A road map to regional resiliency: solving climate change with capitalism

December 17, 2018   |   Miami Herald


South Florida’s real estate community will play a pivotal role in our region’s efforts to become more resilient. Our industry has enjoyed decades of growth and prosperity despite currency fluctuations, natural disasters and economic volatility. We now face our most significant challenge yet: showing the world how we will ensure long-term viability by hardening our infrastructure and adapting to climate change.

Local governments across South Florida have been studying solutions for protecting against climate change for years, but our real estate industry has historically been sidestepping the issue. That pattern of neglect must end now. The candid discussion among members of our real estate community during the Herald’s “Florida Priorities Summit” was an important step in the right direction.

Florida is among the most susceptible states in the U.S. when it comes to sea level rise, but we are not alone. Climate change is a global phenomenon and its effects are far-reaching, from stronger storms and forest fires, to hurricanes and heat waves. Like Miami, coastal cities such as New York and Boston are tackling geologic challenges and rising seas.

The newly released National Climate Assessment, which surveys nationwide risk, encourages immediate action against climate change if we are going to “avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being.”

Fortunately, South Florida is time battle-tested. Our region has been one of our country’s most resilient dating back more than a century, when our earliest cities rose out of unforgiving terrain. Since then we have weathered category five hurricanes, tidal flooding and droughts, leaving us well-suited to identify and implement solutions while serving as a role model for other cities. 

As a community, we need to embrace creative approaches to development and infrastructure upgrades while rethinking the way we plan our cities, accounting for hydrology, technology, sustainability and economic resiliency. These factors must also be a priority throughout all layers of municipal government.

At our firm, Terra, we have long believed that smart development can be an integral part of confronting climate change. Making our communities more resilient will take investment, political resolve and public advocacy. It will also require partnership between government, the private sector and academia to match real-world solutions with necessary funding. The tax revenue derived from sustainable development will be integral to ensuring those dollars exist.

There is no panacea for solving the climate change conundrum, but here are three basic development principles that we are adopting at our firm:

▪ Moving density away from vulnerable areas: Long-term viability means bringing people and commercial density to higher ground while reducing exposure in low-lying areas. This is a departure from the decades-old development model in South Florida, which was based on extracting as much value as possible from environmentally sensitive areas, such as land adjacent to the Everglades. At the same time, the public and private sectors must collaborate to ensure workforce and market-rate housing opportunities are available in high-lying zones. 

▪ Bringing people closer to mass transit: A surge in carbon emissions may be fueling climate change, but it’s not too late to reverse the trend by reducing dependence on cars. Developers and local governments can improve access to transit by linking multiple forms of mobility with commercial and residential uses. Our firm is doing this now, in partnership with Miami-Dade County, at our newest project in Coconut Grove. Grove Central will combine 330 market-rate and workforce apartment units, retail stores, and an improved Metrorail station that will connect with the Miami trolley system, County buses, and the Underline linear park. 

▪ Embracing innovation and resilient building techniques: Grove Central will include a rooftop solar trellis — creating Florida’s first “microgrid” within an urban development — capable of powering the project in its entirety. Rainwater will be used for irrigation and wastewater, and groundwater will be harvested to keep public spaces climate-controlled. The development, which is set about 12-feet above sea level, will also feature porous building materials designed to stave off flooding during heavy rains.
From coexisting with uninhabitable swampland, to protecting against hurricanes with the country’s most stringent building code, resiliency is part of South Florida’s DNA. The full extent of our climate change challenge will unfold over the next 10, 20, 50 years and, once again, we are in position to serve as an example for the world. Our real estate community has an opportunity — and a responsibility — to lead that charge.

David Martin is president of Terra, an integrated development firm in South Florida focused on creating sustainable, design-oriented communities.