This week, the final report with more details was published.
Miami Beach's stormwater management efforts to date have included installing improved drainage systems, new pumps, and elevation of roads and public seawalls to protect from three types of flooding, coastal flooding including King Tides, flooding from heavy rains, and groundwater flooding.
“The City of Miami Beach has shown an impressive commitment in the last few years to addressing these flooding vulnerabilities, including identifying the funding for and beginning execution of a projected $600 million stormwater management program, sourcing financing independently of federal and state funds,” the report said.
“In short, the city acted with courage to fix sunny-day and stormwater flooding."
That said, “The panelists agreed that the city’s stormwater management strategy, although a good start, is not currently sufficient to address the extent of the risk faced by the city and does not reflect its cultural leadership.”
The report outlines a series of key opportunities, guiding principles, and recommendations. More details, examples, and case studies can be found in the report. We encourage you to read it.
Integrating flood management within the larger resilience strategy: The panel urged the City “to embrace a more comprehensive and holistic plan for ‘living with water,’ an approach they called “critical given the extent of flooding and climate risk faced now and in the future.”
“This strategy should also include investing in technology, such as enhanced modeling, to better inform the city on the varied types of flooding risks and the cost/benefit of different interventions to address them.”
Enhancing public trust, trusting the public, and increasing transparency: Citing early missteps in communication, the panel noted a lack of trust from the community. “The early stages of the stormwater management program were implemented in emergency response mode and formed residents’ initial impressions, leaving many feeling they were not provided with meaningful opportunities for input. Since that time, the city has broadened its resilience work and engagement, particularly through its work under the umbrella of 100 Resilient Cities. Future efforts should better integrate public comment and outreach into the decision-making process, provide significant opportunities for the public to weigh in, and increase transparency of the city’s investments, the cost/benefit, and the likely timeline of various climate adaptation investments. Future efforts should also report on bay water quality monitoring, individual projects’ progress against planned timelines, and outreach efforts.”
Elevating public aesthetics and function to perpetuate the city’s cultural relevance: "Flood mitigation should not be implemented independent of public aesthetic concerns. Future investments in stormwater management and resilience should also seek to improve health and quality of life and build from the culture of arts, heritage, and placemaking in Miami Beach."
Actively using green and open space: "Green and open space offer an important opportunity to manage and infiltrate water, given their permeability and sponge functions – meaning the ability to absorb water naturally. Green infrastructure and open space also offer opportunities to enhance overall quality of life and improve collateral public benefits from investment in infrastructure."
Increasing long-term financial and comprehensive protection: "A comprehensive resilience strategy will increase both infrastructural and financial protection, considering how the city can leverage a range of funding sources and be strategic about its approach to risk." The panel noted that “preserving property values is critical to ensure funding availability for future stormwater and resilience investments.”
Embracing the resilience brand – distinguishing Miami Beach from coastal competitors: "Miami Beach has the opportunity to be an international leader in resilience and climate adaptation. Embracing this opportunity and communicating about it will distinguish the city from its coastal competitor cities and potentially help residents, businesses, and other stakeholders appreciate the value of the proactive alternative Miami Beach has chosen."
The panel noted as series of guiding principles relevant to all of their recommendations:
Maintaining urgency: While the City moved with “unusual speed and a ‘get it done’ attitude… “future phases should strive to be transparent and collaborative with residents while maintaining the initial sense of urgency set for the program.”
Using incrementalism—phases and evaluation: Design for “incremental evaluation and change to respond to the availability of new technologies, data sets, and economic and physical realities.” The panel noted this approach also provides the opportunity for more community input as a way to build transparency and trust.
Ensuring transparency: Noting the “initial stages of the stormwater management plan were swiftly implemented… with relatively minimal opportunities for public input and comment,” the panel cited the deep distrust that resulted.
The City “must ensure a transparent process with robust two-way communications” going forward.
Respecting the city’s ecological endowment: While acknowledging the City’s efforts to remove trash and sediments from pump stations, the report states, “with the introduction of more pumps and generators, a risk exists that the quest for peak-event preparedness eclipses the need for sustainability and respectful use of natural resources.” The panel writes, “The stormwater management plan must recognize this potential tension, ensure a commitment to the natural environment, and communicate these values to residents, who are currently concerned about this possibility.”
Exercising financial pragmatism: “Miami Beach is admirably financing its stormwater improvements without state and federal support through increased stormwater fees and the issuance of bonds. In the future, the city should continue to self-finance, assuming that minimal support will be available from the federal and state governments.”
Recognizing co-benefits: “Investing in new stormwater infrastructure presents an opportunity to advance Miami Beach’s other quality-of-life and economic development goals” including new bike lanes, improved sidewalks, improved resident health due to more walkable and bikeable spaces and reduced traffic congestion as residents use other modes of transportation, opportunities for public art, and decreased impacts from extreme storm events and faster rebounds for affected areas.
Prioritizing social equity: “The city needs to ensure that low-income populations are given priority for investments in stormwater management because the most vulnerable are the least likely to have needed resources of their own… The city will also be a stronger and more resilient community when there are more housing options affordable for people at a range of income levels.”
Preserving cultural identity: “The stormwater management and climate adaption strategy should strive to maintain [Miami Beach’s] unique sense of place and build from it; even pumps and generators can be made more aesthetically pleasing if designed in partnership with local artists. That being said, to adapt to the future, residents, businesses, and city stakeholders need to take a broader and more flexible view of what cultural and built identity comprises, rather than preserving the entire built environment exactly as is."
Living with water: “Water has always been a key part of Miami Beach’s identity: the beautiful beaches and bay are cherished by residents and draw visitors from around the world.” The panel writes the City should capitalize on its leadership position in dealing with sea level rise. “’Living with water” could become part of Miami Beach’s tourism and economic development branding as well as its resilience and stormwater management strategies.”
Taking a long-term and regional perspective encouraging residents and other regional communities to look at and understand “the costs and inconveniences that lie ahead” in the “alternative lack-of-action scenario.”
The report presents a comprehensive set of ideas. The highlights:
Improve the flexibility and robustness of the current system: “The city’s current plan for stormwater infrastructure, including pumps and elevated streets, is well tested and thoroughly designed but lacks flexibility—the system is not designed to adapt."
"This lack of flexibility is the Achilles’s heel of the current system."
"Indeed, the system is costly to install, operate, and maintain and is—at this stage—not completely guaranteed to function during all peak events because of reliance on a generator-backed power system. Not all pumps are backed by standby generators, and even these will not necessarily provide sufficient robustness. Nor does the system provide ample collateral benefits to the local community.
“Furthermore, how long the system will continue to function well is unclear, taking into account development in climate change projections, maintenance of systems, and so on.”
Recommendations include the use of blue and green infrastructure “together with its committed pumping systems and elevated streets, to both introduce more flexibility in managing water and offer more visible collateral benefits to the local community.”
“Street elevation is another key component of the city’s current strategy. Raised land has been a tested successful solution to alleviate tidal flooding in new development and, to a lesser extent, in retrofit solutions… Where street elevations are determined to be the best flood mitigation solution, the city could improve and further optimize this strategy” through modeling options.
Use enhanced modeling for better-informed decision making: “The city must take more actionable steps to ensure that its efforts are driven by hard data that is consistently being updated to reflect current conditions including the complex interplay between the three different sources of flooding extant in the city. To address this, the city should create an integrated, hydrodynamic computer model that simulates the physics of flooding caused by the three sources: coastal flooding, including king tides; precipitation; and groundwater.”
The tool would quantify how each type of flooding contributes to conditions across the island and model changing climate conditions and building landscape to predict future flood risk.
“Any flood mitigation could be input into this tool, including pumps as well as green and blue infrastructure, the results simulated, and the benefits of this action would be clearly quantified. These quantified benefits could then be compared with the costs to implement and thus enable informed economic choices about the city’s future. Importantly, this tool would allow the city to clearly quantify and communicate the outcomes of any chosen mitigation action.”
At the same time, the tool could calculate the value of the co-benefits of flood mitigation “and build the business case on a complete cost/benefit analysis… an important tool for decision making… this integrated water model is the best possible way to simulate current and future conditions, and directly quantify the benefits expected from any given mitigation action.”
Noting this tool “is not yet commonly used by cities,” the panel said, “By adopting such a tool, Miami Beach would continue to be a leader in climate adaptation and offer a model for many other cities to replicate.”
The report estimates that building and using such a model “is likely to take a year or so.”
Implement blue and green infrastructure: Using the hydrodynamic model, the City would be able to “explore a more diverse array of options for flood mitigation from all three flooding sources” including green and blue infrastructure.
The approach might take some adjusting. “The visual effects of blue and green infrastructure are very different from pumps or pipes that send influxes of water out of sight and out of mind. Adopting a living-with-water approach would therefore require that Miami Beach residents, businesses, and stakeholders change some of their comfort levels about ponding, minor flooding, and visibility of water in the public realm. Notably, water is likely to be more visible after storm events and take longer to subside.”
The panel recommended the City ensure funding for these projects. The current stormwater management program funding is for underground work only. “A more holistic approach should not only offer funding for innovative green and blue infrastructure strategies but also ensure that their contributions are effectively measured and studied in the context of overall flood mitigation efforts,” the panel noted.
Implement living-with-water pilot projects: The panel urged the City to “create iconic pilot projects that involve the community to determine the best future approaches for resilience and to test and explore the living-with-water concepts.”
“Communities in Miami Beach that experienced the first phases of stormwater investment were complimentary about how the program has improved sunny-day flooding and eliminated the many related inconveniences they once experienced on a regular basis. However, these same citizens showed clear concern about how the pump program had been implemented, citing concerns about reduced quality of public spaces or low-quality streetscapes—and even questionable public safety near pumps that block vision and views. These responses represent a clear missed opportunity: communities that experienced early phases of investment are the best candidates to become ambassadors for the program and to inspire and excite neighborhoods that will receive investment later. Launching pilot projects that represent innovative approaches and respond to community interests will better serve the city and help generate community buy-in for the program.”
Address water quality concerns: The report acknowledges “the city has thus far done a very good job at implementing solutions to uphold the area’s water quality. However, the city should take this work to the next level, including state-of-the-art systems such as green infrastructure and cleansing biotopes.”
“Pumped systems including a traditional grid, sand trap, and vortex have a tendency to underperform and fail during extreme events,” the report states.
“Going forward, the city should implement state-of-the-art treatment systems through green infrastructure that will absorb pollutants while increasing flexibility.”
In addition to investments in infrastructure to protect water quality, the panel said, the City should “prioritize transparently communicating the outcomes to local constituencies.”
“[M]aking [testing] data publicly available would be one opportunity that could facilitate innovation with the potential interest and involvement of local activists and citizen scientists.”
Physical Design and Topology
“Miami Beach’s physical typology presents a unique opportunity to craft a more innovative and cost-effective solution than the present stormwater management system,” the report states. “This more holistic strategy could better respond to natural topography and land and water conditions, incorporating green infrastructure, parks, open spaces, and opportunities for the incorporation of renewable energy that will increase preparedness for peak events and power failure.”
Higher beach dunes to the east and the slightly elevated bay side on the west, create a “bowl” effect in the center of the City. About 20 percent of the island is within the bowl currently, including the majority of Miami Beach’s 14 historic districts.
Strategies for water management “should respond to the natural conditions” in each area, according to the panel. In the “beach zone,” the panel suggests “water can be buffered, stored, reused, and released; this is the part of the island with the most ‘room’ to store water in the landscape and architectures.”
“Development should incentivize or require on-site water storage and could incorporate blue roofs and walls and cisterns… Green infrastructure and green streets should be designed with capacity to retain, purify, and release water,” the panel recommends.
In the “bowl zone,” the panel said, “the focus is managing the interface between freshwater, saltwater, and groundwater. The key goal is storing and conveying water through the rainwater/groundwater interface, including within parks and green spaces.” To do that, the panel suggests, green streets that “could store water uphill” and blue streets that are “designed for conveyance and filtration, conveying and percolating water, and ultimately conducting it toward the bay treated and without the use of pipes."
In the “bay zone,” the panel envisions “a living shoreline meets and manages the freshwater/saltwater interface. Architecture, open space, and the seawall can work together to manage potential inundation.”
In general, the panel recommended using golf courses as another source for water management. Currently, 17 percent of the City is green space with roughly 7% of that open space being golf courses.
Modify road specifications to enhance permeability: Given road projects are “currently a major part of ongoing public works through the stormwater management program,” the panel noted, the City should consider that “Coastal resilience specifications for porous paving can have as much as twice the life of existing road standards and overcome the shortcoming of older versions of porous paving, with lower maintenance requirements.”
Consider long-term options for neighborhood design: With increased flood risk and the potential that costs of adaptation may become prohibitive for some, the panel writes that “Miami Beach may follow precedents in other U.S. cities to create floodable public green spaces in neighborhoods where residents are interested in relocation. The public green spaces could serve a flood function and become valued amenities and centers for neighborhood character, following the historic precedents of cities such as Savannah, Georgia, whose squares provide valuable public gathering spaces and form a crucial part of the city’s character.”
The report suggests the City work with artists and local cultural institutions to improve the aesthetics around raised streets, pumps, and generators. In doing this, the panel suggests Miami Beach brand itself as “the Resilient Art City.”
In addition to adding more structure around adaptation (to improve interaction with the community, provide scientific analysis, better manage risk, and identify sources of funding), the panel recommended establishing a community adaptation fund "which could assist homeowners, businesses, institutions, and other property owners with retrofits and investments.”
“[T]he fund could provide low-cost loans and grants for projects in line with the city’s overall adaptation goals,” the report states, including “home elevations, first floor retrofits, private seawall enhancements, and investments in on-site water management mechanisms, such as cisterns, green infrastructure, and permeable surfaces.”
“A fund like this would be a valuable resource for the resident and business community and would ultimately fortify the city by creating a stronger network of solutions across the island,” the panel notes.
Align historic preservation ad climate adaptation strategies: Recognizing the importance of historic structures to the city’s culture and economy and “a key contributor to the architectural heritage of the country as a whole,” the panel tackles the tensions between resilience and historic preservation.
“The city’s existing heritage regulations and governance have done a formidable job of preserving the integrity of the city’s historic architecture."
"However, given the extent of the risk that the city faces and the vulnerability of many historic buildings, all stakeholders must begin to reconsider what preservation means and strategize accordingly."
"If Miami Beach successfully engages in this conversation locally, the city and heritage community will have the opportunity to lead a national conversation regarding how to respect and care for cherished historic assets in the face of environmental vulnerability.”
That process is underway with a team that is working on “historic district resilience and adaptation guidelines. These guidelines will address the renovation, elevation, and repurposing of historic structures in vulnerable parts of the city, considering both increasing tidal flooding and sea-level rise.” The team includes “expertise in engineering, architecture, planning, historic preservation, hydrology, geotechnics, and cost consulting,” the panel notes.
Using the recommended hydrodynamic monitoring technology, the panel said the City will be able “to better understand the vulnerability of historic districts over the upcoming decades and share this information with all relevant stakeholders” allowing everyone to “better understand context, consider adaptation options, and strategize about which historic assets should be prioritized to be saved for future generations.”
“Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all solution or easy answer for how to achieve the continued preservation of Miami Beach’s historic districts exists. Quite possibly, the entire spectrum or ensemble of historic architecture in Miami Beach may not be able to be saved, given both the intensity of the threat and the cost of adaptation measures such as elevating buildings. If this is the case, the city and all associated stakeholders will need to strategize about how to protect the most ‘historic jewels,’” according to the panel.
“Local stakeholders should be prepared for this eventuality and begin to strategize about how to fund climate adaptation measures for historic buildings and how to prioritize these investments if entire building ensembles cannot be safeguarded. These discussions may ultimately include revisiting historic district regulations and modifying approaches to heritage regulation, such as revising policies for contributing and noncontributing buildings within neighborhood ensembles, or introducing opportunities to enable climate adaptation investments for historic buildings.”
“Over the long term, the city should be ready to critically examine what comprises historic preservation and consider definitions focused on both strict preservationist approaches and approaches focused more broadly on urbanism, walkability, and district character that may support more adaptation investments being made,” the panel concluded.
The panel noted “the regulation of private development offers an important opportunity that is not thoroughly integrated into the current water management strategy.”
By “tak[ing] advantage of the natural building cycle,” the City would be able “to spread the cost of enhancing resilience over time and leverage private financing and expertise.”
Recommendations include embedding water management goals in development regulations which “can be accomplished through a mix of requirements and incentives such as rebates, density bonuses, and expedited permitting.”
The panel recommended the City:
- Continue to allow greater height and density, given the future loss of usable space… as groundwater rises and tidal and stormwater flooding increase.
- Develop additional design standards and specifications to help mitigate the impact of increased height.
- Explore opportunities for incentives for multifamily and commercial properties that specifically incorporate stormwater management, green infrastructure, cisterns, and other opportunities for water capture and reuse.
On the City side, the panel recommended changes to the land use boards “to ensure that water management is prioritized at the building and parcel levels” and that they “give equal priority to water management.”
“Water management is an existential issue for Miami Beach, and it must be given an equal footing with other public priorities, including design, historic preservation, and economic development.”
The panel said that could accomplished through the addition of members with water management and climate adaptation expertise.
They also suggested the City change its current policy to “Allow real estate professionals to participate on these boards, because real estate expertise is needed to understand how to effectively finance potential future retrofits or investment in resilient infrastructure. Currently, restrictions limiting participation from developers include rules against members contracting with the city and against using Community Development Block Grants.”
Adjusting stormwater fees to incentivize property owners to effectively manage water would improve individual resiliency efforts according to the panel. “The current flat rate does not encourage retention of water on private property,” they write. “Adjust the current stormwater fee structure from a uniform fee across the board to one that assigns a fee according to each property’s runoff levels. This structure would look at both the size of a lot and the percentage or area of connected green and permeable surfaces, thereby encouraging investment in permeable driveways, green roofs, and green spaces to lower fees. This updated structure will reward property owners that effectively manage water on their property and decrease the burden on pumps.”
Create an islandwide sea barrier through a centralized approach that incorporates public and private seawalls and barrier protection. “The city currently instructs property owners to manage seawalls on a parcel-by-parcel basis. This approach does not encourage consistency in terms of height and quality and therefore does not provide the level of protection required,” the report states.
Continue to support elevation for new construction: “Elevation is a very political topic in the community, given the importance of Miami Beach’s historic fabric and the architectural precedents on the island. Many local stakeholders and community members articulated concern about building elevation during the panel’s visit, alluding to cost, compromised aesthetics, and reduced privacy.”
“Although the issues mentioned are valid concerns, the city should continue to encourage the elevation of buildings because of the dire need for protection from sea-level rise and potential peak storm events."
"As waters rise and flooding becomes more regular, elevated buildings—or buildings with ‘floodable’ first floors—will be the most prepared to endure and will shoulder fewer costs for damages."
"As buildings are torn down or retrofitted in natural building cycles, requiring elevation or flood-ready design on the ground floor is appropriate. It is the most reasonable way to pace these investments, given the astronomical cost of raising many of the existing structures at one time.”
“The issues facing the city are complex, far reaching, and divisive… and will continue to challenge the city for the rest of the forseeable future,” the panel writes. “Addressing them will require unceasing commitment, aggressive short- and long-term planning, innovative solutions, difficult decisions, and continual assessment and adaptation.”
Among the recommendations for the City’s communications strategy, is one to “be bolder” by embracing the uncertainty. “The current headlines and narrative are often dire and paint the city as one of the first global victims of climate change,” the report states. “The city should not shy away from this narrative and avoid discussing the difficult questions and topics it raises. Instead, the city should strive to embrace its challenges as part of its current identity and shape the narrative. Miami Beach should aggressively promote itself as the leader in climate resilience, serving as a testing ground and case study to communities worldwide.”
Recommendations for increasing trust and transparency include designating “community leaders as spokespersons to share the city’s resiliency message” and establishing “a call-in resource center to answer the community’s questions on resilience and resilience measures, serve as dedicated help resources to residents and business owners, and field questions from the greater public.”
- Own rather than avoid the city’s resilience identify and living-with-water future.
- Acknowledge uncertainties, mistakes, and the unknown.
- Ensure that communications are clear regarding anticipated timelines for adaptation projects and the rationale and the cost analyses behind the city’s decision processes.
- Regularly bring in outside experts on climate topics.
- Be willing to discuss and tackle tough topics and answer difficult questions.
- Proactively address specific community concerns that arise, such as water quality.
- Share live or near-live data publicly on the following:
- flood levels;
- water quality;
- service status;
- city service response times; and
- resilience spending and budget.
“Time will test the city’s adaptation approaches and measures and will provide clarity on successes, mistakes, and failings. To maintain the highest possible level of public trust throughout the adaptation process, the city should strive to refrain from ‘saving face’ regarding the mistakes rather than risk jeopardizing transparency and losing the public’s trust.”
“The city should be clear and open about the fact that it is on the cutting edge of flood adaptation and is forging its own path, which will require continual learning as well as adjustment and refinement of methods and approaches. The city should also acknowledge where mistakes have been made in the past and highlight opportunities for public engagement to galvanize support and rebuild the community’s sense of trust.”
As they did at the April public session following their working visit, the panel said “the future is uncertain [but] the answer is in the city’s hands” and reiterated the need to work together.
“To make progress and address menacing environmental challenges, all stakeholders need to show a willingness to work together, as well as have some level of comfort with the likely costs and inconveniences that will arise. Stronger collaboration and greater interconnectedness among stakeholders and between the city and stakeholders will be crucial.”
City Commissioners will accept the final report at their meeting this week, but some of the recommendations are already underway according to Miami Beach’s Chief Resiliency Officer and Assistant City Manager Susy Torriente. The April sessions “have influenced our work,” she said. Immediately, the City implemented a READY team to work across department lines, taking the more holistic approach recommended by the panel.
“In governments, silos are easy,” Torriente said. “You’re mission driven. You do what you do and you’re surrounded by people who understand their jobs. But resilience is about mixing up the worlds and doing something that is better and stronger.”
While there have been some fits and starts with the strategy, Torriente said the initial efforts are what drew her here. “That took courage and that took political courage and I admired that,” said. While working in Fort Lauderdale, she watched Miami Beach’s efforts unfold initially. “The courage of action here, I wanted to be here,” she said.
“To come into a situation and declare an emergency, raise fees and completely start to invest and adapt, I think that took a lot of courage and was admirable. But you don’t have to run the entire program that way.” With the most vulnerable areas addressed, she said, the urgency is still there “but it’s not a crisis. We’re at a point now where it’s a manageable problem. We now can do it in a way that is in fact resilience.”
She knows it wasn’t a perfect process saying, “Government isn’t like this perfect linear timeline, with a perfect day to start, a perfect day to end, perfect magical steps in between.” But she said, “We have to start somewhere. Sometimes you start in the middle and work your way back and forth” and she said, you take the best information you have at the moment and make the best decisions you can. “As you learn more and grow more, then you adapt. Not just as a city. Our approach is adapting, too.”
That said, Torriente noted, “If in 2015, they didn’t have the courage to act, it would have been too late perhaps to even have this integrated approach now.” How much property damage might there have been? How many people might have left, she asked.
“You can’t wait for everything to be perfect to make a decision,” she said. Action “is the responsible to do.”
Of the ULI review, she said, “I think that the exercise opened up our eyes to the opportunities” before the City. “I do feel good about it. I think it’s really created a good energy with our team.”
It is a comprehensive report with many recommendations. Torriente said the City now needs to move forward by taking “little pieces” at a time. “To me, what I’ve always done is you take these complex problems, you break them down in manageable chunks, you assign them out to people, you get organized, you create the structure and then you do it.”
In addition to the READY team, Torriente said the April ULI visit also led to the West Avenue Accelerator Project with 100 Resilient Cities and further informed the City’s efforts on a Bloomberg Challenge project.
Next month Torriente will be in Boston for a conference with municipal financial analysts where she expects to learn more about financing blue and green infrastructure projects.
The Urban Land Institute is a global, member-driven organization comprising more than 42,000 real estate and urban development professionals dedicated to advancing the Institute’s mission of providing leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.
100 Resilient Cities is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.