Here’s what ‘sustainability’ really means


In 1987, the United Nations introduced the concept of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In the ’90s, based on mounting scientific evidence that overpopulation, industrial growth, consumerism, environmental change, among other factors, were threatening the world’s natural resources, the great climate-change debate emerged. It still rages.

But like most people, I didn’t pay much attention until the issue was, almost literally, “in my back yard.” In a series of recent articles, however, the Miami Herald has brought public focus to the fact that climate change is not only likely occurring, the seas are measurably rising.

In South Florida, and particularly in our beachfront communities, the Miami-Dade Climate Change Task Force predicted the seas will rise from 3-5 feet in the next century. This prediction places the issue of “sustainability” clearly on our doorstep. We can no longer ignore this issue. The potential loss for South Florida in the coming decades is about $4 billion in taxable real estate for every incremental rise in the level of our seas.

This threatens our ability to live here at all. I began to pay attention to sustainability during the last 10 years when, as city attorney for two Miami-Dade beach communities, I saw first-hand the increasing chaos that ensued every time there was a heavy rainstorm: the flooding, the traffic congestion, stormwater-runoff issues and drainage. I became actively involved in researching sustainability and helping these communities implement some short- and long-term solutions.

These included the overhaul of infrastructure, adjusting building and zoning codes to incentivize sustainable development, exploring on-site energy generation like solar panels, improved transportation alternatives, land conservation using transferable development rights and the implementation of green legislation.

Yet, there is so much more that needs to be done and has to be seriously addressed — and it requires leadership. Several local governments, including Miami Beach’s new mayor and commission, are stepping up and becoming proactive. Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties have formed an alliance to discuss solutions to the inevitable problems that are in our future.

But, frankly, without money or assistance from the state, it will be difficult. Former Speaker of the House Tom Gustafson told Rolling Stone Magazine recently that “the statehouse in Tallahassee is a monument to climate-change denial.”

As with so many other issues, local government is going to have to assume a leadership role and take action. This will have to include community education and outreach. It will mean that each local government will need to make a formal commitment to pursue sustainability strategies and targets. It will mean recognizing that sustainability is a dynamic process, not based on engineering or regulatory solutions alone.

Only an integrated approach that engages local businesses, developers, nonprofit institutions and residents in a joint public-private venture will create long-term solutions. It has to be a cooperative effort because sustainability without economic viability and responsiveness to social demands will not be successful in the long term. Besides education and cooperation, benchmarking and evaluation tools and environmental accountability are also fundamental to success. Viewed properly, with forward-thinking leaders, effective management and community support, this challenge will become an opportunity to make Miami sustainable for our children and grandchildren.

Lynn Dannheisser is a South Florida land-use and government attorney.

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