With science predicting a three-foot to six-foot rise in sea level by the end of this century, coastal cities throughout the world are contemplating a complicated future. Few cities in the world face a greater challenge than Miami Beach, Florida, which sits just a few feet above current sea level. Low-lying areas of Miami Beach already experience flooding from spring tides, and Florida's porous bedrock makes it impractical to keep seawater out with dikes and levees.
But if you can't keep the water out, can you let the water in? That's the suggestion of one young thinker: 24-year-old architect Isaac Stein, who works at the New York architecture firm West 8. Vanity Fair reported on Stein's concept in November (see: "This Visionary Plan Could Help Miami Beach Deal with Rising Sea Levels," by David Kamp).
"While he was still an undergraduate at the University of Miami, majoring in architecture, Stein, now 24 years old and with the urban-design and landscape architecture firm West 8, devoted his senior thesis project to an impressive, ambitious plan for Miami Beach to survive through the next five feet of sea-level rise," Vanity Fair reported. With a set of sketches, the magazine presents Stein's scheme, which calls for new plantings of mangrove trees on the western side of Miami Beach, the excavation of canals to provide fill for construction of some elevated areas, and the replacement of roads with elevated trains. New, higher dunes constructed on the ocean side of the city would provide a buffer against storms and high tides.
The story of Stein's vision serves as an introduction to Vanity Fair's survey of Miami Beach's history of development booms and slumps, which dates back to the early 1900s (see: "Can Miami Beach Survive Global Warming?" by David Kamp). Founded in 1910 on an uninhabited barrier island by entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher, Miami Beach was almost wiped out by a major hurricane in 1926. But the vision recovered in the 1930s with the construction of new resort hotels, and persisted through high and low times through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
Now, there's a new boom in Miami Beach — the long-delayed redevelopment of a run-down stretch of hotels into what is now being called the "Faena district," after Argentinian developer Alan Faena. Faena is reinventing his corner of Miami Beach as a destination for wealthy financiers and patrons of the global art scene.
But it's tough to reconcile that boom with a future of climate change, Vanity Fair notes — "since even a conservative estimate of Miami Beach’s amount of sea-level rise by the year 2100—say, two to three feet—would still have a devastating impact upon the city as it currently exists." As Harold Wanless, chairman of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, told the magazine, developers are “building like there’s no tomorrow—and they’re right!”
Miami Beach is confronting its present-day flooding issue with a big investment in drainage canals and pumping stations. The Miami Herald looked at that issue in a two-part report in October (see: "Miami Beach’s battle to stem rising tides," by Joey Flechas and Jenny Staletovich, and "Beyond the high tides, South Florida water is changing," by Jenney Staletovich). That costly effort is paying off — for now. "In October of 2014, with just a handful of the 80 or so planned pump stations installed, the streets stayed dry during the season’s king tide, and, this season, the results have been much the same," Vanity Fair reported.
But if the predicted three feet of sea level rise occurs — or worse yet, six feet — drainage canals will have nowhere to drain to, and pumps will have nowhere to pump to. If and when that happens, Isaac Stein's vision of a community that is as much in the ocean as by the ocean could be the only future Miami Beach has.