Sarene Marshall, executive director, ULI Center for Sustainability, and James Murley, chief resilience officer, Miami-Dade County, speaking at the recent ULI Florida Summit

Sarene Marshall, executive director, ULI Center for Sustainability, and James Murley, chief resilience officer, Miami-Dade County, speaking at the recent ULI Florida Summit

South Florida faces both immediate and long-term threats from climate change. The impact of sea-level rise is already evident in the form of urban flooding during high tides and major storms; saltwater intrusion that endangers groundwater supplies and inland ecosystems; and coastal erosion that is compromising the very beaches that millions of tourists flock to each year. The region’s low-lying geography makes both people and property extremely vulnerable: Miami–Dade County has more people living less than four feet (1.2 m) above sea level than any other U.S. state besides Louisiana, and nearly $40 billion worth of real estate is located less than three feet (0.9 m) above sea level, according to the World Resources Institute. Miami’s beachfront property is valued at $14.7 billion alone, while the cost to upgrade public infrastructure—water, sewer, and wastewater treatment systems; utility grids; drainage systems; roads, bridges, and highways; schools; and hospitals—will be in the hundreds of millions to repair or replace.

Conversations are taking place among private developers, public sector leaders, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions in south Florida on a shared, multifaceted approach to climate change. The recent selection of Miami–Dade County and the cities of Miami and Miami Beach to participate in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program is expected to generate fresh ideas and yield solutions to a seemingly intractable problem, giving stakeholders and skeptics reasons to hope. A panel on resilience and the real estate industry at the recent ULI Florida Summit in Miami described some of these emerging partnerships, which will be necessary to adapt to the new normal of sea-level rise as well as plan and pay for more resilient communities.

 Sustainability and Resilience: Two Sides of the Same Equation

Sarene Marshall, executive director of the ULI Center for Sustainability, framed the discussion by defining sustainability and resilience, terms that are often used interchangeably but in fact have distinct meanings. Confusion over terminology can often impede action and progress, so understanding the relationship between sustainability and resilience is key, she said. While sustainability refers to specific actions that property owners can take to lower a building’s carbon emissions—reducing energy and water use and relying on renewable sources of power—resilience refers to managing and preparing for outcomes like sea-level rise that are inevitable at this point.

“The sad part of the story is that even if we were wildly successful tomorrow on the [sustainability] side—every light switch got turned off, every source of energy is renewable—we have already been doing enough damage to the planet in the last two centuries that we are going to have to live with some impacts that we can no longer avoid,” she said.

Marshall described resilience as that ability not only to survive adverse events, but also to thrive in the long term. Resilience has environmental, social, and economic dimensions, and land use decision making lies at the nexus of these areas, serving as a powerful tool to build resilience against shocks—like extreme weather events or an economic downtown—as well as long-term, pervasive stressors like sea-level rise, chronic poverty, or crime.

David Martin, president and cofounder, Terra Group (left) and Alan Ojeda, chief executive officer, Rilea Group, speaking at the recent ULI Florida Summit.

David Martin, president and cofounder, Terra Group (left) and Alan Ojeda, chief executive officer, Rilea Group, speaking at the recent ULI Florida Summit.

Because it has been in circulation longer than resilience and there are measurable standards associated with it like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and Energy Star programs, sustainability is a concept with which developers have achieved a level of comfort and expertise. Two developers on the panel—Alan Ojeda, owner and chief executive officer of Rilea Group, and David Martin, president and cofounder of Terra Group—described projects whose sustainability features are selling points: insulated glass that requires less reliance on air conditioning and cooling systems, LEED certification, more green spaces, walkability, bike sharing, and water reuse programs. These measures are not only what environmentally conscious prospective tenants and clients want and expect, but for which they are willing to pay a premium.

The goal is to frame sustainability and resource efficiency in ways that make consumers feel like they are not sacrificing quality, but simply “doing the right thing” and not wasting resources, Martin said. Consider Grove at Grand Bay, a Bjarke Ingels–designed condominium developed by Terra Group that was designed with sustainable features and is located in Coconut Grove, an established Miami neighborhood. “We sold that project 30 to 40 percent more than the submarket we were in,” Martin said. “What makes families feel proud for their children and grandchildren is that they are moving into a building that performs this way.”

Similarly, Rilea Group’s 1450 Brickell, a 35-story, 586,000-square-foot (54,441 sq m), Class A office building on Brickell Avenue that was featured in the ULI report Returns on Resilience: The Business Case, marketed its “green” credentials—it was Miami’s first LEED Gold private office building—and was 100 percent leased up at the same time that comparable office properties nearby were just 40 percent leased up, Ojeda said. Analyzing data from 6,000 sources, Rilea Group determined it was saving $1 million per year on the building’s energy bill.

What is noteworthy is that 1450 Brickell is just as resilient as it is sustainable—its glass exterior is hurricane-proof and can withstand winds up to 300 miles per hour; backup generators guarantee business continuity for 1450’s international banking tenants like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of New York Mellon. Martin said Terra Group has built lobbies higher than FEMA floodplains and basements using hydrostatic slabs, which resist the upward pressure of water from Miami’s porous limestone foundation.

Nonetheless, it may take time and greater consumer education before resilience becomes as powerful a selling point as sustainability. Ojeda likened the process to educating consumers about the deadly impact of tobacco use: “It has to be in our fabric as human beings to understand these problems just as we understood smoking is not good.”

A Tailored Approach to Building Resilient Communities

While developers can focus on making their buildings resilient in the face of sea-level rise, it falls to municipal leaders to protect the general population—2.7 million in Miami–Dade County alone—and stretch limited dollars to fortify critical infrastructure already stressed by sea-level rise and urban flooding or in danger of being severely compromised.

“Our resources are limited,” said James Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami–Dade County. “How they are generated and how we deal with long-term investments are key.” While a resilience bond issue is unlikely, so resilience-related upgrades will be possible only through “other streams of funding that are already available.”

One thing is for sure: a one-size-fits-all approach will not work in a county that is over 2,400 square miles (6,300 sq km) with varying topography and geography. “Everything will have to be scaled down,” Murley said. “What happens in south Dade will be entirely different than what we do in north Dade.”

An example of this scaled-down approach is a project focused on the Arch Creek Basin, a drainage basin in south Miami–Dade County that repeatedly floods during high tide and storms. One of several “adaptation action areas” designated by the state of Florida to develop tailored and local approaches to climate change, Arch Creek is considered a case study on how Miami-Dade can effectively deal with sea-level rise.

The county has been working with a variety of partners on Arch Creek, including the ULI Advisory Services program. In May, a panel of ULI members met with county leaders and other stakeholders to identify redevelopment opportunities with a focus on strengthening resilience at the property and community levels. Particular attention is being paid to how low- and moderate-income communities near the Arch Creek Basin can benefit as well since their homes and streets are the least resilient and floodproof. “Dealing with resilience there makes a huge difference,” Marshall said. “Climate change hits the poor first and the hardest.”

How building resilient communities can be accomplished equitably was a concern for the entire panel. While the private sector will continue to seek long-term financial returns on its upfront investments in resilient building materials and design, Martin said that the private sector needs to be full partners in protecting everyone—particularly low-income and vulnerable populations—and not simply those who can afford to live in the most sustainable and resilient homes and neighborhoods. “There is some sort of social responsibility we have that may not be about returns, but about the welfare and health of everyone in our community,” Martin said.

Archana Pyati is an impact writer on the ULI Strategic Communications team.