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Miami: Greener than You Think

Saybrook University | Tuesday December 6th, 2011 | 5 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.By Aimee C. Juarez, Ph.D. student in organizational systems, Saybrook University

Every time I drive through downtown Miami, it strikes me how much the skyline’s changed during the past 25 years.

The sparse city center forever immortalized in the 1980s by Miami Vice is now a mega-metropolis densely populated by condos and skyscrapers—monolithic structures of steel, concrete, and glass glistening off the waters of Biscayne Bay under the warm Florida sun.

And they continue to rise, year after year.

What I didn’t know was that most of these new edifices are significantly more environmentally aware then their predecessors. From energy-saving reflective roofs and air-conditioning systems to lights that adjust themselves depending on the amount of daylight entering their heat-dispersing windows, downtown Miami’s greening.

Who knew?

I mean, really.

If you’ve ever visited Miami or spoken with its true locals (those of us who remember when Dan Marino and the Dolphins played at the Orange Bowl), you probably know that the one thing us natives do most here is… no, not visit South Beach. That’s for tourists and people who’ve moved here for the night life. What us Miamians tend to do most down here is spend our time—on workdays and weekends—stuck in exceedingly, heavy traffic watching the fumes of gas-guzzling SUVs evaporate in the heat.

Downtown Miami’s apparently changing though by becoming sustainable—a word I never really thought I’d ever use to describe Miami. See, ’round here, sustainable practices are usually adopted by people living in the area’s more affluent neighborhoods and not by the average, middle-income-earning Miamian who lives in one of several suburban communities abutting Miami’s city limits.

The city of Miami’s shift toward sustainability isn’t limited to the downtown area. Its greening efforts are supposed to spread throughout the city through plans introduced by Miami’s Office of Sustainable Initiatives, which was launched in 2006.

According to a climate action plan developed by this agency, by 2020, the city of Miami expects to:

  • Reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 975,000 metric tons through improvements in cooling and lighting efficiency in both new and existing buildings,
  • Reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 429,000 metric tons by increasing the use of renewable energy and making local power sources more efficient,
  • Reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 565,000 metric tons by reducing vehicle miles traveled, increasing fuel efficiency, increasing the use of alternative transportation, and increasing the use of alternatively-fueled vehicles,
  • Reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 148,000 metric tons by implementing more efficient land use planning and zoning, and
  • Begin long-term planning for the potential impacts of climate change.

“Over the next century, escalating greenhouse gas emissions threaten to dramatically increase the earth’s temperatures and raise sea levels, making Greater Miami one of the most vulnerable urban areas in the world,” the climate action plan states. “If climate change proceeds unmitigated, living in Miami will become extremely difficult, if not impossible.”

…really?

I thought it already was “extremely difficult, if not impossible” to live here. I mean, sitting in your car on congested SR 836 at 2 p.m. in 90-degree heat is no picnic.

Am I skeptical of Miami’s greening initiative? Yes, I am. While I applaud the effort, I’m skeptical about it and its potential success because an important step in the process appears to be missing: awareness.

Right now, awareness concerning sustainable practices in this area seems limited to affluent residents who don’t mind incorporating sustainable practices because they don’t mind the expenses involved in making their homes eco-friendly. Downtown Miami’s new eco-friendly condos and skyscrapers aim to draw people within this income bracket; not the common folk.

Ask a Miamian living in one of the city’s working or middle-class neighborhoods about sustainability and you might get a blank look.

To the average Miamian, like me, sustainable practices are generally limited to placing plastic bottles in our blue recycling bins and maybe, just maybe, buying an energy-friendly light bulb… though that’s probably rarer than the recycling because those bulbs are more expensive.

When I attend Saybrook University’s residential conferences in San Francisco twice a year, I’m always made aware of sustainable practices in some way, shape, or form the minute I step off the plane at SFO.

During my travels over there, I’ve been asked if I tend to use paper cups or a reuseable travel mug whenever I buy coffee at Starbucks. I’ve been asked if I use paper, plastic, or reuseable cloth bags for groceries. I’ve been offered incentives by the hotel for reusing towels and adopting “green” practices. In a nut shell: Whenever I’m in San Francisco, I’m made conscious of my daily practices so I can adopt environmentally friendly ones. And it works.

In San Francisco though, sustainability’s ingrained in the city’s culture. In Miami and Miami-Dade County, that’s not the case.

So until I see that collective, perceptual shift among Miamians toward sustainable living take place in all facets of daily life, I’ll remain dubious about Miami’s green initiatives.

From what I’ve learned, true sustainability isn’t a marketing gimmick. It’s a way of life.

Dialogue concerning sustainable practices raises awareness about these issues and that hasn’t happened in Miami on a broader scale. At least not yet.

Aimee C. Juarez is a Ph.D. student in organizational systems at Saybrook University and is a regular contributor to Rethinking Complexity, a blog produced by students and faculty members of Saybrook’s organizational systems program. Read more of Aimee’s work at: www.rethinkingcomplexity.com.


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  • http://www.305green.com Mary Keel

    Glad to read there’s interest or on some level curiosity on Miami and it’s shift to a more sustainable thinking and approach. Although there are some valid points made in this article to make comparisons to San Francisco, Starbucks, Airports and one neighborhood ( Downtown Miami ) I think is a little superficial and very surface. Sustainability at its core begins on the local level and weaves itself that way creating a solid and vital foundation to which others can pull from. Areas such as Agriculture ( farms, farmer markets, CSA’s, community gardens ) Transportation ( bike share, mobility and bike advocacy groups, increase number of public transit commuters ) Businesses ( local business opening and supporting local designers, artists ) Non-Profit ( numerous non-profits working to protect and enhance our local communities ) and Community Outreach and Education, all areas that have seen significant growth and shifts. All of these areas are interconnected and when they work together they can make monumental progress. Cities such as South Miami, Miami Beach, Pinecrest, Cutler Bay, North Miami are all creating incentives and sustainable initiatives for their residents. It’s definitely a work in progress and won’t happen overnight however, the process has to start somewhere and this is where the core of Miami is seeing the most significant shift. Feel free to contact me at mary@305green.com or visit http://www.305green.com. Thanks again for the post.

    • Aimee

      Hi Mary,

      Thank you for your comment, though, I have to admit, I take offense at to your needlessly sharp criticism, which reduces my article to “San Francisco, Starbucks, Airports and one neighborhood ( Downtown Miami )” before casting off my contribution as “a little superficial and very surface.” Uh, if you didn’t notice, this post wasn’t intended as an unadulterated celebration of Miami’s greening as much as it was intended to be a criticism of its push to “go green.” The point of this piece is that Miami’s push to go green seems to lack the grassroots organization that cities, like San Francisco, have established to foster the importance of making sustainability a part of the city’s culture and every day life. Spend two hours stuck in traffic on 836 you’ll notice that “green” isn’t a way of life in Miami. At least not yet.

      I’m happy to hear that you’re involved in a grassroots initiative to help Miami go green and will check out your website. Your groups need a stronger voice in the Magic City.

      Thanks again,
      Aimee

  • https://www.wizness.com/ Marion Dupont

    I used to live in Miami and I completely agree on your point: it is far from a green city, above all Miami Beach. Thanks for your insight anyway, it’s informative. I just traveled to SF and I really noticed the difference as well. It’s a shame Miami is so superficial because they will probably be the first the pay the consequences of Global Warming.

    • Aimee

      Thanks for your comment, Marion. Unfortunately, Miami hasn’t made sustainability a part of its culture, which is something that cities, like San Francisco, have done.

  • Audri

    How about water sustainability? Florida is having a serious water crisis because it’s citizens are depleting the aquifer before it has a chance to recharge. I use to live in Miami and from my experience and knowledge there isn’t many places in south Florida that take advantage of reclaimed water.