At the end of the three days, the team presented its preliminary findings and recommendations. A full report is due this summer.
The team tackled some of the most difficult – and sometimes controversial – issues including street elevation, building elevation and building codes, historic preservation, community trust and transparency, and how to fund resilience projects. In general, the panel gave high marks to the City for its “courageous” initiatives to date and made clear that time is not on our side. One of their top recommendations was “maintained urgency” in moving forward. Getting there, they said, will require each of us individually to ask ourselves what we are willing to do and, ultimately, to move forward in one direction together.
By now you’ve read the sexier headline that the panel deemed our future “uncertain”, which they did, but there was much more to it than that. Following is a summary of the presentation on the panel's preliminary findings in the words of the panelists.
Joyce Coffee, President of Climate Resiliency Consulting, opened the program by saying, “There has been an enormous amount of progress here… we are very impressed with the fact that you have applied good practice for your pump rollout both in terms of the engineering but also in terms of how you prioritized for areas of highest risk and vulnerability. We are also impressed that you have initiated street elevations.”
“The fact that you’ve been able to raise funds through fees, your stormwater fee and other things, to pay for these extremely expensive but necessary protections is very impressive and unusual,” she continued.
Coffee also noted the City’s collaborative efforts between City departments and with state and regional partnerships along with its participation in the 100 Resilient Cities project, as “incredibly important and also very different from other places”.
As anticipated, the panel made recommendations for improvements.
“You have all of the constituent pieces,” Coffee said, “but it’s not necessarily clear how they interact with one another and so integrating your stormwater management pieces with your larger resilience strategy will make many things fall into better place, including enhancing public trust and also trusting the public. Those are two sides of the same coin as many of us might appreciate.”
Increasing transparency, “not only what you’re doing and the impacts that it’s having but also what your plans are for the future and what we anticipate future risks to be,” is also important, she said.
Other key recommendations including improving aesthetics of projects, ensuring the financial viability of the program, and embracing the situation.
Christian Nielsen, Director, Climate Adaptation and Landscape, Ramboll Water, complimented the City on its “quite well-prepared plan, well executed and implemented plan”. The panel now recommends increasing the “flexibility and robustness” of its resiliency program by connecting it to “a citywide green infrastructure plan” that will not only absorb pollutants but “add a little extra to the urban context,” he said.
After having “done a good job of the model of the stormwater system”, Nielsen said the panel recommends the City “take this to the next step… build a truly integrated model of the digital elevation, the terrain basically, and the pipe network and the groundwaters.” Such a model would allow the City “to make informed decisions on what would be the right level of protection for this city… finding the optimum protection levels for this island in the future.”
On the topic of learning to live with water, Nielsen said, “We recommend that you implement some real high-class pilot projects to show what can this actually be, what can it mean to live with water?
Mark Osler, Vice President, Michael Baker International, took the “living with water” concept to the very local level. The City, he said, should “consider the concept of level of service”. Understanding there will be some disruptions due to flooding, the City should consider frequency, depth, and duration of flooding, and ask what level of inconvenience is acceptable in each area?
Walter Meyer, Founding Principal, Local Office Landscape Architecture, said, "Miami Beach in its deepest history has been a place of innovation." He noted some of the world’s first aerial photographs were taken over Miami Beach in 1924. Two years later, the Great Hurricane of ’26 ushered in the first building codes in the United States in South Florida which were adopted by 5,000 cities. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 resulted in “some of the strictest building codes in the world today”, also initiated in South Florida.
Noting the uniqueness of Miami Beach’s ecosystem – “water comes from everywhere” – the beach, Bay, and up from porous limestone, he summarized the City’s topography which slopes from the beach to the Bay with a “bowl” in the center.
Recommendations for mitigating the impact of flooding include parks and open spaces to act like sponges to absorb water, using architectural solutions for storing water, and blue streets “that convey water to the Bay without using pipes”.
Currently, he said, open spaces in Miami Beach only constitute 17% of the island: 5% beaches, 5% active open space, and 7% golf courses.
“Usually a quarter or a third of a global city, like New York or Portland or London, are open space,” he said. Our golf courses, he said, are an opportunity to store water. He highlighted Emerald Isle, North Carolina (above) as a good example of a groundwater storage and treatment system.
One of the challenges Miami Beach has faced in its stormwater program was the initial lack of generators to keep pumps working when the power goes out in a storm. Meyer advocated for solar power.
“There’s a lot of misinformation that solar and hurricanes don’t mix but they do well if you design for it … Your pumps depend on having power to run and that vulnerability will be concentrated when the grid becomes unstabilized in storms,” Meyer said.
A facility in Puerto Rico with solar panels ten stories up survived Hurricane Maria, only losing 2% of its panels after experiencing over 200 mph wind gusts, he said.
“Energy from the sun… this is now the cheapest way to go,” according to Meyer. “Five years ago, this was an expensive conversation; now it’s the only way forward from a cost perspective.”
The blue street concept is being implemented in Long Beach, New York with porous paving in travel lanes “that allows flooding to go up and down through the road bed without causing structural damage. The roadbed functions as a secondary layer of moving water from beach to bay.” Also, in Long Beach, they are rebuilding their seawall and “supplementing it with open spaces that are coordinated with roads and future finished floor elevations of buildings to make sure there’s positive drainage from existing bowls inland through the roads and into a living shoreline.”
In Louisiana, he said, New Orleans is “buying property incrementally on a big idea” … The City of New Orleans is getting out of the business of managing pumps and getting into the business of buying properties” in vulnerable areas. “Capitalism and water can co-exist.”
In this way, Meyer said, the City “creates an annuity, a profit stream with that capital investment” rather than just paying operational and maintenance costs.
On adding tree canopy, a favored topic here, Meyer said, “A mature tree can transfer 100 gallons of water a day or more into the atmosphere; the hotter it gets, the more they pump water into the air.”
Juanita Hardy, Senior Visiting Fellow, ULI Center for Creative Placemaking, “The City [of Miami Beach] is the quintessential example of placemaking... it’s beaches, it’s beautiful breathtaking views, it’s historic communities. It is branded as an arts city.”
Her question, “How can what you’re already doing well intersect and interface with your resiliency program?”
There are many examples of cities using art and culture to advance resiliency programs. Confluence Park in San Antonio, Texas is one example.
Built to be an educational park, it was part of a $400 million river restoration project. The pavilion in the park was designed by an artist working with an engineer and architect, Hardy said. “It is a cover during weather but also a cap to capture water that gets channeled to a reservoir below the city that gets recycled.” The park and pavilion have become an attraction. “The $77 million investment [in the river infrastructure improvement project] in 2009 is now yielding about a $140 million benefit annually,” she said.
Vine Street in Seattle is a street park that spans eight blocks. She showed the above image of a cistern that is “a sculptural piece but also serves a functional role as well”.
And, Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston, “recaptured a lot of land around the bayou and turned it into a natural park with art features,” she said. The “resilient park” is located in an area where significant flooding occurs but recovers from it. Following Hurricane Harvey, she said, “there were challenges [but] it recovered from it.”
The art features that have been added to these resilient parks, she said, “have brought a lot of benefit to the city”.
Jeff Hebert, Vice President for Adaptation and Resilience, The Water Institute of the Gulf, talked about the role of governance.
“With such an ambitious vision, we started thinking about how the City of Miami Beach could get this done. And that involves governance for water management and climate adaptation,” he said. “A key driver of the ability of any community to effectively deliver, monitor, operate, and maintain solutions and interventions of this type is in the governance of the system.”
The panel recommended establishing a Miami Beach Rising Above Delivery Office “for greater transparency and to monitor and communicate the effectiveness of such a large dynamic program”.
Specifically, he said the Office would:
- Develop tools that provide greater transparency on project selection, funding and expenditures, a recommendation that “comes from what we heard directly from the community”.
- Monitor and communicate project performance, manage strategic communications, community outreach, and community co-design and facilitate … creative placemaking and artist engagement in projects.
Also, Hebert said, the panel recommended the City:
“Establish a scientific advisory panel to review and advise on what we know is going to be changing projects over time. We’re looking at a 30-year horizon now but as we look 40-50-60-70 years out, we will need to change what it is our benchmark is so we make sure we are pivoting in the right direction. This could also benefit the sustainability of the program over time. Over time things will change but you need a delivery function in place to produce that.”
“Establish or retool an agency or a district to capture increased real estate value for public investment in green-blue infrastructure …”
“Additional sources of revenue will be needed as the city aims to meet 30 year and future year benchmarks … The establishment of some entity for public investment in development … that can capture additional value from real estate and direct it towards a suite of resilience projects and investments is needed and will set what we think is the national standard for investment in risk reduction projects.”
Helping individual property owners adapt was another concern the group heard from the community as needing to be addressed. The panel recommends “a community adaptation fund or program for grants and loans available to homeowners for individual retrofits”.
“Establishing a robust City of Miami Beach Risk Management Department that can facilitate the development of risk transfer solutions. We believe that the City of Miami Beach is on the forefront of these issues. You have a lot of exposure, a lot of investment in this city, a lot of capital in this city, and in order to manage your risk from now into the future you’re gonna have to be very, very, very creative, very, very, very innovative on how you manage that risk … the City has to do that and you have to have something internal, some unit internally that is sophisticated enough to manage the risk and be on the forefront of those issues.”
On the topic of historic preservation, Hebert noted, “I am from the City of New Orleans which, like you, is very, very concerned about historic preservation. It is a part of the reason why people come to New Orleans, similar here to Miami Beach, and … preserving your culture is tied to preserving your economy.”
“You need to preserve your historic jewels. That’s why people come here, in addition to nature which is why this place was settled in the beginning to bring people here and see the amazing beach. What historical environment that was created as a result of that also needs to be preserved but we are in a different era and different age and we really have to think about what does preservation mean when we’re threatened by such huge things like flooding and sea level rise particularly, like New Orleans, in a place that is susceptible to flooding,” Hebert said.
Quoting first from The National Trust for Historic Preservation, “New adaptation and mitigation tools are needed to support communities as they respond to the new normal,” Hebert said, “I think Miami Beach is positioned very well to start thinking about and creating those new tools.”
Next, he cited John Englander writing in the Preservation Leadership Forum Journal:
“Climate change and rising sea levels mandate a new type of assessment of the vulnerability of historic resources, requiring stakeholders to look at adaptation options and to decide what will be saved for future generations.”
Hebert said, “It is quite possible that with all the modeling and everything you heard about [earlier in the presentation] everything may not be able to be saved.”
“Science and modeling is maybe not on our side for everything that we want to save so we have to be really thoughtful and this is from the National Trust for Historic Preservation who’s leading a program right now in thinking through these issues,” Hebert added.
“We firmly believe as this team that this is an international conversation that Miami Beach can definitely lead,” he concluded.
Greg Lowe, Global Head of Resilience and Sustainability for Aon, addressed the question of how we pay for it all.
“It’s remarkable how Miami Beach has financed most of the existing stormwater management and climate adaptation programs through local finance ... This is a community that has resources that many parts of the world facing these challenges do not have.”
For the future, he said, “Expecting the state or federal governments to come to the rescue may not be a good strategy but that’s not to say that there aren’t funds from state and federal resources like grants and loans that might be worth exploring and we would encourage an inventory of these to be kept and think about when do we want to use these types of resources.”
Most of the capital coming into the City of Miami Beach, he said, “comes from the real estate tax base of the City so we want to make sure we’re protecting the values of this real estate.”
Options for financing infrastructure projects include special assessment districts that property owners, recognizing both the need and benefit of projects, would be willing to contribute to.
He also recommended the City explore innovative insurance solutions that might include insuring the infrastructure to allow the City to continue to be able to make its debt payments on the financing used to build it. While the future of National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is uncertain, Lowe said, “that’s not really something to be afraid of because insurance pools that actually use public entities to aggregate assets across a territory or a region can provide access to affordable insurance” as has been done in the Caribbean, the UK, and New Zealand.
The panel also urged better engagement with private financial stakeholders. “Credit rating agencies and investors are very aware of what’s going on around climate change,” Lowe said. “This is on the radar. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. The fact that you’re doing something is a positive message.”
Phillip Kash, Principal, HR&A Advisors, talked regulatory implications saying, “Regulation of private development has to part of your overall water management strategy.”
Kash focused on the City’s “very strong and robust regulatory infrastructure system” addressing the four boards that new development and significant rehabilitations go through: The Design Review Board, Historic Preservation Board, Planning Board, and Board of Adjustment.
“The city needs to leverage that existing regulatory infrastructure to make sure that water management is a priority in any new develop that occurs and any adjustments to existing development.”
While acknowledging that the city and some of these boards are already taking steps in this direction, the panel advocated for expanding their charters and missions “to make sure that water management is part of their charge”.
Kash said the City should consider “adding or changing board members so that you have experts on water management” on the regulatory boards. “Miami Beach is on the cutting edge on this so you’re going to need the leading experts to be involved in your decision making on this process.”
Existing board members, he said, also need “training to give them clear guidance on the strategies they should be using and applying” which means the City will need to provide “tactical support with real knowledge on this topic”.
“Give the boards measurable goals,” he said, such as “achieving 100,000 gallons in additional storage or something like that,” a goal that is flexible but “puts the boards on the hook” for getting where we need to be.
Kash said the City should consider adjusting its stormwater fees. “You’ve made great progress in your stormwater fees and used it to raise funds. We strongly encourage you to think about adjusting your fees so that it’s based on the amount of stormwater runoff that each parcel produces.” By doing this, he said, the City can “incentivize property owners to manage more stormwater onsite” through choices such as permeable driveways, green roofs, etc. which would result in their fees being reduced.
The panel also recommended creating an island-wide sea barrier, not leaving seawalls to individual property owners.
Another difficult topic in the community: The panel affirmed the City’s direction in allowing elevated buildings. “We’ve heard a lot of community pushback on this,” Kash said. “We certainly understand and respect the concern here.”
“We do think that there’s work to be done, continuing to be done, about how to design these in a way that minimizes their impact on neighbors and acknowledge that there are impacts on neighbors. But as water rises and there’s more flooding, you’re going to have to move up and you want to move with the natural building cycle so as buildings get torn down or get a major reinvestment you want to make the improvement then because it’s much cheaper and allows you to spread the total cost of investment over time. Otherwise you start to talk investments of raising all the buildings in Miami at once. [That] takes tens of billions of dollars. If you spread this out over 30 years and make it part of a natural cycle, the cost is much, much more manageable,” Kash said.
Greg West, President & CEO, ZOM Living and Chair, ULI Southeast Florida/Caribbean spoke to the City’s communication efforts with regard to its resiliency initiatives.
“We have very high compliments to the City of Miami Beach and their staff in the communication materials they have put together.” Noting the City’s branded Rising Above website, Miami Beach Magazine, special publications and graphics “created to communicate a really complex situation,” he said, “We give very high marks for those efforts. The diversity of tools and methods of engagement have really been impressive.”
“That being said, we also feel a lot of hesitation in how we communicate about this and specifically in communicating the totality of the resiliency plan. How often do we communicate? Do we communicate? And to whom? And we don’t see as much proactive communication as we would like,” West said.
Speaking of the Miami Beach Rising Above logo, he said, “The community’s clearly proud of what they have done successfully and you should be; you’ve created a brand for it.”
“You should also communicate what you’re doing about it, what your plans are and you should celebrate your successes. It’s understandable to us why you might hesitate about wanting to communicate about the totality of your plan and what your future may be because you may not understand exactly what all those pieces are, when they’re going to come together or how they’re going to look like.”
The City’s invitation to the review panel “is a healthy indication that you are evaluating your plan and you should continue to do that year to year and time to time because adaptation is not a binary thing. It’s a process and you’re in the midst of that process and communicating about where you are in that process is not a bad thing,” West said. While the City has to be reactive at times, he encouraged City leaders and staff to “be more proactive; be a part of the story not just a victim of it.”
Getting people excited about the Miami Beach resiliency efforts will require the creative placemaking that Hardy spoke about “and creating iconic things,” West said. “What you’ve done so far, it works and we applaud you for it, but it’s pretty boring. It’s not exciting.”
“We have heard repeatedly that people are very concerned about the water quality of the material that’s being put back into the Bay,” West said. “We also know that there’s a very thorough filtration process that’s underway.”
Mark Osler closed the presentation with nine principles that the panel will address at length in its final report this summer. The first in the list was “Maintained urgency” but Osler said he wanted to highlight two for initial takeaways.
Incrementalism and evaluation
“Be clear about how and why those are the milestones and how you’re going to reach them and when you get there take a moment to look around and check on Mother Nature and how she’s doing and the built environment and then set the next milestone. You will only see increasing volatility and pressure from nature on your community and so incrementalize and step through.”
Concepts and concerns about social equity
Then he addressed a question that was not asked of the panel to look at but which Osler said was always present:
“And there’s two things that that future will absolutely entail. The first is a change in approach.” In addition to the “system approaches, engineering, infrastructure … a really vital change in approach is how each of you as individuals, both as your own human being as well as your professional capacity and interaction in this community understand and reflect on your relationship to this challenge.”
“Continue growing the interconnectedness between all of these various stakeholders that are working and caring about this community,” Osler advised. “At this point those efforts are not yet as well coordinated as they need to be and those relationships are not as whole and trustworthy as they need to be and there are lots of good reasons for that. It is not in any way a failure. But we’ve heard about this analogy of the community as a boat. I think it’s apt.”
While waiting for the “red team” to conduct its review, there has been a divide on the City Commission over whether or not the City should move forward with its current plan or “push pause” to allow the evaluations to come in. During the Q&A portion of the preliminary findings presentation, Commissioner John Alemán, a strong supporter of the City’s resiliency efforts asked the panel, “Do we pause the rollout that we have been engaged in to do that regroup [to consider the enhancements] that you are suggesting or do we keep motoring on and begin to weave these things in as we synthesize the study?”
Nielsen said, “We haven’t seen any real showstoppers in the plan as it is. We also see that it has to be enhanced in some ways … Our recommendation is to add a layer of extra robustness and flexibility to cope with future changes, not only in climate but also in the land development. Increase the robustness of the pump system. We know it works. We also know it will eventually fail and we don’t want it to fail.”
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said with all the recommendations from ULI and a two-year study conducted by Harvard graduate students, “We have the task of what do we do on Monday?”
Hebert responded, “On Monday you need to immediately address the development of an integrated infrastructure program, meaning look at the gray infrastructure projects that you’re doing – the raising of the streets and those sorts of things – but also to look at [the parks and open spaces] as an integrated system to get you where you need to be. I think that sort of shift needs to happen immediately to get to the goals that you’re trying to do.”
“In addition,” Coffee said, “the tools that they used initially both elevating roads and pumping as well as other tools are likely to continue as part of the toolbox for the future … as well though there will be other assets that will be applied if tomorrow the model that optimizes engineering solutions, science and the social setting allows for better decision making.”
Hardy added to the list of things that can be done now. “One of the things we repeatedly heard is the issue around cultural identity and the issue around aesthetics.” She urged the City to look at the resources it currently has such as the Art in Public Places program to “look at how you address the aesthetics and cultural identity issues”.
Mayor Dan Gelber wrapped it all up, telling the panel, “We want to make sure we get this right. I think we want to be open to ideas. I think we want to find the right balance of what we’re doing so that our city is not just leading but is a wonderful place to live and work and to visit.”
Team bios and more information on the ULI panel review can be found here
Link to the presentation of the preliminary findings
Images: Urban Land Institute Presentation