Brickell: Climate Change Ground Zero

Brickell is a trendy urban neighborhood south of downtown Miami. In the past decades, it has outgrown Miami’s historic central business district to the north to become the city’s major financial center and hub for all things urban and chic. The neighborhood boasts lavish five-star hotels (Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, etc.), extraordinary shopping (Brickell City Centre), great dining (NAOE, La Mar, etc.), and exciting bars and nightlife (Sugar). Who needs South Beach?

There is a pending catastrophe, however. Climate change. Global warming and rising sea levels threaten to uproot and destroy all of this beauty and cosmopolitan wonder. Here is a glimpse of what Hurricane Irma did to Brickell in 2017:

Brickell Avenue, Miami (2017)

Hurricane Irma was only the fifth hurricane with winds of 185 mph or higher in the region since the advent of reliable record keeping, and it was the strongest hurricane ever observed in the open Atlantic Ocean. The storm maintained maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour for three straight days, the longest observed duration in the satellite era.

As described in a previous post, extreme weather patterns, including hurricanes, wildfires, and other climate-related natural disasters, are only expected to intensify in the immediate future. A recent Assessment by top scientists in the U.S. Federal government found that “earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities.” The Assessment concluded that:

[T]he impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.  

In few places is this more readily apparent than in the Miami neighborhood of Brickell. Situated in a flood-prone coastal area on the shores of Biscayne Bay, Brickell is particularly vulnerable to storms and rising sea levels. The eye of Hurricane Irma may have missed the neighborhood, but the storm still flooded streets and cascaded water into buildings across this prosperous urban core of Miami. The threat of more storms and flooding compromises the long term viability of a region dependent on tourism and long-term investment from condo buyers and businesses.

View of downtown Miami from Brickell Key

The destructive threat of climate change, however, has not deterred the city and its developers. Few residents, real estate investors, and companies have backed away from long-term investments in Brickell. Cranes continue to dot the skyline and new construction has refused to retreat. Business is booming (whenever I’m there, a major industry conference is always happening at my hotel). With that said, many developers acknowledge the risk of rising sea levels, but for many, the threat extends well beyond their investment horizons. In fact, some argue that an economic recession poses a more immediate risk. And with many cash buyers from Latin America, who come from areas already rife with environmental concerns and speculative investments, the inherent risks of investing in Brickell appear relatively modest.

It is difficult though not to view all of this investment as a race to the bottom. By the end of the current century, almost all U.S. government agencies and international bodies predict a substantial rise in sea levels, regardless of whether society is successful at reducing carbon emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects a roughly two foot rise in sea level by the end of the century. The United Nations predicts three feet. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates an upper limit of six and a half feet.

In the Assessment mentioned above, the Southeast Chapter explained how “sea level rise is contributing to increased coastal flooding in the Southeast, and high tide flooding already poses daily risks to businesses, neighborhoods, infrastructure, transportation, and ecosystems in the region. Average global sea level (or global mean sea level; GMSL) has risen about 8–9 inches since 1880, with about 3 inches of that rise occurring since 1990.”

In flood-prone coastal areas like Brickell, this threat of rising sea levels presents numerous complications, some of which may prove catastrophic. The nuisance flooding from high tides that now arrives periodically will eventually become a daily occurrence. It threatens to render many lower-lying areas of the city uninhabitable. Increasingly powerful hurricanes will amplify storm surges, exacerbating dire situations already present along fragile coastlines.

Higher sea levels also threaten to compromise the functioning of the the Biscayne aquifer, which supplies southeast Florida with its drinking water. Rising sea levels will inevitably result in salt water intrusion, a problem that may require billions of dollars of investment in water treatment facilities. And with more water comes the risk of more vector-borne diseases. These pose a greater risk in cities than in rural areas due to population density and other man-made factors (e.g., pools of standing water in potholes, buckets, tires, etc. can be ripe breeding grounds for some species of mosquitoes). All told, an assessment by the Florida Department of Health determined that “590,000 people in South Florida face “extreme” or “high” risk from sea level rise, with 125,000 people living in these areas identified as socially vulnerable and 55,000 classified as medically vulnerable.”

Given those facts, it is unclear what would motivate anyone to invest in Brickell or other areas of Miami. Although for the long-term viability of this region, it is imperative that the investments continue. Brickell and the rest of South Florida depend almost exclusively on real estate taxes to fund public infrastructure. Brickell’s cranes and new developments are not symbols of blissful ignorance or climate change denial, but necessary tools for the city’s survival. This form of “managed ignorance” by the local government promotes investment and stabilizes the city’s tax base, while permitting it to amass funds desperately needed for the future.

Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado has said that the city faces at least a billion dollars in adaptation costs to address climate change. As with all construction projects though, the bill will likely exceed any initial estimation once the city accounts for the costs of building sea walls, raising roads, installing pumps, rebuilding storm water drainage systems, and constructing other defenses. Given these projected estimates, some have rightly called for a local ordinance that provides transparency to taxpayers on the costs of climate change.

Brickell and the city of Miami has already started improving storm water infrastructure and exploring natural and nature-based infrastructure design to reduce future flood risk. Miami Beach has a multiyear, $500 million program to raise roads and seawalls, and to improve storm water drainage. The city also created a Sea Level Rise Committee in 2015 to “study sea level rise and its effect on the City of Miami and make recommendations to the City Commission for increasing the City’s resilience to rising sea levels.” The Committee meets on a monthly basis.

New development around Brickell has also taken a more ecological and environmentally-conscious approach. The Brickell City Centre, for example, sits under a “Climate Ribbon” that lowers the temperature of the shopping center without requiring the use of artificial air conditioning during hot weather. When it rains, this roof collects water for reuse throughout the development. Innovative architecture and design of this nature are necessary for the future viability and prosperity of Brickell and greater Miami.

With the United States taking a backseat on global efforts to combat climate change, the onus is on municipalities and local governments to take action that mitigates inevitable climate change risks. We may not realize these risks tomorrow, or even in a year from now, but devastation will arrive if flood-prone coastal areas like Brickell are ill-prepared. As storms intensify and seas rise and warm, Brickell must continue to enhance its infrastructure with ecologically friendly and environmentally conscious projects. The best defense is a good offense, and in its competitively disadvantaged position, Brickell needs to take the offensive now more than ever before it’s too late.  

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