ULI Advisory Services panel members present their initial findings in Miami Beach, Florida. (Korey Davis/ULI)

Florida’s Miami Beach has been called “ground zero for sea-level rise,” and municipal officials and residents alike often wonder whether the city will survive the dire effects of climate change. In April, a team of ULI members on an Advisory Services panel traveled to Miami Beach to advise the city on its preparations for sea-level rise and to brainstorm about what could be done better. The group concluded that the city has made an admirable start, including investment in a $500 million program for stormwater management, but a more comprehensive and holistic approach needs to be taken.

While the city of Miami Beach is one of the world’s most vulnerable cities facing sea-level rise and coastal erosion, the city is also uniquely positioned to combat its effects.

“Miami Beach has a history of implementing game-changing regulations to combat extreme weather. After the great hurricane that rocked Miami in 1926, Miami Beach responded with the nation’s first building codes. These were later adopted by 5,000 cities across the country,” says Walter Meyer, a panelist and the founding principal of Local Office Landscape Architecture in New York. Later, the destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 prompted the city to create and enforce “wind resilience” codes that were later adopted into the International Building Code.

Now, the city is charting a course to combat sea-level rise, and the efforts are, quite literally, on the world stage: Miami Beach’s response to sea-level rise and coastal erosion could become a benchmark for global cities vulnerable to these very issues.

Since 2013, the city has taken drastic steps to protect its investments from the impending effects of climate change. Miami Beach is approximately 15 percent into a ten-year, $600 million multiyear stormwater management program that addresses both land use and development code and infrastructure updates. This resilience plan, dubbed “Miami Beach Rising Above” by city officials, includes improving drainage systems; elevating roads; installing pumps to replace aging stormwater pipes; replacing much of the city’s water, wastewater, and utilities systems; and updating regulations to reflect increased elevation requirements, seawall barriers, and more.

With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative, ULI was invited to assess the city’s current strategy. At a three-day Advisory Services panel, member experts from around the globe convened to assess the current framework while developing and suggesting other efforts to further bolster their existing strategy.

The Advisory Services panel, chaired by Joyce Coffee, the founder and president of Chicago-based Climate Resilience Consulting, welcomed experts from across the globe. Panelists included Juanita Hardy, senior visiting fellow for creative placemaking for ULI in Washington, D.C.; Jeff Hebert, vice president for adaptation and resilience at the Water Institute (and former New Orleans chief resilience officer); Phillip Kash, a principal at HR&A in D.C.; Greg Lowe, global head of resilience and sustainability at Aon in London; Walter Meyer, founding principal of Local Office Landscape Architecture in New York City; Christian Nyerup Nielsen, global service line leader, climate adaptation and flood management at Ramboll in Copenhagen; Mark Osler, associate vice president, coastal science and engineering at Michael Baker International; and Greg West, president and CEO of developer ZOM in Miami and the chair of ULI Southeast Florida/Caribbean.

An illustration depicts the unique challenges Miami Beach faces with saltwater intrusion adding pressure to groundwater.

The panel was tasked with determining whether Miami Beach’s current efforts were appropriate while identifying future opportunities for improvement. The panel examined Miami Beach’s resilience strategy from a holistic perspective, taking into account the municipality’s upgrades to hard infrastructure, updated regulatory framework, and overall communications strategy in engaging and galvanizing the public to support its efforts, which require increased taxation and regulations to bring to fruition.

A variety of challenges face Miami Beach’s resilience plan. First, Miami Beach’s geology is a particularly complex obstacle in its battle against sea-level rise and coastal erosion. Because the city’s geology is composed of a porous, fossilized coral limestone, stormwater and high-tide events degrade the structural integrity of the city’s roads, and the city frequently experiences extreme flooding as a result. The historic districts of Miami Beach also present an issue, since the majority of its historic districts (which account for 44 percent of city revenue streams and drive tourism) are located within low elevation zones and are costly to adapt. Furthermore, because Miami Beach has acted quickly to address sea-level rise, residents and local media have been extremely vocal about the city’s disruptive and costly efforts.

Nonetheless, the Advisory Services panel applauded Miami Beach’s efforts as an appropriate response to an existential threat. In its initial effort, the city created a sequencing chart that laid out a capital improvement program by neighborhood with a funding timeline. The city raised roads in compromised, highly trafficked neighborhoods like Sunset Harbour, West Avenue, and the Flamingo Historic District, while installing and upgrading stormwater pumps to more effectively manage outflow during stormwater events.

Panelists suggested that blue-green infrastructure could improve water quality, increase flexibility, and offer other co-benefits.

The city also enhanced its disposal process to ensure water quality, and incorporated green infrastructure to further mitigate against the effects of sea-level rise while also enhancing the community. The city financed the majority of these efforts by selling off $100 million worth of bonds earmarked for capital improvements, coupled with public funds derived from Miami Beach’s substantial tax coffers. The city’s communication plan to roll out this effort included a branded Rising Above website, a social media campaign, and extensive community outreach to local organizations.

However, panelists also noted that opportunities exist to improve on these efforts in a manner that better integrates key principles to combat sea-level rise. “Overall, the city needs a much more comprehensive vision for living with water,” says Coffee. “Increasing transparency about what the plans are for the future will also help things fall better into place.” As such, the panel’s final presentation contemplated an integrated solution that incorporates the physical design and typology of Miami Beach; creative placemaking strategies; financing opportunities that include public, private, and risk transfer solutions; updated regulations and governance structures; and suggestions to enhance the city’s communication strategy.

Most notably, innovative solutions for green infrastructure offer a more sustainable stormwater and groundwater management solution while also satisfying the city’s creative placemaking and financing goals. This approach would also alleviate the city’s current pump system, which is costly to install, operate, and maintain and contributes to water contamination. “It’s widely known that Miami Beach slopes from beach to bay,” says Meyer. “The center of Miami Beach is at a lower elevation than its beach and bay sides, which creates a ‘bowl’ within the island that creates flooding situations.”

Panelists tour a pumping station in Miami Beach. (Korey Davis/ULI)

Instead, Meyer recommends, the city can use this basin as a ‘sponge’ for water management, using open space as storage and installing a wind-resistant tree grid system that allows this green infrastructure to absorb groundwater. Proposing that the city purchase land parcels for redevelopment, the city would develop open space to accommodate this infrastructure, while developing residential multifamily properties on parcels facing this open space. These housing units would allow the city to create a financing mechanism for the installation and maintenance of this infrastructure.

Panelists also recommended that the city improve its governance and regulations framework in order to adopt new resilience models going forward. “The city needs to focus more on governance so [that it] can deliver data-driven transparency,” recommended Hebert. “First, the city should establish a Miami Beach Rising Above delivery office to monitor and communicate the effectiveness of the program. This office can offer tools, project performance, community outreach and co-design, and facilitate creative placemaking.”

Hebert stressed that this office would also create additional task forces to address specific risk factors associated with its resilience plan, along with a scientific advisory board that can continuously evaluate the city’s strategy. He also recommended that the city involve experienced development and climate change professionals in its development review boards in an effort to keep water management top of mind.

Examples of how other cities are incorporating water controls into public spaces.

Furthermore, the panel suggested that the city reconsider its current historic preservation ordinance, which is overly burdensome and does not take into account dire sea-level rise consequences that uniquely affect these districts. Their recommendation calls for an approach that prioritizes the most important historic landmarks. Other regulations, such as an ordinance that would centralize the raising of private seawalls and private properties, and a reconfiguring of the city’s stormwater fee structure, were also recommended.

Financing Miami Beach’s resilience plan going forward was also met with some creative solutions. “A holistic approach between insurance and capital is needed for Miami Beach,” says Lowe. “There’s a new awareness of how climate risk affects investors, and they’re thinking differently about how they invest their money. Miami Beach has a story to tell because they’re doing something to lower risks.”

In addition to the recommendation that Miami Beach implement special assessment districts and insurance pools to make the city less reliant on the National Flood Insurance Program, Lowe also suggested that Miami Beach consider insurance as a form of risk transfer that can play an appropriate role in reducing the burden on taxpayers by offloading the balance-sheet risk of implementing large resilience projects.

Implementing this effort would require enhanced communications with the community at large, and panelists also identified opportunities to improve this effort. “The city shouldn’t shy away from branding itself as a ‘resilient city,’” says West. He recommends that the city highlight its efforts to attract capital while also outlining its creative placemaking strategies to galvanize community support.