Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Miami, Sea Level Rise and the Resurrection of "Urban Blight"

Harvey Ruvin, the long serving Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts, has been active in Miami-Dade County politics and environmentalism since at least the 1970’s.  As a county commissioner, early in his career, he sought to restrict building on Fisher Island to preserve the natural environment and create a public park.

At that time, there was a great deal of political controversy over how to develop Miami Beach. The fight was over how best to overcome "urban blight" on South Beach. One side wanted parks and community centered rejuvenation.  The other side wanted high-rise condominiums and tourist centered rejuvenation.

In his memoirs of sleazy South Florida politics, Miami Beach ex-Mayor Alex Daoud, reported what most Miami residents already know: real estate and tourism won the battle.

Perhaps, Mr. Ruvin had the foresight to understand the public costs of basing the area's economy on developing luxury private real estate.  Just a couple of years ago, the county approved $77 million of public funds to replace the water and sewer lines running out to the very private and populated Fisher Island.  

Currently, Miami-Dade County is actively replacing many of its water and sewer lines.  Since their original installment over 50 years ago, population in Miami-Dade has doubled.

Updating infrastructure is part of community living.  The built environment only lasts for so long and needs repair and replacement.  Some argue that nearly all of nation needs infrastructure updates because much of it dates back to around 1950- give or take a decade.

But where public financial resources are in limited supply, as they always are, questions arise about what should get fixed, when it should get fixed and who has responsibility for fixing it.

Today, Miami Beach is again facing tough decisions about its future development.  Current debate uses public concern over sea level rise in much of the same way debate in the 1970’s used urban blight.

Mr. Ruvin is again at center stage of the development debate as chairperson of the Miami-Dade Sea Level Rise Task Force.

The Task Force recently released a report using sea level rise predictions to support the need "not just to update, but in a sense, to reinvent our urban infrastructure."  

Like the Rorschach inkblot tests used by psychologists to understand a patient's motivations and thought processes, interpreting necessary actions from predictions of future sea level rise indicate the underlying interests of those using the predictions to advocate for public policy change. 

The Task Force is not the first to use estimates of coastal risk to encourage specific financial investment and land management practices.  But developing a land management plan that incorporates public concerns about the environment and community well-being is significant enough to warrant its own discussion regardless of concerns about changing flood risk. 

Public funds spent on reinventing infrastructure cannot be spent elsewhere such as, improving county schools, public parks or whatever the public would like to see in their community. 

Still, the sea level rise predictions bring up many important issues, moral and economic, that the South Florida public needs to discuss.  For instance,
·      Given the report’s use of a predicted two-foot sea level rise by 2060, is it reasonable to invest the public's limited financial resources into infrastructure for a city that is effectively (and rapidly) sinking?  
·      If the public is footing the bill for keeping the sea at a safe distance, who should benefit from the investment and what should that benefit look like?
·      What does adopting a larger view of flood risk mean for the equitable distribution of that risk in accordance with National Flood Insurance Program goals?

These tradeoffs are central for political debate.  Yet, they have been easily masked in discussions about flood science as issues of zoning, preservation and community were once hidden behind quick declarations of ill-defined urban blight.

Recently, Ruvin announced that Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa will be taking over his position as Task Force Chair.  Sosa has been active in Miami-Dade County politics since at least the mid-90's and served on several committees responsible for county planning and "revitalization."  Figures as much.

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