had to do that recently, but we could be faced with having to.

What else? Are there new kinds of materials that people are testing or developing to help with flooding events?

Many folks are looking at more permeable surfaces. There’s a new product we’ve been introducing here in Miami — it’s called ‘Woodcrete,” a wood-concrete product that’s made of mineralized melaleuca, which is a tree planted by the Army Corps of Engineers in the ‘40s to drink up the Everglades. Which it didn’t really do, but it spread through everything and killed the native fauna and flora. So there’s a huge stockpile of this tree. We’re working with private industries to mineralize this melaleuca to use in concrete panels, which we’ve started using in public parks in Miami. They work like a porous material for sidewalks and other surfaces and reduce the puddling effect of sea level rise and any water events. Permeable surfaces will basically help drain the water out faster and keep puddles from growing and accumulating into bigger flood conditions.

Are there tools or strategies that don’t just physically modify how the city will adapt to these conditions?

I’m actually working on an app with a venture capital firm right now. It’s kind of like Waze meets Weather Underground. It combines the interactivity of Waze with the reflectivity maps of Weather Underground and allows for individuals to report on where big puddles are forming in realtime. It’s a way of thinking about the nuance of the city-fabric — instead of traffic accidents, it has these various water events that are fresh or salty, and can help determine whether or not you drive through them.

So things like that can give the urban fabric a bit of nuance, as this issue moves forward.

What lessons from other cities could Miami developers apply?

It’s an interesting question, since other cities have dealt with water in a lot of ways. Venice, for example, raised everything over the water, but you have to remember that at the height of its power, travel by water was the big way the world operated. In Amsterdam and Netherlands, they’ve shown how to manage and move water around. But they’re situation is different because of the geology — the foundation of Florida is almost entirely made of fossilized creatures over tens of millions of years, so water can go anywhere. A dyke won’t work because the water would filter through the bedrock of the state and find ways to come to the surface.

As I’ve said, our problem needs to be addressed in ways that move and shift water and think about interacting with changing conditions. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from other cities, but no one has solved this problem yet. Walls and dikes are a more medieval solution, where the city was inside the walls and everything outside was outside the city. But Miami is a contemporary city, and a wall won’t solve things. All of the many systems of an urban network need to come together.

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