Architecture & Design

Mangroves, Stilts, and Canals Might Just Save South Beach From Rising Seas

To designer Isaac Stein, there's no reason to fear the rising seas in South Florida. Instead, the encroaching water should be embraced as part of the next phase in Miami Beach's evolution.

In fact, Stein has proposed one of the most creative solutions yet to save South Beach — a mix of urban mangrove forest, buildings on stilts, and citywide canals that would turn Miami Beach into a pedestrian-friendly, water-borne city.

“Just look at Venice or many Dutch cities,” he says. “Bringing in water and inviting it to be part of the city can really add quality and value. It can make the city better.”

Stein grew up in Florida’s Panhandle, in the bayou town of Port Washington. Since he was a youngster, summertime hurricanes forced him to learn to “live with water.” When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, Stein was a student at the University of Miami School of Architecture. “I went out surfing during it,” he says, “and that was the first time I really saw water rising into the city.”

Around that time, Stein began studying ways to increase resilience to sea-level rise and storm surge. Ultimately, that work would become the focus of his senior thesis project, which laid out a bold, creative design and planning ideas for mitigating and adapting to sea-level rise in South Beach. His adviser was the well-known architect Allan Shulman, who’s behind high-profile Miami projects such as SoHo Beach House.

"Something like a pump is just a very tiny Band-Aid for the larger issue," Stein says. "This project is really about saving and enriching one of the greatest treasures we have in South Florida."

Now 24 years old, Stein works at the urban-design and landscape architecture firm West 8 in New York, where he continues to work on “resilient landscape and urban design projects,” including the Miami Beach Convention Center. And his concepts are beginning to gain traction. Stein’s Miami Beach sea-level-rise plan is featured in "Waterworld," a December Vanity Fair story featuring Miami Beach’s efforts to confront sea-level rise.

Though he knows some people may call his ideas far-out or impossible, Stein says we really have no other choice. “We can either adapt the infrastructure and make space for the water,” he says, “or let it take over.”

On the bay side, Stein envisions returning Miami Beach to its early glory, notably by restoring mangroves, which were once plentiful there. "Mangroves create a subdued storm surge," he says.  
Alton Road would be raised onto stilts, with ecological canals (and more mangroves) throughout. Stein envisions bringing trams back to Miami. "It's absolutely essential to have fewer cars on the road," he says, "to make more space for water." 
Here's Jefferson Avenue. Six feet of fill will be cut on Lenox, Michigan, and Jefferson avenues to form an ecological canal and "raise the grade" of residences on these streets. The cut-and-fill strategy protects residences for up to six feet of sea-level rise.
An updated Washington Avenue features more public transit options and fewer cars. "Miami Beach is a perfect place to have more bikes," Stein says. "It could be like a small Amsterdam." 

On the beach side, such as in Lummus Park, larger sand dunes would protect the city from hurricanes. "Sand dunes are more useful than grassy areas when it comes to protecting against flooding and storm surge," Stein says.

Of course, marshaling the money and political willpower to change a city as drastically as Stein imagines wouldn't be easy. But then again, Miami Beach soon might not have any other choice.  
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Jessica Weiss