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Habitat III Miami Convening on Building a Resilient South Florida: “Stop Thinking This Is Someone Else’s Problem.”

Image of a city skyline in the shape of the United States with the Habitat III logo superimposed.

“Each one of us is part of the problem. Each one of us has the potential to be a part of the solution. Stop thinking this is someone else’s problem.” Sonia Chao, research associate professor at the University of Miami, had the students’ attention.

Chao was speaking not to her usual students at the university’s School of Architecture, but to dozens of high school students from five public school magnet programs in Miami-Dade County that specialize in engineering, marine science, agriculture, and related topics. Their mission: to analyze the area surrounding their schools and find ways to make it a better, more resilient home for its diverse residents.

The students were participating in a mini-charrette designed to help pave the way for the UN Habitat III conference, which will be held in October 2016 in Quito, Ecuador. To prepare for the conference, HUD Secretary Julián Castro, who is leading the U.S. delegation, selected Miami as one of five sites nationwide to host convenings of local experts to gain new insights on resiliency. The Miami HUD team decided to invite high school students to their city’s June 13 convening to give a voice to those who will be the decisionmakers at the next UN Habitat meeting 20 years from now.

The May 25 mini charrette led by Professor Chao was held at the suggestion of Rodolphe el-Khoury, dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, who noted that students would need an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the issue before the convening. Chao, who also serves as the director of the Center for Urban and Community Design, is a veteran of charrettes and an expert in the issues facing recovering communities, from Miami after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. During the charrette, the students developed a clear message to share at the city’s convening: Stop wasting water and learn how to use it more efficiently. They were ready to present their message to policymakers, academics, planners, and developers.

The most pressing challenge Florida must address to build physical resilience is the projected rise in sea levels in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Participants at both the students’ charrette and the convening pointed out that South Florida’s porous limestone foundation rules out the construction of walls and levees. Although levees and seawalls might protect coastal cities from physical damage caused by storm surges, the saltwater can still seep through the limestone from below ground, threatening the area’s freshwater system. To make matters worse, the seeping water also bubbles up from the ground, making inland flooding a major concern, particularly during high tides.

Fortunately, panelists pointed out, most solutions to fight these effects of climate change are in South Florida’s own backyard.  Restoring the Everglades aquifers will actually help freshwater flow to the only subtropical wilderness in North America. Protecting the wetlands of this neglected ecosystem may actually solve future generations’ needs for potable water.

The potential flooding also poses challenges for developers. Rising sea levels will affect many cities in South Florida that once considered themselves safe from flooding because of their inland location. These challenges are especially burdensome for affordable housing developers, who already struggle to finance construction that will remain both affordable and accessible to disabled and elderly residents. The need for affordable housing is particularly acute in Miami; according to Bobbi Ibarra, executive director of Miami Homes for All, the city has highest percentage of working households in the nation that spend more than half of their income on housing. Constructing housing that both complies with local zoning regulations and is capable of withstanding hurricanes is already a difficult and costly endeavor; making that housing also affordable to the low- and moderate-income residents who need it can seem a nearly insurmountable task.

Almost every panel indicated that local input, particularly from existing residents and stakeholders of affected neighborhoods and communities, is a key element of successful strategic planning. In her keynote address, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, the convening’s sponsor, was clear: “Those in need know what they need,” she said. “We just need to listen.”

Raw data will only help change behavior if the data lay bare our eventual destination clearly and in unforgiving detail. In particular, the information needs to be understandable to the elected officials who decide how to spend our money and enact the laws that govern our behavior.

An environment that values community participation and engagement encourages more accurate problem identification and produces more significant results. Ryerson also reminded attendees that social isolation can be as damaging to residents’ health as heavy smoking; connections are the lifeblood of our communities. “A town or city is only really well built if its people can interact, can commune. Social isolation is a real risk.”

Although the convening participants universally maintained that providing affordable housing options for all was a baseline requirement of resiliency, they emphatically stressed that housing alone is not sufficient. Truly resilient communities have to provide their residents with opportunities for upward mobility.

The participants discussed strategies for developing mixed-income housing opportunities and shared best practices for adapting construction techniques to account for the present and projected environment. They also examined the costs associated with resilient construction and shared promising solutions, such as the inclusionary zoning ordinance being considered by Miami-Dade County.

Several panelists stated that the key to successful resiliency efforts is for policymakers and resource allocators to ensure that equitable access and treatment is at the forefront of every desired outcome and objective.

The participants in the Miami convening offered several recommendations for policymakers developing the New Urban Agenda at Habitat III as well as for those in other communities worldwide who face similar challenges. Localities that are improving their resiliency should consider equitable housing and community development; equitable access to jobs and health care; equitable consideration of transportation options and their connectivity to general affordability and essential services; equitable distribution of available assets for the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly; equitable access to technology and information; and, most of all, equitable access to the planning process that determines the future of communities and their residents.