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Stephen Bourne, P.E.
01 Apr 2016
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The City of Miami Beach is “ground zero” for sea level rise in the United States. On particularly high tides, you can watch as seawater bubbles up from yards and forms puddles in the streets. Recently, this has been called "nuisance flooding," but as it wreaks havoc up and down the South Florida coast, locals are thinking "nuisance" is too soft of a term.
This chart details the IPCC projected sea level rise over the next 100 years. Source: Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC)—the organization taking the lead on forecasting climate change impacts—anticipates a 1-meter increase in sea level around the globe over the next 100 years. According to a recent study by Florida Atlantic University, up to 70 percent of flood and salinity control structures protecting the South Florida coast could be lost with sea level rise of only 3 to 9 inches.
Sea level rise is a daily reminder of the challenges that Miami Beach is facing. Less frequent, but just as challenging, are tropical storms. As we experience increasing temperatures associated with climate change, we can expect a host of cascading effects like bigger and more frequent storms.
Oddly, at the same time we’re seeing a continued increase in home prices in the area. In fact, Miami Beach has one of the most robust economies in the U.S., with remarkable growth in tourism, real estate, technology, and entertainment. Overnight visitors to Miami hit a record 15.1 million people between September 2014 and August 2015, up 5.4 percent from the same period for the previous year. Moreover, Miami Beach enjoys a deeply passionate local population focused on preserving its rich history and cultural resources.
This charts illustrates the steady growth in home sales in Miami, painting a rosy picture of a city exploding with growth. Source: S&P/Case-Shiller Miami Home Price Index
The juxtaposition of challenge and strength reveals an opportunity. Climate change and its effects are a problem by any measure. Like any city, Miami Beach leaders can use their strengths to tackle the problem. But where should they begin? A four-pronged approach is needed:
1: Join together. The solution must come from a coalition of concerned citizens, government officials, researchers, and industry professionals; each with some stake in the future of the city. A coalition that represents the whole of the city best ensures that any solutions that are developed are considered valid and relevant. Key performance indicators (KPIs) should be known and goals set to improve them. Ideas for solutions should be shared and debated. Stakeholders should workshop regularly, and understand that the solution to the climate change problem is vigilance; a continuous drive to build resilience in every corner of the city.
2: Get real. Vulnerabilities are important to identify, but equally so are strengths. After all, it is only through a city’s strength that it can start addressing the problem of reducing vulnerability. To approach building city self-awareness, city leaders must take a step back and look at the larger view, assessing their biggest challenges and their capacity to respond. A complete city report card should look at:
3: First plan the city, then build the neighborhood. Too often, city development happens one project at a time. Sure, a new park in a neighborhood might have some advantage, but what if it’s part of a system of parks that collectively form city-wide green infrastructure and reduce flooding across the landscape? A green infrastructure system is certainly more effective than a single park at achieving a multitude of city-level goals, and is certainly easier to fund. Planning at the city level before proposing individual projects is key to pulling the maximum value from solutions.
4: Run the numbers. Perhaps most important is an objective assessment of all proposed solutions. Green infrastructure might sound great but it’s really not going to help when seawater is bubbling up through it. This is an obvious case that’s easy to avoid, but complex counter measures to climate change must interact with the city as it grows and urbanizes. Stress testing your mix of climate change solutions at the scale of the whole city is essential. Moreover, stress testing solutions that take into account the realistic combined effects of urbanization, economic growth, and climate change is the only way to really know how effective they will be, and how much return on investment they will provide.
At Atkins, we’ve begun helping city leaders assess this issue by developing report cards on their challenges and opportunities. Our Future Proofing Cities approach has helped them respond to the growing threat of climate change and sea-level rise so that they can better plan for resiliency. Review our stress testing and Future Proofing Cities guide here.
There are solutions for all cities facing climate change. These solutions will come from leaders who are committed to careful planning, working collaboratively, capitalizing on city strengths, and investing in proven solutions.
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