Aerial view of Miami beach

Building Coastal Resilience

With the recent flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, the discussion around building coastal resilience is not only increasingly topical, but becoming necessary to protect human lives. Increased storm surges and consistent sea level rise is no longer a future fear but a present day problem. What is coastal resilience and how are cities like Miami, New York, and San Francisco building it? And will it be enough to continue inhabiting these coastal communities in an increasingly uncertain future?

What is Coastal Resilience?
Graphic describing coastal resilience by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Photo Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration officially defines coastal resilience as “the ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand—and rapidly recover from—disruption due to emergencies. … Here at the National Ocean Service, we are focused on coastal and ocean resilience because we recognize that communities that live near our coasts are increasingly vulnerable to disasters while also facing many other powerful long-term environmental changes.”

Hurricanes can’t be controlled and while climate change mitigation can help prevent catastrophic sea level rises, this is clearly beyond the scope of any single municipality. Building coastal resilience, then, is about creating plans and building infrastructure that mitigates damage, allows for a quick response to disasters, and ensures the tools are available for a rapid recovery. The water will come- how can we prepare for it?

Many cities have begun to integrate this work into their municipal or regional planning work. For example, the San Francisco Planning and Public Works divisions jointly created a “Sea Level Rise Action Plan” for the city. In Vancouver, a component of the “Climate Change Adaptation Strategy” focuses directly on sea level rise. These plans tend to work on two fronts- addressing overall sea level rise, which will bring standard tides as high as current day King tides, and planning for disastrous weather events with additional massive storm surges.


Can We Save Miami?

Again, coastal resilience is no longer a future problem; catastrophic scenarios are already appearing in present day models. At one point, shortly before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, Hurricane Irma’s surge forecast showed 7-10 feet of water above ground in many areas, according to the National Weather Service. Thankfully the forecast for the storm changed, as the storm shifted further West than originally anticipated, and catastrophic storm surges were somewhat minimized. A map of the Florida coast line shows the dramatic area at risk of these high storm surges. With climate change, these storm surges will become more frequent, and eventually sea level rise will make some of these surges a permanent condition, forming a new coast and submerging much of the city of Miami.

Photo Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Flooding is becoming a regular part of life in Southern Florida, even in communities far inland, as ocean water rises through the porous limestone that makes up this end of the Florida peninsula. “Sunny day flooding”, flooding that occurs from sea level rise rather than weather, is now a typical phenomenon when high tides force seawater through the ocean outfalls and back up through the drains. In places like Miami beach, models show that most of the area is likely to be underwater by 2100 as “sunny day flooding” becomes a permanent condition.

During Hurricane Irma, 6.3 million Florida citizens were under mandatory or voluntary evacuations, the largest evacuation order in the history of the state. Will these people eventually have to leave permanently? With a population of 2.5 million, is it possible that these Miami citizens will become sea level rise refugees, forced to leave their city for higher ground? Is Miami doomed to drown? In the video above, those interviewed from the City of Miami haven’t lost hope and have faith in human ability to innovate their way out of challenges. The projection of Jeff Goodall, author of the forthcoming book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World and long-time journalist on climate change’s effects on coastal cities, is more grim. He thinks that regardless of innovation, the rising water is inevitable and maintaining the cities current urban design will be impossible with sea level rise guaranteed. But perhaps there is a way for Miami to learn to live with it. There is a huge community in Miami learning from the Dutch approach to flood waters- don’t fight it, learn to live with it.


Innovation v. The Planet

The highest risk major metropolis’ in North America are not letting their cities submerge without a valiant fight. Coastal resilience committees and working groups have been formed in the city governments across North America, and private capital is beginning to enter into the discussion. In San Francisco, the Rockefeller Foundation has sponsored a design competition for 10 teams to build and test innovation sea level rise solutions. Modelled after a similar post-Sandy competition, the goal of this new iteration of the competition is to build solutions prior to disaster, saving money and livelihoods by designing for solutions ahead of time. In New York, architects and engineers have started planning for flood waters in their building design, using materials on the ground floor that can be easily cleaned after a flood and including backup generators at the top of towers. As noted earlier, many cities are learning from Dutch strategies, and cities such as Rotterdam are ambitiously aiming to “climate proof” the city by 2025. More out-there ideas also exist, such as the construction of floating islands for new cities. Can innovation outsmart climate change? It seems increasingly unlikely that we will be able to stop the rising tides, but by learning from each other’s innovation, cities may be able to adapt to new conditions.



Photo by Lance Asper on Unsplash

Alyssa Koehn

Alyssa Koehn is a TH!NK by IBI blog curator and urban planner. She recently returned to Vancouver after attending UCLA for graduate studies in both Architecture and Urban Planning. Her interests are in housing design and affordability, municipal politics, and the zone of the public realm where buildings touch the streets.

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