Climate Change getting ahead of the tide

In November 2016, photographs of an octopus crawling across the floor of a flooded Miami Beach parking garage were floating around the internet. Skeptics claimed the images were fake, but the presence of the creature was attributed to an occurrence in the city called the King Tide. When the drainage pipes in buildings like the garage below were designed, they were well above the high-water marks, but rising seas mean the pipes are now submerged during extreme high tides like the King Tide.

An octopus discovered on a flooded Miami Beach parking garage floor. (Miami Herald)

There is no question in Miami that the sea is moving in. In fact, tidal flooding in Miami Beach has increased 400% since 2006. With conservative estimates showing a three foot rise in sea level by 2100, low-lying communities must prepare for future flooding. The City is already taking steps to address the rising tides.

Miami-Dade County has addressed the issue from two perspectives: how the area can improve its current actions to address its contributions to the climate problem and how it will react to the existing symptoms the city is facing as the oceans rise. One step that was taken was the creation of a Climate Change Action Plan to "focus on what steps will be necessary in the next few years to further reduce GHG, as well as better determine the potential impacts and resulting vulnerabilities of climate change in the region and the community" with the goal of creating a more resilient community. Please take a look at Miami's Plan paying particular attention to the sections on ecosystem resilience and "The Role of Responsible Land Use and Smart Transportation" to see how the County will address the issues influencing climate change through planning efforts.

In addition to trying to get out front on the issue, Miami is also facing the task of dealing with the problems that have already surfaced from rising seas. From raising city streets to revisiting zoning ordinances, city planners have been taking measures to tackle climate impacts. There is no question that a significant amount of Miami's historic architecture - from South Beach's art deco hotels to MiMo style architecture across the bay - will be destroyed as the water levels rise. Aware of the fact that it is a matter of when, not if the ocean will encroach upon historic resources, the City of Miami has already started drafting a new section on Climate Change to add to its Historic Design Guidelines.

Please watch the following video of a panel held by Miami Beach United where representatives from the planning community and the preservation community met to discuss how Miami will address the impact of climate issues on the built environment.

If you are interested in watching the entire panel presentation, you can watch it here.

One proposed solution to the rising tide is to raise the buildings. Take a look at this article - you can also watch a time lapse of the process of rising a structure: South Beach wants to save Art Deco gems before the seas rise. One solution: Jack them up.

Preservation interests can be considered by members of the public to be at odds with preparing for the impacts of climate change. For example, take a look at this Letter to the Editor of The Miami Herald making a case for rethinking historic preservation laws in order to allow property owners to get ahead of sea level rise.

How is Preservation Addressing Climate Change?

Miami is by no means alone in its struggle to rise above. An increasing number of the world's major landmarks and historically significant places are at risk from sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and wildfires. These unprecedented "natural" occurrences are already damaging archaeological resources, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes. Please start by reading National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites. This is a report completed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2014. It will give you some perspective on the range and scale of impacts on heritage resources through a selection of case studies that illustrate a the climate change problem.

Many preservation related government agencies and private organizations have taken steps similar to Miami's. From Annapolis, MD to Newport, RI, plans are being made to address the factors contributing to climate change and its impacts on the built (and natural) environment.

Take a look at the following examples of plans created to tackle the impacts of climate change on the built environment:

Preservation plans of the future will need to include the survey, inventory, and risk assessment of properties contained within the flood plain. The risk assessment includes an analysis of the property's significance, integrity, economic importance, and overall public sentiment. Public outreach and education will need to be a key factor in the planning process both in gaining support from area residents and businesses and in providing assistance in risk assessment, action plans, and possibly financial assistance for individual properties.

The problem with addressing climate change, from the preservation perspective from the land use perspective, is that the balance between adaptations for flood protection and the retention of as much of the building’s original materials, form and appearance (i.e. its integrity) as possible can be complicated. Elevation, flood-proofing, and relocation are all used for flood adaptations, as you saw from the Miami example. Each of these methods, however, may compromise integrity. Relocation – moving a building from its original to another location- is usually a detrimental impact to a building’s integrity except in rare cases. However, both elevation and flood-proofing if done carefully could minimize the eventual impact to integrity by providing protection from flooding.

When it comes to historic buildings, floodplain regulations tend to emphasize maintaining integrity first, flood protection second to the extent practicable. This can often translate into the fact that the protection provided is likely to be less than what is required in building codes used addressing non-historic buildings and the National Flood Insurance Program’s floodplain regulations for new and existing buildings.

You will recall that the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties provide principles/guidelines for making changes to historic properties, including rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction. These best practices are often incorporated by reference into regulations and municipality-specific guidelines - like design guidelines. Standards in the future will need to be amended to address flood adaptation measures like changing elevation, installing flood barriers using mounting brackets or hardware to historic building surfaces, or changing foundation types and materials.

Historic structures have frequently not been adapted to be resistant to flood damage because federal, state, and local floodplain regulations exempt these buildings from these types of alterations if they would compromise integrity. Although this exemption was designed to ensure their protection from alterations, failure to adaptation flood-prone structures may ultimately result in a total loss of the building.

Although some cities have been hesitant to make changes to their laws and/or guidelines, others like the City of Annapolis have been working on strategies that proactively and comprehensively address climate threats that also incorporate historic preservation values. Consider the following changes Maryland’s capital is considering for its floodplain regulations:

  • When applying for a variance to the floodplain ordinance, require that the electrical and plumbing systems be relocated to the elevations required by §17.11.420, Buildings and Structures, if interior renovations are made to a historic structure;
  • When applying for a variance to the floodplain ordinance, require floodproofing to the extent practicable while preserving the exterior of the historic structure;
  • Amend the Approval of Exterior Changes in the Historic Overlay District to include a process for expedited approval of emergency repairs after a natural disaster (e.g. flood, fire, etc.);
  • Amend the Historic Overlay District to include language that addresses the installation of temporary storm protective measures (e.g. temporary floodwalls, storm shutters), and
  • Amend the height limits in the historic district overlay to accommodate the elevation of historic structures as a method of flood protection.

In completing your final project you will need to consider these issues in creating your plan. Is your project at risk? Take a look at the FEMA Flood Map Service Center: Search By Address page to see.

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