This car-loving city is protecting against climate change—and an increase in population—with new ideas.
Delaney Reynolds, a freshman at the University of Miami, says that her family got lucky when Hurricane Irma tore through mainland Florida earlier this year—the yard of their No Name Key home was filled with seaweed, but otherwise mostly unscathed. Still, she recognized the larger import of the storm: A life spent back and forth between the island and Miami has made her acutely attentive to the ways that climate change is reshaping the region. She is now a passionate activist who runs an organization called The Sink or Swim Project that works to bring attention to sea level rise in the Miami area. In her writing and public speaking, she’s committed to helping others understand the transformations she had seen with her own eyes.
Sea level rise is one of the biggest issues to impact Reynolds’s generation of Floridians, and it will inevitably affect generations to come. A recent report by UNICEF demonstrates how children are uniquely vulnerable to climate change, and some philosophers even speculate that it may be unethical to have children in our warming climate. For her part, Reynolds is focused on the current effects and what we can do about them now. “Each month during the high tides, what are called the ‘king tides’ have become an increasingly worse issue here in South Florida,” she explains. “The streets flood with sea water and transportation comes to a halt.” Projections from the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact which was signed by governmental leaders from four counties, warns of the possibility of a sea level rise of up to two feet by 2060.
Miami is the country’s 14th fastest-growing large city, according to the latest U.S. Census numbers: Its population has increased by almost eight percent since 2000. This population boom has Reynolds—and city officials—worried about how residents will get around. “Right now there are about 3.5 million people living in the greater South Florida area, with an estimated seven million cars, so the traffic is absolutely nothing short of terrible,” she says. “We really need to work on that.”
Science, as reported by NPR, suggests that climate change could devastate Florida economically, and failing to prepare for it properly can downgrade a community’s credit rating. To avoid that fate, government officials in the city of Miami Beach have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to transportation infrastructure initiatives like raising roadways and updating drainage systems. Additionally, plans for better public transportation and denser neighborhoods throughout the region are in the works.
The New Getting from A to B
“Right now, in the city of Miami, people who used to spend 20 to 30 minutes driving to work are now spending an hour, or sometimes two hours, to travel the same distance,” Reynolds says. That’s true whether they’re driving in their own cars or taking public transit. And the Miami Herald reports that it may be getting worse by the year, thanks to a growing population that is overwhelming the capacity of existing roads. That dilemma was more evident than usual during Hurricane Irma, when the mass of evacuees reduced outgoing traffic to a crawl. “Our mass transit woes are probably one of our biggest short-term problems,” Reynolds continues.
One solution might be implementing denser development, which means designing communities that encourage residents to embrace public transit or to walk or bike instead of drive. This would be a fundamental shift from the way the city—much of which was built to meet the needs of early automotive tourists—was designed. One model for this new development strategy comes in the form of a proposed “innovation district” built in part on the former site of a long-gone Greyhound bus facility. It would transform part of Little Haiti into what the Wall Street Journal calls “a walkable, campus-like neighborhood that attracts technology companies and retailers,” providing space for tenants like the Institute of Contemporary Art and Photopia.
Ray Fort, an architect with Arquitectonica, a design firm connected with the innovation district project, points out that denser, mixed-use development could mitigate climate change in two ways: It would give residents more immediate access to grocery stores, medical facilities, and other critical resources, making it easier for communities to endure when storms hit; and it would reduce the community’s carbon footprint through reduced use of cars. “It’s really important that planning and zoning rules are set up in a way that incentivizes that kind of development,” Fort says. “The usage of the car is a major pitfall to good urbanism.”
A Bright Future
But denser development isn’t enough. Many South Florida residents remain doggedly committed to their cars: 78 percent of locals drive to work, a figure far higher than that in many comparable cities. But Miami-Dade County officials are looking at new mass transit proposals. Brightline is a high-speed rail project that would connect Miami to Orlando. Brightline weaves together many of the threads of climate change preparation in South Florida: Developers have had to elevate tracks to protect them against rising waters, and they’ve placed their stations close to other public transportation hubs in an attempt to make them easily accessible.
The Miami station, for example, will be built on a site that has been a parking lot for decades. “It’s this sort of missing tooth where there was a stretch of about five blocks that was a no-man’s land for a long time,” says Olin McKenzie, a design director for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, which has worked on the Brightline project. “Part of our challenge was [to figure out] how to establish a district where there wasn’t one.”
The hope is that better public transit might drive better urban development, creating a synergistic feedback loop of positive change. McKenzie suggests that Brightline could push people toward other public transit options, especially if the city continues to reduce zoning requirements on the number of parking spots that must be built along with new construction.
“We need to be thinking ahead,” says Reynolds. “Fast forward and get rid of fossil fuels and implement sustainable energy like solar power. That’s really how we’re going to begin to solve the problem.”
In the Move Freely series, VICE and Ford have teamed up to discuss the future of mobility. The transportation divide affects everything from healthcare and employment to education and food sources. Ford believes that mobility is a human right that becomes even more important as congestion rises throughout the world, and is committed to helping people move freely, both today and tomorrow. To learn more about the future of mobility, visit FordGoFurther.com.
Jacob Brogan is a writer based in Washington, DC.
Illustration by Bill Rebholz.