David Snow received his degree in city and urban, community, and regional planning at Arizona State University in 2005, and upon graduation he immediately moved to Miami. Quite obviously, he traded a very dry and hot climate for one that is also hot but much more wet.
Given the South Florida geography, he would be hard pressed to find a place where moisture plays a bigger role in urban planning. It has miles of coastline on the Atlantic, and a “river of grass” from the Everglades gently lapping its entire western edge. Plus, it’s a very humid region that gets its share of storms and storm surges.
Miami is on the front lines of what climate change is already bringing to our planet. Planners might learn from what Snow encounters today.
For example, “sunny day flooding” also known as king tides, or extremely high tides, happen in Miami but aren’t restricted to Florida. In these instances, the streets flood with increasing frequency along the entire Atlantic coast and up to the Canadian maritime provinces.
Rising seas are an overlay to much of what Snow does in his job today as assistant director of planning for the City of Miami. He and his team are true planners; their job is to deal with what’s there now and what will be there in the future, so they can devise smart ways to deal with whatever comes their way.
“It’s costly and burdensome, but we can handle it,” says Snow, who explains that some parts of the park system are designed to absorb some of that rise. And, he adds, there will probably be a retreat of homes and businesses from some of the most vulnerable areas, even while the greater Miami-Dade County experiences population growth.
As one might expect, there are different and sometimes opposing viewpoints on how that gets worked out. Creating cooperation among affected neighborhoods is part of a city planner’s job, as is interacting with a plethora of other agencies and interests.
Consider some of the projects Snow works on now and how that work touches so many individuals and organizations. And note, it’s not all disaster mitigation. With every project comes a quality-of-life enhancement for Miamians that is designed to also create economic improvements when completed.
He describes the Southwest Street Tree Canopy Project, which Snow expects will reach completion by 2028, as an example where something of clear benefit still needs community buy-in. Here, the city partners with community organizations to ensure the planting of approximately 3,000 new trees in smart, sustainable ways.
This urban foresting includes a diversity of tree species that will reduce heat island effects, improve air quality, capture storm water (which reduces flooding), and provide wildlife habitat and support species biodiversity. It will increase property values because of improved aesthetics and lowered street temperatures.
Wouldn’t such benefits be automatically welcomed? “We had to educate the community on the importance of trees,” says Snow. This is not an uncommon phenomenon, particularly when in the past the wrong species of trees were used, leading to adverse outcomes. Urban forestry is now a much better-informed tool.
Perhaps more challenging from a public education perspective is the Wynwood Street Master Plan. “Our objective is to create a desirable pedestrian-friendly place in a former industrial neighborhood,” says Snow. “It’s a non-standard streetscape, in a style the Dutch call ‘woonerf.’” He describes it as a curb-less, mixed traffic street that favors non-vehicular modes (walking, biking). It is due to be completed in 2028.
The rich cultural history of Miami requires preservation, as projects in Little Havana (José Martí Park, on the Miami River), and Virginia Key (Miami Marine Stadium) are being revitalized. The latter of these is a 1960s structure worth preserving, but with acres of surrounding asphalt now being converted to cooling greenspace; the former is planting mangroves and other natural means of mitigating river flooding. And while the Florida Department of Transportation rebuilds a major access ramp to a Miami Beach causeway, Snow’s team is planning a park under the overpass to complement the city’s waterfront amenities.
How do these initiatives get funded? Snow says bond issues are often an essential component. “We work with business analysts to identify returns on investment,” he says, given that most projects generate visitors and sales tax revenues.
Miami is a growing city, and as such it needs to add housing, rising seas notwithstanding. “We are studying how the ‘missing middle’ can be addressed,” says Snow, referencing the gap between low-income and luxury housing that developers and lenders overlook all over the country. Additional dwelling units and smaller scale quadplexes are among the tactics currently in use.Whether problems are due to water, heat, traffic, or high population growth, the challenge for Miami’s urban planners is to innovate and provide potential solutions to utilize elsewhere in our warming, wetter world.