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How Miami is shoring itself up

Reworking the budget through the lens of resilience has revolutionised the way Miami is developing. Chris Stokel-Walker reports

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Miami is flat, low-lying, surrounded by rising seas and built on porous limestone with tiny holes through which sea water rises. Photo: Getty

In 100 cities around the world, including Britain’s Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester and London, a raft of bureaucrats are planning for the future. Sat alongside mayors and councillors, they are trying to tackle the multifaceted, competing challenges that will face cities in the decades to come.


The post of chief resilience officer (CRO) is largely an invention of The Rockefeller Foundation, which in 2013 instigated a programme, 100 Resilient Cities, to improve cities across the globe and their ability to respond to the changing environment.


“It was built on a lot of the work they’d been doing about climate adaptation over the course of a decade-plus, largely in response to three main drivers: urbanisation, globalisation and climate change,” explains Peter Jenkins, senior programme manager for city resilience delivery in North America at 100 Resilient Cities.


The foundation was set up to fund cities to employ CROs who could help them understand the greatest risks to their future – and do something about it.


100 Resilient Cities was a response to the havoc that Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy wreaked on US cities, as well as an acknowledgement that the way we live is changing – and becoming more precarious. Global warming is a serious risk to our way of life.


“Resiliance requires new types of thinking, and new structures in place around planning, decision-making and urban governance, to be able to better address those challenges in integrated ways”


“It requires new types of thinking, and new structures around planning, decision-making and urban governance, to be able to better address those challenges in integrated ways,” says Jenkins. “That’s what the programme ultimately sought to accomplish.” Hundreds of applications were received over the course of the three rounds of the programme, with 100 cities making the cut.


But in April this year, the president of The Rockefeller Foundation announced to staff that 100 Resilient Cities would close. There were rumours that a change in leadership at the foundation had caused the shift, and worries that support would be withdrawn from the participating cities and CROs left to wither on the vine.


The Rockefeller Foundation has announced a grant to the Atlantic Council to support the resilient cities and will continue to help their CROs to share best practices worldwide. However, at the time we spoke, Jenkins was preparing to leave his post.


Register now for our one-day conference on designing and developing resilient places at The Developer Live: Risk & Resilience on 8 November at Illuminate, Science Museum, in London.


Workers board up Mango’s restaurant and nightclub in preparation for an approaching hurricane. Photo: Getty


Miami is one city committed to ensuring the impact of 100 Resilient Cities lives on, even as the initial initiative shuts up shop. Carlos Martin, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a non-profit organisation brought in to analyse the impact of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, says there is a simple explanation for this.


“Miami is one of those places that realised their days are limited unless they act immediately.”


(However, it is worth noting that Florida’s former governor, Rick Scott, used to expunge any mention of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ from official documents. That stopped in January 2019 with the swearing in of new governor Ron DeSantis.)


Nichole Hefty, deputy resilience officer at Miami-Dade County’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources, explains: “We initially went into this focusing on our specific challenges with regards to climate change and sea-level rise.”


“Rising sea levels could have deleterious effects on the community, ranging from saltwater poisoning sources of drinking water to flooded buildings near the coast”


Miami-Dade County and the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, which applied together as a partnership for the 100 Resilient Cities programme, expect sea levels to rise between one and two feet from 1992 levels by 2060. That could have deleterious effects on the community, ranging from saltwater poisoning the sources of drinking water in the region to flooded buildings near the coast and waterlogged roads. Florida also sees “more than its fair share” of hurricanes, says Hefty. All of this requires thinking to bounce back from.


But the development of a document outlining all the risks and concerns – termed ‘stresses’ and ‘shocks’ in the parlance of CROs – allowed the Miami project, now christened Resilient305 after the telephone dialling code for the area, to highlight other areas of concern.


Storm-water pumps will help to stop rising sea levels from inundating low-lying areas. Photo: Getty


Its future-proofing strategy is divided into three main areas, says Sara McTarnaghan, research associate at the Urban Institute, who has investigated the Resilient305 project.


“It’s organised around ‘places’, which deals with a lot of the environmental risk; ‘people’, which deals with a lot of the socio-economic opportunity; and ‘pathways’, which is an interesting area and quite unique from other strategies – it’s how do they do regional governance on this issue,” she says.


One of the reasons for CROs is to break down the silos in government and make people work more in partnership – as evidenced by the fact the Resilient305 plan caters for two cities, a county and 32 other municipalities.


“Our county budget for the first time is now organised around the four pillars of resilience, as identified by the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities programme”


Hefty says: “We quickly realised while climate is certainly a challenge for us, we have a lot of long-term challenges we really could benefit from working more collaboratively on. Some of the other stresses that are chronic challenges to our community are transportation and affordable housing, and we have certain areas that are in extreme poverty.”


The three partners spent a year identifying the gaps that needed to be filled with the development of a resilience strategy. They went into the community, asked residents – even some who didn’t fall under the auspices of either city – what they felt needed improving, convened gatherings of experts and conducted online surveys.


She says: “Some of these things we and other communities have been trying to address and improve for a long period of time and it seems like some of these challenges – despite the fact you’ve got resources devoted to them and people working on them – can be hard to get beyond a certain plateau. We took the time to identify some of those things that needed to be changed, to be done differently, or to better connect the dots in order to move the needle on some of these challenges.”


“As any city dweller knows, municipal repair teams often don’t talk to each other. The sewerage team can dig up the road one year and the roadworks team tears up the tarmac the next”


What resulted was a list of 59 actions the area needed to do to guarantee its future. Jenkins says this is remarkable and unprecedented: “Resilient305 is a single document, a single vision, that has been endorsed. This then enabled them to work with the other municipalities, which were invited to sign onto the strategy.”


The document tackles the bigger challenges, including global warming and the risks associated with that and an attempt to engage the community in ways that feel more inclusive, as well as more fundamental shifts. Hefty says: “We’re looking at, for example, a platform on which we can better co-ordinate our utility work.”


Miami-Dade County’s water and sewer department has a long-term programme to improve its infrastructure, aimed at alleviating some of the stresses on the system in the aftermath of hurricanes and associated flooding. But as any city dweller knows, municipal repair teams often don’t talk to each other. The sewerage team can dig up the road one year to fix the underground system and the next year the municipality’s roadworks team comes along to tear up the tarmac to repair a pavement.


“We’re looking at using some online platforms and existing working groups to better co-ordinate that type of work, so there’s less disruption in operations and in the community, and efficiencies in cost and workforce that are used,” says Hefty.


Trees and other infrastructure are vulnerable to storm damage. Photo: Getty


Through the establishment of CROs, the greater Miami area has been able to develop new projects and improve existing ones. The area’s history with hurricanes means its Office of Emergency Management is seen as a leader in the field, but the resilience programme has allowed it to improve its preparation and services for underserved communities.


One programme being expanded through the Resilient305 plan is the Community Emergency Response Team, which helps to identify vulnerable individuals who cannot prepare for natural disasters because they lack the money or transport.


McTarnaghan explains: “It’s interesting that Resilient305 incorporates a lot of activities that were previously happening in the region but is floundering or not receiving the real support of leadership. The hope was bringing them under the Resilient305 label would give them a bit more life. That’s especially true for some of the stuff on the income-inequality side.”


Hefty adds: “What we’re really doing is making sure not only are we co-ordinating it at a county level, but we’re continuing to work with our non-profits and other sector leaders in the community, not only to keep these issues current but to continue to make progress.


“We all get very busy with the different things we do every day and this is a long-term strategy and process. Some of the projects we expect to complete within a year, but others we expect will take more than five years.”


Resilient305 has involved a fundamental shift in the way things are organised by the greater Miami area’s government.


“For the first time, our county budget is now organised around the four pillars of resilience, as identified by the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities programme,” explains Sandra St Hilaire, resilience co-ordinator at Miami-Dade County.


She adds: “Having our Office of Management and Budget shift that work through the lens of resilience has really revolutionised the way Miami-Dade County is thinking about resilience and building it into all our county operations.”


While 100 Resilient Cities may disappear, Resilient305 will not. Hefty says: “It’s up to us to make sure we are continually out there, working with our stakeholders, to not only maintain the progress but to keep it relevant.


“We know things change, but we also know this is a live document. As priorities change, we may need to tweak to continue that progress forward.”


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