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Climate Resiliency: Turning a Threat into an Asset in Suburban Miami-Dade County

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The need for climate resilience in communities affected by sea level rise is clear for many of us. What is less clear are the responses this threat entails. To some, resiliency can even mean completely abandoning coastal areas or building disruptive, expensive fortifications. But as participants at the recent Resilient Redesign workshop in Miami demonstrated, resilient communities can adhere to many of the principles that we associate with livable communities: neighborhood character, walkable density, and open public spaces.

Under the guidance of a team of Dutch experts in water management, 50+ architects, planners, and Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact members holed up in the Miami chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Their task was to design responses to climate change for three typical Southeast Florida communities: the densely built-up barrier island of Miami Beach, a mixed-urban community in Broward County, and an unincorporated suburban neighborhood in inland Miami-Dade County.

And what did the ideas created by the participants look like? In many instances, they relied heavily on a lot of the design ideas that new urbanists have always supported, and which were outlined in the Compact’s Regional Climate Action Plan: more density, more transit access, and more green space.

The inland Miami-Dade County site provides an illustrative example of such a response. The area is threatened by sea level rise, despite being miles from the ocean. As the sea rises, so does the inland water table, which is already high in former wetlands such as this. If the water table rises too high, then rainwater would be unable to infiltrate into the ground and flooding would occur. An effective way to address this type of flooding threat is to increase surface water storage capacity, so that floodwaters collect harmlessly in designated areas rather than in peoples’ homes and on roads.

Participants addressed this challenge by increasing density and thereby increasing open space that could be used for water storage. Homeowners in detached single-family homes could be given the option to trade in their property in return for an equal or greater share in a new denser development. Canals would be allowed to extend into some neighborhoods, other areas would have entire blocks devoted to surface water storage. Some low-lying areas, like the southeast portion of the map above, would be converted to attractive wetland parks.

The increased density also makes transit more practicable. Participants envisioned the rail line running along the north of the neighborhood as a transit corridor, surrounded by denser mixed-use development. The area’s golf course, currently unused could also serve as water storage during wet weather and open green space during dry weather. In short, residents would be trading floodwaters in their front yard for flood-safe homes with waterfront access.

And what could such a neighborhood look like? The Dutch experts on hand during the workshop provided examples from their own backyard (see photo, above).

With the careful work of global and national experts, the Regional Climate Action Plan came one step closer to implementation, and what was a threat – a surplus of water – became an asset. As the participants of this workshop sought to demonstrate, resiliency should not be thought of simply as a response to a threat, but as an opportunity to make our cities and neighborhoods more livable.

This post is by U.S. Program Assistant Henry McKay

Canal Houses Attribution: Borneo by Kapungo CC BY-NC 2.0