Don't say 'dystopia' when you're talking to politicians about sea level rise in Miami Beach.
"It's a trigger word," Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber joked. The image of a future city undone by rising tides leading to "a kind of dystopian inundation scenario," was invoked by Harvard University professor Charles Waldheim in a presentation to the city commission on Wednesday.
He and a team of 50 Harvard graduate students spent the last two and a half years coming up with the opposite — a utopian vision of the city made resilient to the changing levels of the water that surrounds it.
Some of their ideas cover old ground: more elevated streets, more mangroves along the coast, plants to soak up excess water and systems to treat stormwater before releasing it into Biscayne Bay.
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Others involved all new ideas: Giant, concrete water-holding cisterns in Flamingo Park and on roofs. Buildings with "sacrificial floors" on top of a layer of limestone that would serve as a "sponge pad" for excess water. Deepening Collins Canal and using that excavated rock, muck and sand to elevate nearby properties.
The main question his students answered, Waldheim said, is “If we are going to be living with water, what form will that take?"
Miami Beach and its $500 million in pumps and raised streets are currently "the cutting edge" of sea level rise adaptation, he said, but those solutions are inadequate for the future. Engineering solutions alone aren't the answer, according to the report. Students suggested the city focus on working in more trees, grasses and other nature-based solutions to drain floodwater and create pleasant public spaces.
“There’s the challenge that engineering solutions may get you out of the water, but they may negate the culture that makes this barrier island desirable,” Waldheim said.
The city plans to look at the Harvard students' project and possibly work some ideas into future plans.
Harvard's studies of potential sea-level rise effects in South Florida will continue. Waldheim and new classes of graduate students are targeting Miami as the first focus of a new million-dollar Future of the American City effort funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Students will spend the next three years studying Miami and Miami Beach's issues with climate change, affordability and transportation. The ongoing spring semester class focuses on public health and climate change in Allapattah, Overtown and Little Haiti, said Harvard professor Jesse Keenan.
"We're trying to look at a broad spectrum of ideas you normally wouldn't think of," he said. "It's about creating an alternate vision."