Mario Alejandro Ariza’s Disposable City is an extremely well-researched book on the future of Miami and South Florida in the face of the climate crisis and rising seas—scanning his footnotes alone is daunting. For those of us who live here, it’s also distressing reading—each year over the coming decades will result not only in diminished coastal territory but inland inundations as well. Decades away might sound distant, but American real-estate finance is based on 30-year mortgages. This has been vague in Floridians’ minds, but Ariza rules out any possible haziness about the future.
It’s hard to imagine a major federal intervention at this moment; Florida would have to convince Congress that its environmental issues supersede many others. The city of Venice, Italy, comes to mind: its frequent flooding has prompted calls for the national government to take action for decades, but progress has been excruciatingly slow. In my opinion, one contentious but helpful strategy in Florida would be to rethink regulations that govern the built environment and let property owners pursue individual solutions. To do that, three official documents need radical alteration.
Miami 21, the city’s current zoning code, was adopted in 2009, on the cusp of local environmental awareness. There is no mention of sea-level rise and no provision for rezoning higher density to higher ground. Ironically, the higher elevations are home to some of the poorest neighborhoods, such as Little Haiti and Liberty City (location of the Oscar-award-winning Moonlight). The city should quickly redesignate the most sustainable areas for new development, but also protect the interests of local property owners—a challenging proposition.
The second document is the City of Miami’s Preservation Ordinance, which aims to accomplish “the protection, enhancement, perpetuation, and use of ” Miami’s built and natural landmarks. Preservation departments, however, do not focus solely on perpetuating individual buildings but entire neighborhoods, a difficult goal. I’d suggest creating a commission to consider, on a citywide basis, the challenges of protecting landmarks in an era of sea-level rise.
Before the destruction of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida’s municipalities had their own building codes; 10 years later, the state adopted the Florida Building Code “based on national model building codes and consensus standards which are amended where necessary for Florida’s specific needs.” But the current version does not address “specific needs” such as sea-level rise. Instead, a whole chapter addresses snow loading on roofs. Moreover, the code principally deals with standard types of construction: high-rise condos and single-family homes. It lacks critical imagination in terms of what may be new solutions to elevated-water conditions: Floating buildings? Buildings over expressways? Canals as infrastructure?
Each of these three documents took years to negotiate; revisions to address Florida’s impending crisis need to be expedited. Hopefully, Ariza’s work will serve as a clarion call for timely action.