Miami's Environment & Sustainability

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By: Angela Caraway-Carlton

The eyes of the world are always on Greater Miami and Miami Beach as a top destination for beautiful beaches, diverse culture, energetic nightlife and exciting sports teams, as well as for its prowess in health care, life sciences, banking and technology. These days, Greater Miami is also positioning itself as a global leader in resilience and sustainability — approaching it from all fronts. “We recognize that there are challenges ahead, but we are not turning away from them, rather we’re facing them head on,” says Elizabeth Wheaton, City of Miami Beach’s environment and sustainability director.

Position of Power

Greater Miami has been on the frontlines of resilience and sustainability for years, not only solidifying a stand-out reputation for its individual leadership by its government and community leaders, but its distinctive unified approach. Most recently, business leader and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht teamed up with The Rockefeller Foundation, known as early pioneers in the field of resilience, to form the newly named Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which will be the successor to 100 Resilient Cities. Thanks to a $30 million grant from Rockefeller and a $25 million gift from Arsht, the Center’s mission is to develop solutions to climate change, migration and security, with hopes of enhancing the resilience of one-billion people by 2030.

Mayors from some of Greater Miami’s key municipalities have played a major role in moving the destination forward in climate change adaptation and mitigation, having the foresight to convince their commissions to approve important funding.

Exemplifying unity in tackling issues, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact was formed between Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in 2010 — each with its own representatives — and has developed sea level rise projections for planning purposes, as well as setting in place a regional collaboration on climate adaptation and mitigation efforts.

And, in 2016, Greater Miami and the Beaches joined the prestigious ranks of the 100 Resilient Cities, pioneered in 2013 by The Rockefeller Foundation to help more cities become more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges. Greater Miami now has three Chief Resilience Officers, making it the only destination in the world to boast a unique multi-municipality collaboration between Miami-Dade County, City of Miami and the City of Miami Beach. “It’s both an immense responsibility and opportunity to strengthen our community,” says City of Miami Chief Resilience Officer Jane Gilbert. “I’m humbled and excited by the progress we’re making.” Over the last few years, they’ve banded together to devise Resilient 305, a strategy released in May 2019 that looks at resilience through a broader lens. “It wouldn’t have been a successful plan if it had been just the County, or one of the Cities. None of these issues are defined by political boundaries,” says Miami-Dade County Chief Resilience Officer James Murley.

The Future is Now

In the City of Miami Beach, the general role of the Environment & Sustainability Department is to protect the environmental equality of the beaches and waterways, as well as enhance the sustainability of governmental operations. “This position and department are unique. Many cities don’t have the level of sophistication and resources that we have,” says Elizabeth Wheaton, City of Miami Beach’s environment and sustainability director, “like the fact that we are able to manage our urban forests, that we have our own tree preservation program, and we have a very robust water quality monitoring and inspection program.” The City of Miami Beach also shines bright when it comes to solar energy initiatives, recently receiving a gold designation from SolSmart — the highest rating for a community in the national program — for their efforts to make it easier and more cost efficient for residents and businesses to go solar. The city even has a dedicated webpage with information on the city’s solar incentives and has passed the Urban Heat Island ordinance, requiring that new construction install sustainable roofing systems, including the option of solar roofs. And, it’s not only solar savings; the City of Miami Beach is now saving residents and businesses money when it comes to flood insurance. City of Miami Beach was recently bumped up a notch in the FEMA Community Rating System (CRS) to a Class 5 rating — they’re now one of only two in Miami-Dade County to attain the distinguished score. What this means for residents is major money saved on their flood insurance policies, with the new estimated savings expected to increase from $6.6 million to $8.3 million a year.

Climate change and serious flooding related to sea-level rise is also a big focus. “City of Miami Beach is incrementally looking to adapt to sea-level rise and how we can make adjustments today to bring us into the future,” says Wheaton, citing redevelopment projects to raise roads in low-lying areas, update stormwater drains, and enact new land development regulations. The public can stay informed and give their input by using the Miami Beach Rising Above portal, a one-stop shop related to resiliency that’s updated on a daily basis; and the resilience team also attends public meetings and HOA meetings, as well as hosting a series of workshops.

With its own personalized response to climate change for the City of Miami, Gilbert says her team helped develop the program for the Miami Forever Bond which allocates $192-million toward flood risks and sea-level rise mitigation, $100 million for affordable housing, and the remainder for parks and public safety. “That was a big effort. We secured funding with the state for an updated Stormwater Master Plan, which is under way now,” says Gilbert. They’ve also come up with the MiamiClimateReady strategy, a bold, innovative and holistic approach to climate change (residents can sign up for resilience updates); and have started a robust community outreach in local neighborhoods to help property owners with property adaptation plans. “It’s not just about public infrastructure,” says Gilbert. “It’s about helping people prepare for climatic events and helping them adapt their properties to protect them over time.” Residents can also download the 311Direct, a mobile application that enables them to report neighborhood problems and code violations to the 311 Answer Center; or document flooding concerns in their neighborhood. Rising to the call, the City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is currently the only United States mayor on the recently-formed Global Commission on Adaptation, helmed by world leaders in an effort to bring attention to climate-related threats while speeding up solutions.

And, in Miami-Dade County, where the Office of Resilience has always been 100-percent funded by the County, they’ve had a budget organized around sustainability/resilience since 2015. The evolving office, which has grown to a staff of 13, has three major functions: mitigation, to lessen the impacts of greenhouse gases; adaptation, dealing with the consequences of climate change; and communications. Chief Resilience Officer James Murley says they continue to use GreenPrint, a collaborative plan to prepare the County for a sustainable future; and they’re conducting community meetings on sea-level rise to release a broad strategy in Fall 2019. “My biggest job is to create the structure that will last within the county government and work with all of our important partners like our local universities,” says Murley. He says that Greater Miami is past arguing about, “Is climate change happening,” and believes that its further down the line than any urban area in the country. “It’s more than talking, we’re doing,” says Murley. “That doesn’t mean we have all the answers; this process will be on-going and tweaked with new information for the next 50 years.”

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