Urban Design Studio: Coding Resilient Urbanism in South Florida

The Fall 2015 Urban Design Studio: Coding Resilient Urbanism in South Florida (11.332J / 4.163J), taught by Alan Berger and Rafi Segal, explored the nation’s third most-populous state.

With nearly 20 million residents, Florida is one of the country’s fastest growing states. Its ubiquitous suburban landscape is enabled by the continued manipulation of a dynamic estuarine environment and a pervasive real-estate-driven housing pattern. $152 billion worth of property is projected to be below sea level by 2030. Thirty-five miles of levees and 2,000 hydraulic pumping stations drain 860 acres of water per day, resulting in the ‘world’s largest wet subdivision’ and putting $101 billion worth of property below sea level by 2030. The overall structure that defines Florida’s cities emerges from the combination of hard infrastructural lines, developer driven master plans, powerful reductive normative zoning, and rigid form-based codes. Taken together, they dictate everything from the use of the land, to its subdivision patterns, and from building heights, setbacks, densities, street widths, and open space ratios, all the way to roof pitch angles, and fence hues. These conventional tools have proven marginally effective in dealing with the increased vulnerability caused by Florida’s inherently dynamic environmental forces. Tidal flows, severe weather events, rising sea levels, and the hyper-speed nature of living matter, all make for a constantly fluctuating environment. This renders the traditional static “object-based codification,” which has defined much of contemporary urban design, inadequate and in urgent need of innovation. By recognizing that it is exactly in the process of physical planning and design that we may be the most operative and strategic agents, students in the Urban Design Studio used urban design tools to deal with issues of 21st century urbanism.

Several counties in South Florida began a review of their comprehensive physical planning documents since executing the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in 2010. Accordingly, Palm Beach and Broward Counties (north of Miami) served as the class’s clients. Two sites of further exploration – Pond Apple Slough near Fort Lauderdale’s Airport and Loxahatchee Groves at the peri-urban western frontier of Palm Beach – are representative of a range of urban, suburban, agricultural, infrastructural, and ecological, variations of Florida’s urbanization. Through the design process, students devised a set of unique resiliency zoning, codes, land uses, programs, and typologies that were empirical and precise, yet dynamic, flexible, and responsive. These new codes and designs were collected in a compendium of urban design guidelines, provided to the clients as they reconsider their policy documents. By incorporating the indeterminacy of the shifting broader environmental systems, with the pervasiveness and exactitude of planning code, we establish an opportunity for the instrumentality of policy to be a part of the design process and a progeny of it.