RMA Rises to the Challenge: Lessons Learned from the Climate Leadership Summit

One of the most urgent issues South Florida’s municipal leaders must tackle is sea level rise. Faced with inevitable flooding problems, leaders from around the state converged in Key West to discuss the coastal crisis. RMA, which is currently planning and redeveloping several cities along the coast, sent their Director of Urban Design & Planning, Natasha Alfonso, to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit to help their clients stay ahead of the tide.

“With our city clients located in some of the most vulnerable areas, we knew it was critical to attend this summit and continue our proactive planning approach,” said Alfonso. “We all understand what is happening to our earth and what the general impacts are, however, we are unsure of the exact effect it will have in our cities. Our region’s high population adds urgency to mapping and understanding this phenomenon. The region is already experiencing increased flooding during heavy rain and high tide events, saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers, and greater impacts during coastal storms.”

The Climate Conundrum:

“We are charting a new course,” said Alfonso. “Some of our clients have invested heavily on beach re-nourishment projects as well as building dunes along their beaches to protect them from the strong tidal waves,” she stated. “However, after the recent devastating storms, many cities realized that beach dunes are merely the first line of defense.”

The next form of defense, in some cases, is to raise roads and build higher infrastructure. Some cities like Ft. Lauderdale and Miami Beach have already identified in their respective Stormwater Management Plans the need for higher road elevations. Following that will be to raise buildings.

Miami Beach is in the forefront for mitigating sea level rise impacts in south Florida, however, their approximate $500 million investment to install new pumps and raise roads and seawalls is being referred to as a very complicated and expensive experiment.

“Miami Beach will definitely be a model for what works and what doesn’t work,” explained Alfonso. “But if cities do not take the lead and invest in their infrastructure now, they will not be doing their job of providing public safety, enhancing quality of life; and decreasing property damage and land erosion which can result from poor and insufficient drainage capacities.”

Alfonso then went to explain that increased risk to property damage can result in property owners not being able to obtain insurance. Without insurance, property owners assume all risk and financial responsibility for any repairs, renovation and/or reconstruction of their buildings associated with damage due to flooding.

“If property owners cannot afford to make the improvements, they will eventually walk away and cities will be left with abandoned properties and a greater financial burden to remove the blight,” she said, “And property values will plummet.”

What Can Be Done?

Adaptation planning is a series of steps a community takes to become more resilient to the impacts of sea level rise.The four main categories of adaptation strategies a community may use to adapt to rising seas are:

  • Protection: Strategies that involve “hard” and “soft” structurally defensive measures to mitigate impacts of rising seas in order to decrease vulnerability while allowing structures and infrastructure to remain unaltered. Two examples are shoreline armoring and beach renourishment. Protection strategies may be targeted for areas of a community that are location-dependent and cannot be significantly altered or relocated, such as downtown centers, areas of historical significance, or water-dependent uses.
  • Accommodation: Strategies that do not act as a barrier, but rather alter the design through measures such as elevation or stormwater improvements, to allow the structure of infrastructure systems to stay intact. Rather than preventing flooding or inundation, these strategies aim to reduce potential risks.
  • Managed Retreat: Strategies that involve the actual removal of existing development, their possible relocation to other areas, and/or the prevention of future development in high-risk areas. Retreat strategies usually involve the acquisition of vulnerable land for public ownership, but may include other strategies such as transfer of development rights, purchase of development right, rolling and conservation easements.
  • Avoid: Involves ensuring development does not take place in areas subject to coastal hazards associated with sea level rise or where the risk is low at present but will increase over time. This may involve identifying future “limited development” areas within local government planning documents. A wide range of planning tools may be involved, leading to a decision to avoid development in areas subject to moderate to high risk. Regulatory tools may include the designation or zoning of lands for limited development or non-habitable uses. An avoid strategy may include land acquisition or restriction tools such as a land trust, or the transfer of development potential to areas with low or no risk due to sea level rise.

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RMA Responds

“It’s not just the sea level that will be changing,” said Alfonso. “Communities need to understand the overall impact. That is why RMA is such an effective partner.”

RMA’s urban design and planning division coordinates with the city’s public works, engineering and utility departments to ensure that the team understands the impact of the underground infrastructure improvements to the above ground streetscape improvements and the overall effect on the public realm. 

This information is crucial in the early stages of a project’s development, beginning with the visioning and master planning phase, and all the way through to implementation. RMA investigates the existing conditions and constraints thoroughly and is effective at communicating the issues and solutions during the public input process.  

“We listen to the community’s concerns about the impacts of sea level rise to their built environment and we help them convey their desires for the redevelopment of the area,” she said. “The goal is to obtain consensus.”

RMA’s plans are also sensitive to the environment and meet Broward County’s Climate Change Element’s policies that support the adaptation of low-lying areas including: giving the area priority for flood resilient and green infrastructure improvements; encouraging green construction and stormwater management techniques in new development and redevelopment; requiring higher elevations for the streets and higher finished floor elevations for new development and redevelopment; and increasing the pervious area with flood and salt tolerant landscaping.

“We are conscious of creating places that are resilient and sustainable through green infrastructure and smart growth planning techniques,” explained Alfonso. “Our plans look for realistic opportunities to provide public open space and greenways that interconnect them and to enhance the overall pedestrian environment – encouraging less driving and more walking.  Our plans also increase the pervious area by providing recommendations for flood and salt tolerant landscaping.”

“RMA has also crafted some of the most innovative codes that provide incentives for green buildings,” continued Alfonso. “The goal is to reduce the carbon footprint one project at a time. Our development standards are written for specific conditions that are unique to an area.  The team evaluates the current minimum base flood elevations and the required new higher finished floor elevations due to sea level rise. Then, we determine the impact to the public realm resulting from the higher finished floor elevations or the inhabitable spaces that begin to populate the street level. Our codes provide design standards for the treatments of those spaces through architectural and landscape features.”

“Navigating the sea change scenarios will not be easy,” said Alfonso. “But RMA will definitely rise to the challenge.”