Business Monday

Irma revealed weaknesses, but presented opportunities to shape a resilient Miami

Hurricane Irma pushed some boats into Peacock Park, in Coconut Grove.
Hurricane Irma pushed some boats into Peacock Park, in Coconut Grove. SOFIA VIGLUCCI

Entering a City of Miami official’s office recently, I was greeted by two affectionate pups rescued from shelters after being abandoned during Hurricane Irma. In the midst of recovery efforts and growing frustration over extended power outages across Miami, I found a sense of optimism thinking about Miami’s amazing ability to unite, reimagine itself and bounce back.

For example, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 ushered in a significant period of economic growth and development. Miami’s housing market collapsed in 2008, yet came roaring back within a few years. In response to increasing prevalence of king tides, Greater Miami & the Beaches has joined 100 Resilient Cities — a joint commitment to exploring strategies to strengthening our community. With the City of Miami’s $400 million GO Bond going to voters on the November ballot, Miami seems poised post-Irma to take a significant leap towards shaping a more resilient Miami.

But investing in resiliency is more than allocating dollars. As we reflect on the lessons learned from Hurricane Irma, we have opportunities to incorporate best practices from around the world and leverage existing strengths and assets. Among them:

1. Regard waterfront parks as key assets. The city has a significant amount of public land fronting on Biscayne Bay, including large parks, which are some of the lowest elevations to flood during heavy storms and are certainly impacted by sea level rise. When Irma’s storm surge spilled into Kennedy and Peacock Parks in Coconut Grove, these areas showed their value, acting as a barrier to protect homes and businesses, and reducing potential damage and disruption.

The City’s Waterfront Advisory Board has recommended studying stormwater mitigation strategies that may range from traditional infrastructure to green and blue strategies that leverage existing low-lying public waterfront.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, designated parks can serve as stormwater retention during acute events while continuing to provide access and recreation. Rather than investing solely in building up seawalls, Copenhagen has incorporated natural mitigation strategies that can be implemented with lower costs, returning low-lying coastal areas to their natural state. Over the past 20 years, Copenhagen reduced carbon emissions by nearly 50 percent and facilitated 20 percent economic growth, and is home to 600-plus companies with expertise in areas of energy, water, and clean tech industry.

2. Encourage compact development around key transportation corridors. Much has been said in recent weeks about overhead power lines knocked out by crashing trees, leaving many older residential neighborhoods and businesses inaccessible for days. Meanwhile, new buildings in Miami’s mixed-use urban core built to today’s Florida Building Code standards fared well and bounced back quickly. Brickell City Centre, despite the images of flooding seen during the hurricane, looked almost untouched a few days after the storm, and my office was running smoothly. Newly constructed condo buildings in Miami’s urban core, where FPL lines are buried, were safe and secure during the storm; some buildings never lost power.

It’s no secret Miami is stressed by dependency on automobiles and a limited public transportation system. Building a more resilient Miami should involve a concentrated effort to facilitate transit-oriented development and new housing and employment centers in key urban districts around Metrorail and multimodal transportation corridors, including Grand Central Station and Brickell Backyard, the first phase of the Underline, an area that could become the most walkable neighborhood in Miami. These are typically some of the highest elevations and have infrastructure to handle more capacity.

Encouraging higher densities and an innovative mix of uses linked to transit, including micro-apartments and creative work spaces, can bolster ridership numbers, improve Miami’s ability to attract employers, create more affordable housing supply, take cars off the road, and protect lower-scale residential neighborhoods.

3. Have a comprehensive plan for resiliency. After Hurricane Sandy, New York adopted the OneNYC Plan — a $20 billion resiliency program integrating climate-smart thinking throughout all government agencies. Recently adopted climate resiliency design guidelines provide city agency guidance on planning and capital expenditures, which include flexible adaptation pathways along the waterfront for both public access and future flood mitigation needs.

Hurricane Irma showed us we have much work to do to improve our community’s resilience to storm events and sea level rise. But Miami must not look at this event in a vacuum. While the county and city have adopted climate-change action plans in the past decade, and the county’s SMART Plan presents hope for future expansion of Metrorail, we must view resiliency with a broader lens.

The heightened attention on upgrades to our infrastructure presents an opportunity to learn from established cities like Copenhagen and New York and take a holistic approach to shaping a safe, sustainable community, and leveraging smart infrastructure investments to attract new industries and high-paying jobs to Miami.

Steven J. Wernick is a partner at Akerman LLP specializing in land use law. He is also chair of the City of Miami Waterfront Advisory Board.

▪ This piece, which reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Miami Herald, was written for Business Monday.

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