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The Greenhouse Affect

Ahmed Mori

Marking the three-foot sea level rise line in Miami Beach. November, 2013. Photo: Jayme Gershen.

When seen as a botanical mosaic, there is something poetic about greenhouses. Still, the idea of containing nature can be arrogant, as punctuated by climate change experts, environmentalists and, perhaps most dangerously, the media, who too often trade hyperbole for clicks and unique visits. Just like that, the greenhouse effect—the chief driver of global warming, where thermal radiation is absorbed by atmospheric greenhouse gases and re-radiated in all directions—is as much a symbol for a sociological phenomenon as it is a geological reality. And if climate change scientists are right, both are influenced namely by the way humans interact with the planet and each other.

With this summer’s “Goodbye Miami” feature, Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell falls into the latter category, albeit not neatly. It’s not a matter of accuracy—his research is sound and his conclusions not unwarranted—but a question of whether Miami needs another outsider castigating it for a pattern of nature-taming perpetuated by humans since the agricultural revolution.

An outsider herself, Heidi Quante felt she could help find solutions to the region’s climate problems when she began working on the HighWaterLine Miami initiative, the second incarnation of an art project undertaken by New York City-based artist Eve Mosher in Summer 2007. Armed with well-researched information packets, a background in architecture and studio art, and plenty of field line chalk, Mosher drew a line that marked ten feet above sea level throughout 75 miles of coastal Manhattan and Brooklyn territory over 13 weekends, educating curious onlookers about the realities of global warming and what to do in the event of a catastrophe. Some couldn’t believe she wasn’t running for office or canvassing for non-profits. The end result—a chalk outline corralling hundreds of billions in wasted property assets—earned her heaps of press coverage and praise, including a two-page feature in the The New York Times.

It was at this point that Quante, an environmental activist and fellow architect from San Francisco, gave Mosher a call. “I started looking around to see who [in the environmental world] was educating by curiosity and self-driven discovery,” said Quante, who was already fascinated with the educational possibilities of more interactive campaigns and projects like the HighWaterLine. “I found Eve Mosher in The New York Times, and thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is that.’ People that were coming up to her were doing so out of their own will, out of curiosity.”

After collaborating on several projects, the duo revisited the HighWaterLine project last summer, amid the record-breaking North American drought and the largest melting of glacial ice in human history. Seeing as 66% of the world’s population resides in coastal regions, Mosher and Quante felt that before they turn to megacities like London, they should turn their attention to Miami. “When all this ice melts, it’s the equivalent of an ice cube in a glass of water,” said Quante. “We were depressed about this and since we’re not good at sitting and watching, we took action. Eve [Mosher] told me she had planned the HighWaterLine to be used by any community, so we thought ‘lets go do this somewhere.’”

Miami sits near the southern tip of the Floridian peninsula, a city built atop a slab of limestone after water was rerouted and cleared from the Everglades, largely over the course of the last century. Residents have braved growing pains, real-estate busts, a political exile, and crime waves of Cocaine Cowboys lore. But apart from hurricanes, which haven’t been on the area’s radar much since Katrina, Rita and Wilma left parts of the city resembling a bar-side Jenga game in late 2005, the only attention local government pays to climate is the amount of sunny days a year it can market to tourists. In this sense, the data backing Goodell’s dystopian overtones is spot on—$400 billion in financial losses as Miami becomes one of the first U.S. cities to encounter the real effects of global warming over the next six or so decades. Diagrams suggest Miami Beach’s deco kitsch and Kendall’s penchant for restaurant franchises could soon become a spooky bedtime story.


Courtesy HighWaterLine and Hugo Montoya

“Many people have no idea how much will be lost,” said Quante, rather bleakly. “Not only will the water be coming from the coast, but because of the limestone, the water will also come up from below.” The latter effect is the infestation of fresh water spouting from the Floridian aquifer with salt water, infested with the waste of a fast-growing metropolitan area. This not only dooms the Everglades, the only fresh water-filtration ecosystem on Earth, but we could be washing down our spicy Caribbean fare with a fair-sized helping of E. coli.

The real goal of this project, Quante explained, is for Miami residents to educate themselves on an issue that, as a result of scientific jargon and political glossolalia, is often a little tough to grasp. “To be honest, I can’t identify with the term ‘climate change.’ I love polar bears, but I’ve never seen a large chunk of ice,” said Quante. “So, our mission is to help people see the future before it happens.”

The future Quante refers to is not so distant. Miami ranked 9th on the International Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2007 ranking of the world’s cities most exposed to coastal flooding in the 2070s. To put this into perspective, a two-foot rise in water means over 28% of South Florida and its surrounding wetlands would be lost. Just two years ago, University of Miami professor Harold Wanless told members of the Society of Environmental Journalists that Miami “would become a barrier island.”

Instead of prophesizing about the gravitas of climate change, however, the HighWaterLine project is “going with the flow,” as Mosher describes it. “In Miami, where we started is not where we ended up. We’re listening to the community to find out what they want and need, and we’re listening to see what ideas we come up with. If you listen to the local community, each project will look very different.”

For a community who seldom gets together for much beyond a Miami Heat title or the death of a Latin American dictator, keeping people attached to causes is a different ballgame. Given the nature of Miami’s siloed communities, Mosher and Quante recognize the challenges that arise from trying to keep volunteers united after the chalk’s dust has settled, so to speak. Both claim connecting sections of the community arises naturally as a result of the project’s physicality, seeing as the duo enlisted dozens of Miami-based volunteers to help with the chalking. Groups in Miami Beach demarcated the three and six-foot above sea level lines on November 13th and 14th, while the Miami group marked the six-foot line on the 17thin neighborhoods such as Little Havana, Overtown and Brickell. As Quante put it, “Everyone is united by this line.”

More practically, the two believe the HighWaterLine’s momentum relies on the ideas from the weekly meetings with project volunteers in the various neighborhoods, which have been in motion since Quante moved to Miami in August. “Our focal point,” says Quante, “is what we’re calling ‘Resilient Miami.’ Resilience shows you’re aware of the future and that you’ll bounce back, which is a different way to think of environmental impacts.” Due to Miami’s unique political and sociological history, Quante believes the city is already resilient, boasting an innate sense of community that acts as a magnet, compelling young talent to return after experiencing other cities and countries. Aiming to nurture these qualities, Resilient Miami is an interdisciplinary group of thinkers working on the ramifications of climate change on city systems, such as public transportation and water supply.

It’s rather appropriate that Resilient Miami’s spokesperson be Marta Viciedo, a first generation Cuban American urbanist who was a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) before earning a graduate degree in urban planning from Florida Atlantic University. Earlier this year, Viciedo steered the success of the Purple Line, an urban demonstration project that took the form of a community-built, temporary transit station between Wynwood and the Design District. Media coverage around the event helped advance the conversation around future transit options in Miami—topic that correlates with sea level rise, whose high salt content would very quickly rust the bottoms of the city’s cars. Still, when Viciedo began working with the HighWaterLine project, she realized she “needed to be much more forward-thinking than [she] already was.”

To Viciedo, resilience is the bread and butter of any Miami-centric project, be it public transportation or climate change. Projects like the HighWaterLine are community driven and city-forward by default. The first step to more involvement, according to Viciedo, is a fundamental perspective change: “We need to realize we have great power regarding what happens in the city. Our opinions, needs and desires are resources upon which the city is built. In this sense, we take up ownership of the city. These aren’t city, county or state streets—they belong to us first.”

Through Resilient Miami, Viciedo aims to connect city sectors, engaging them in conversations about broad topics that affect the entire region. This allows the group to tackle an issue at a time in a more active and creative manner, so as to avoid authoring, say, another climate action plan. In conversation, Viciedo is engaged, even poetic, and like the HighWaterLine she prefers simple mediums for high-minded messages.

The approach has been effective enough to reach artists and thinkers who weren’t traditionally concerned with climate change activism and civic engagement. When Patricia Hernandez of art collective the end/SPRING BREAK linked up with Quante, she was “not by any stretch an environmentalist. [She] represented the average Miamian, who knows next to nothing.”

Miami’s university student population is eighth largest in the country, which is making for more educated, highly urbanized ‘typical Miamians.’ Today’s students and recent graduates, however, have more at stake as climate change becomes a concrete threat, making disruption of the region’s lifestyle an important tool for awareness. Hernandez, for instance, who is conducting interviews on the subject with local artists, students, scientists, architects and even park rangers in various neighborhoods for HighWaterLine Miami’s website, was chatting with the Audubon Society of the Everglades when she was asked to roll up her pants and step into the water for a few photographs. “I wasn’t told they would be getting in the water,” says Hernandez. “I was like, ‘oh hell no.’ There were no alligators in sight, but you had the water moccasins, and just thinking of those and how disgusting it all sounded—I mean, they wanted me to get in the water. I said no, but soon enough, we’re all in the water.”

To Hernandez, HighWaterLine Miami’s value lies in its ability to connect various groups with wildly different methods but similar goals—like Catalyst, like Audubon, and like Emerge Miami, whose mission is to strengthen bonds between progressive individuals, organizations and independent businesses in South Florida. Involvement isn’t limited to just one degree of separation from the project, either. In the case of visual artist and Florida International University architecture instructor Olivia Ramos, HighWaterLine’s presence inspired a studio for 12 graduate architecture students to develop solutions for challenges relating to climate change, transportation and alternative energy infrastructures. “By involving students, you’re connecting them to different groups that are tackling problems related to climate change,” said Ramos. “You create a network around the university, which is a perfect setting to come up with viable solutions, and whose clout could help broadcast these solutions in a way that fits the city.”

Ramos, who teaches students to create viable financial projections of environmentally sustainable systems, acknowledges that while public policy and the political sway of the city’s veteran real estate developers present hurdles, she’s convinced it’s only a matter of time before more environmentally aware projects speak to investors. Initiatives like the HighWaterLine soften the blow, so to speak. “We can show [investors] that architecture doesn’t necessarily have to rely on city infrastructure,” said Ramos. “Starting with something as beautiful as an art project that shows us where the water is going is a good place to start.”

Amid talk of reforming the city’s infrastructure and familiarizing city residents with the principles of sustainability to counter the apocalyptic nuances of global warming, it’s easy to forget Miami is a young city that, like a greenhouse, is an oft-jumbled cultural amalgam. The HighWaterLine glues these pieces together into a collage, relying on something as simple and ephemeral as a chalk line to shock communities into consciousness. Art projects like these help residents preserve the differences between Miami’s socioeconomic groups, and so become a motivation to affect the city’s future. “We’re a visual species,” said Quante. “That’s why artists are so powerful, it’s the power of art. It’s simple—when a kid can’t speak, they point to what they want, or even draw it out.” If this is the case, then let’s hope the city is speaking in charades once Mosher and Quante have taken their missionary work elsewhere.