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Miami’s New Tag: Resilient City PDF Print E-mail
Written by Eleazar David Meléndez, BT Contributor   
November 2016

A Rockefeller Foundation grant links people and ideas worldwide

TPix_EleazarMelendez_11-16he wind gusts funneling through the arcade made it difficult to hear what he was saying, but his body language, very unmistakably, meant no.

“This tent can survive one hundred miles per hour,” the homeless man crowed when I told him tropical storm winds of more than 70 miles per hour would be bearing down on Miami shortly. I didn’t understand what he said next, but I did recognize the wave-off when I suggested that he only need stay in a shelter for just one day.

I moved on to the next person sitting on the sidewalk behind the Macy’s on SW 1st Street and got a warmer reception to my proposal, although not before listening to an argument about how the media was making everything sound worse than it was.

A few feet away, some police officers were also talking their way through the three dozen unfortunate souls who found themselves without a roof as Hurricane Matthew barreled its way toward Florida.

In the end, as it turned out, the homeless man was right. The hurricane didn’t quite hit Miami the way the most dire predictions warned. The noisy wind gusts that had made conversation so difficult were about as bad as it got in downtown Miami.

Within hours of the interaction behind the Macy’s, attention even locally had been turned to aiding those devastated by the storm in Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas. And we’d start to hear about the damage up the coast in other counties and states. Miami had once again dodged “the big one” we have been dreading since Wilma hit us 11 years go.

Where that storm had famously flooded the Seaquarium and sheared the glass windows off some of the brand-new skyscrapers in Brickell, Matthew’s local damage appears minor; in fact, the worst damage appeared to have been the wrecked patio furniture that some careless condo owner on a Brickell Bay Drive high-rise had neglected to take inside.

Having helped prep for the hurricane as part of my job with the city, it’s clear that downtown, Brickell, and the wider urban center of Miami face some special challenges when confronting an emergency that need to be specifically addressed. Dealing with the highest concentration of homeless -- some of whom, as I learned, will tend to refuse shelter -- is of course a big one. People with nowhere to go were out on the streets just hours before the worst of Matthew was supposed to pass.

On the flip side of the socioeconomic scale lies another issue: the vast majority of new downtown and Brickell residents.

Miami’s city center has mushroomed into a cosmopolitan residential hub heavily skewed toward the young and those who haven’t been in Miami for very long. And they don’t have much memory of place.

This lack of shared memory is in part what makes downtown and Brickell such exciting places to live in right now. A lack of shared history as to the way things should be done in a community means the book of tradition is completely blank for the moment. There is a real and unique opportunity to make a mark and shape what the future of Miami will be like.

At the same time, the downside of inexperience is … inexperience. How many folks know what it would really be like to deal with the worst-case scenario of losing power for a week or two?

Do people know who in their building has access to resources, information, or the ability to get through the unique inconveniences and hazards of a hurricane?

Have folks even established the connections and relationships with their neighbors needed to get through the rough patches together? Simply put: How many people in downtown Miami have actually lived through a hurricane in a high-rise?

Luckily for those of us who live downtown, there is a path forward. Driven by a hodge-podge coalition of activists, nonprofit experts, government officials, and concerned individuals, the idea of creating a “resilient” city is something that’s increasingly getting the attention and consideration it deserves.

Miami-Dade County’s recently adopted budget, for example, was all about finding ways to incorporate resilience -- the idea that we are ready to come back as a community from environmental and climate stress -- into the government’s thinking.

Earlier this summer, Miami Beach, Miami, and Miami-Dade County shared in receiving a prestigious grant that will allow each of them to hire a chief resilience officer, a high-ranking executive who will act across departments and agencies as a point person to ensure that resilience is a priority for local government.

The award from the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Challenge is not only providing funding for a bureaucratic office, but linking Miami to a global network of cities and resources meant to help guide one another on surviving and thriving the challenges posed by 21st-century problems, such as climate change and sea level rise.

Other U.S. cities include Atlanta, Berkeley, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas, El Paso, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Louisville, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Norfolk, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tulsa, and Washington, D.C.

According to the 100RC website, the program “supports the adoption and incorporation of a view of resilience that includes not just the shocks -- earthquakes, fires, floods, and more -- but also the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a day-to-day or cyclical basis.”

Try to visualize the city as a rubber band already stretched thin by the stress of everyday social ills. Now suppose that Miamians can learn which sudden shocks to the system will cause the band to snap. At the same time, there should be a discovery that many rubber bands tied together (in the form of partnerships with other cities and resources) are much better than a single link at holding back against stress.

All of which is truly good news for downtown and Brickell. If all goes well, there should be a very near future where, from the perspective of readying ourselves for “the big one,” we’d be able to take on the issue of chronic homelessness on our streets and how that weakens our ability to handle emergencies as unified communities.

It means we could see a sea change where, again in preparation for an eventuality, new neighbors not used to talking to each other in downtown high-rises suddenly realize they’re all in it together when catastrophe occurs, and create a real community.

And maybe those neighbors will be wise enough to remind their friends who’ve never lived through a hurricane that they need to take in their patio furniture.

 

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