August 10, 2016

Resilient Miami: Hope, mangroves and stilts

Written by:

Photo: Miami-Dade high school students working on a task:  What are the challenges and strengths of the area where your school is located, and what can you do to make it a resilient community for you, your younger siblings and your grandparents?

After hearing so many times that Miami is ground zero for potential impacts from sea level rise, I finally decided it was time to stop ignoring the images of water bubbling up from the drains after big storms, and start looking for the highest (not man-made) point in the region. Once located, my next step was to find a way to move there.

Sadly, there is none. The greater Miami area is absolutely flat–with some areas even below sea level. With no good options, what should I do?

While pondering possibilities a great prospect came along. The United Nations assembly is meeting this October in Ecuador for Habitat III to discuss the New Urban Agenda, and to offer guidance points for cities to adapt and become resilient for the next 20 years.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro is leading the effort to prepare for Quito by looking for insight from different areas of the country. Miami became one of five selected sites where HUD convened local experts and on June 13th a set of panelists tackled different aspects on how to build a Resilient South Florida.

The first discussion about how to respond to the needs of an area where sea level rise is a reality made it quite clear that the idea of constructing walls and levees was out of the equation. South Florida’s foundation is porous limestone. To make matters worse, aquifers are enduring salt water intrusion. Our drinking water also needs help.

Fortunately, most solutions to fight climate change, it turns out, are in South Florida’s own backyard.  Restoring the aquifers of the Everglades – the only subtropical wilderness in North America- will actually help the freshwater flow.

When planning for the Habitat III convening we decided to invite high school students. The convening took place at the University of Miami School of Architecture, whose dean, Rodolphe el-Khoury, suggested that prior to the convening, we conduct a student charrette to provide students the opportunity to catch up with the concepts and garner their interest. A charrette is a term adopted by urban planners to describe a collaborative session where a problem is presented and several solutions are proposed.

In order to prepare their minds, Dean el-Khoury enlisted an inspiring and seasoned professor from his faculty: Sonia Chao, research associate professor and Director of the Center for Urban and Community Design. A veteran of charrettes and recovering communities, from Miami after Hurricane Andrew to Haiti after the earthquake and dozens of projects and research in between, Chao inspires people to want to join her in doing something good, beyond recycling and composting.

Her passion for the issues and the clarity of her explanation were a total hit with the almost 80 students from five high schools along with their supportive teachers, and her graduate understudies willing to mentor them while working on a task:  Look at the neighborhood where your school is located. What are the challenges and strengths of the area, and what can you do to make it a resilient community for you, your younger siblings and your grandparents?

Their message was clear, stop wasting water and learn how to use it better. They suggested ways to mitigate, adapt and even were open to the possibility of having to retreat from certain areas.

The students showed they are ready for Miami’s future. They want to keep working on it. No preconceptions, no cynicism. All they need are the tools and an assignment. They will find a way to make it work for all of us. Hopefully the spark lit around the Habitat III convening will have a life of its own. The hardest part may be to get the local leaders and all decision makers to follow their lead.

In the meantime, my search for a home continues. But, there is hope of finding one — even if it is built on stilts.

Gloria Shanahan is a Public Affairs Officer in the Southeast, covering Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Puerto Rico.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *