Across the country, young people are eschewing suburban living for urban hubs, where there is easy access to just about every amenity imaginable. Miami exemplifies the trend. The city has doubled its population since the year 2000, and much of that growth is among young people. In the city’s downtown, almost half of all residents are between 25 and 44.
On one hand, it’s hard to argue with the benefits of density–it’s energy efficient, requires fewer vehicles on the road, and often allows people to live close to where they work. But Miami has a somewhat unique issue to contend with as it expands: climate change is already baring its teeth in the city, and the problem will only get worse.
Downtown Miami’s growth can be traced back to the last housing boom, when developers built 23,000 luxury condos in the area. When the crash hit hardest five years ago, 38% of those units were vacant. Now that the economy is rebounding, those units are quickly getting filled–and over 23,000 new condo units are already in the construction pipeline.
“The availability of high-end affordable housing along with an urban lifestyle in a tropical setting created the perfect storm driving thousands of young residents into our urban core, really for the first time in history. Once they were here, really cool restaurants, bars and shopping areas began to sprout,” writes Alyce Robertson, the executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority, in an email.
Young urbanites are trickling into Miami, a city with no individual income tax, from all over the country. New York and New Jersey are big feeder states. So are California and Nevada. “Until Hurricane Sandy, one of the concerns that held some back from moving here was the threat of hurricanes. But many have since reevaluated this because if a hurricane can hit Manhattan, it really can hit anywhere on the eastern seaboard,” writes Robertson.
Robertson has a point. No major urban center in the U.S. is safe from the effects of climate change–drought, hurricanes, flooding, and heat waves are in our collective future. But Miami has exhibited more vulnerability that most cities. For Miami, a city that’s nearly at sea level, climate change isn’t in the future. It’s already here.
The national climate report found that although rapidly melting Arctic ice is threatening the entire American coastline, Miami is exceptionally vulnerable because of its unique geology. The city is built on top of porous limestone, which is already allowing the rising seas to soak into the city’s foundation, bubble up through pipes and drains, encroach on fresh water supplies and saturate infrastructure. County governments estimate that the damages could rise to billions or even trillions of dollars.
And from a Guardian piece on Miami’s vulnerability:
At Florida International University, geologist Peter Harlem has created a series of maps that chart what will happen as the sea continues to rise. These show that by the time oceans have risen by four feet – a fairly conservative forecast – most of Miami Beach, Key Biscayne, Virginia Key and all the area’s other pieces of prime real estate, will be bathtubs. At six feet, Miami city’s waterfront and the Florida Keys will have disappeared. The world’s busiest cruise ship port, which handles four million passengers, will disappear beneath the waves. “This is the fact of life about the ocean: it is very, very powerful,” says Harlem.
Robertson believes that Miami is doing its part to prepare. “South Florida already has a strict building code that prevents construction of living spaces on the first floor or requires builders to elevate the property in flood prone areas. While climate change is very real to us here, we aren’t the only community in the country that faces this risk. When it comes to sea level rising, reports have found that a number of U.S. cities including Boston, Los Angeles and New York are as vulnerable as Miami,” she writes.
Even though flooding in East Coast cities will become more frequent in the coming decades, Miami is indeed uniquely vulnerable; as the Guardian points out, there are 4.2 million U.S. residents living at an elevation of four feet or less, and 2.4 million of them are in south Florida.
As the city rapidly builds out its infrastructure to accommodate all the new young faces streaming in, it would do well to make sure that its residents are protected from future floods–after all, times of growth (like right now) are the perfect opportunity to add in protective infrastructure. And the more well-off Miami is, the more resources it will have to fight rising seas. Of course, even with a climate change-ready infrastructure, residents of Miami–and other coastal cities–will remain vulnerable.