Miami Beach.

Miami Beach City Government Rises to the Challenge of Climate Change Resilience

By Christine Chumbler

Sea-level rise poses challenges for cities in both developing and developed countries. One city in the United States offers an example of how coastal cities are coping with this challenge. Their approach may be of interest and use to practitioners working in developing countries.

Florida has more residents at risk from climate change than any other state in the United States. Changing weather patterns such as more extreme and frequent hurricanes are a periodic challenge, however, many communities around the world are finding sea level rise is becoming a daily threat.

Water levels are rising quickly, particularly in southern Florida. Most estimates say that the state should expect sea level to be six to 10 inches above 1992 levels by 2030, and 31 to 61 inches above by 2100. And sea levels are rising faster; in South Florida the rate of sea level rise was an average of three millimeters (mm) per year from 1998 to 2005, but from 2006, that jumped to nine mm per year, which is faster than the global average rise. For a city like Miami Beach, where much of the municipality is just two to six feet above sea level, and where underground infrastructure is often below sea level, every inch counts. There were a total of 16 flood events in Miami Beach from 1998 to 2005; from 2006 to 2013 there were 33 [1].

Over the last several years, the leaders of Miami Beach have adopted a series of policy measures designed to increase the city’s ability to withstand this threat, measures that coastal cities anywhere in the world can use as models. Under the direction of the mayor and city commission, the Planning Department has devised a regulatory framework that guides new construction toward increased resilience to climate change and city staff are working to retrofit existing infrastructure, elevating sea walls and streets and installing storm water pumps to keep roads, homes and businesses dry.

From January 2016 to October 2017, the city adopted nine separate building ordinances for new construction projects.

  1. A “freeboard ordinance” raised the minimum first floor elevation for new construction projects by a range of 1 to 5 feet, reducing the susceptibility to floods and storm surges.
  2. A “single-family home development regulation ordinance” requires new homes to raise their yards. The ordinance also requires more green space and less paving in the yards of new homes, as this relieves the city’s storm water management system during flooding events by increasing the capacity for on-site storm water retention. 
  3. The “RM-1 and RM-2 multi-family districts development regulations ordinance” similarly increased setbacks and pervious open space requirements in higher density neighborhoods.
  4. An “alternative parking ordinance” has modestly reduced parking requirements for commercial buildings and rewards developers for including bicycle parking, commuter showers, motorcycle parking and car-share loading zones, all of which encourage fewer single-passenger vehicle trips.
  5. An “electric vehicle (EV) parking ordinance” requires that all new buildings have at least 2 percent EV parking, including charging stations.
  6. A “sustainable roofing ordinance” allows the installation of features such as green or blue roofs and solar infrastructure.
  7. A “green building ordinance” requires that all new construction over 7,000 square feet must now attain sustainable building certification.
  8. A “landscape ordinance” requires a minimum number of native canopy trees per lot to ward off the heat island effect, help storm water drainage and protect local biodiversity.
  9. Finally, the addition of sustainability and resiliency criteria during the review of Land Use Board applications and development proposals ensures that new and rehabilitated buildings are constructed and rehabilitated with resiliency in mind.

In addition to all the regulatory changes, the City of Miami Beach is also updating municipal infrastructure. The city is raising roads by as much as two feet and seawalls by as much as 2.5 feet to an elevation of 5.7 North American Vertical Datum. A $500 million system of pumping stations is also being installed. It’s working so far. Areas where these improvements have been completed are much drier than other parts of the city.

These improvements do have a substantial price tag. Some of this cost is being offset by Miami and Miami Beach’s participation in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, which provides funding for the position of chief resiliency officer for the Greater Miami area and guidance on how cities around the world can prepare themselves for challenges including climate change and sea level rise. The infrastructure improvement costs, however, are largely paid for through various public fees, bonds and taxes.

City government in Miami Beach understands that resiliency requires a comprehensive and overarching outlook to truly be successful. The public and private sectors must be synchronized and complement one another. City leaders hope that new regulations and infrastructure will allow Miami Beach to continue to be the sun-kissed coastal playground that it has been.

Learn how USAID is helping make cities more resilient.

Adaptation, Urban
Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Coastal, Resilience, Urban
North America

Christine Chumbler

Christine Chumbler is a communications professional with more than 20 years experience in writing, editing, and publications design. She has expertise in every stage of publication production, from concept and writing to editing, design, and printing. In the mid-1990s, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. This experience led to a career using her writing and editorial skills with international development and foreign policy organizations, many of which worked to directly support USAID’s efforts. She has worked in a freelance capacity full-time since May 2016. Chumbler has a Master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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