Coding Flux: In search of resilient urbanism in South Florida

By Fadi Masoud, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism, John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

A photo of an octopus splayed out in a Miami Beach parking garage Richard Conlin / Facebook

In November of 2016, an Octopus made its way into a parking garage in Miami Beach. A “King Tide” flooding event (a seasonal phenomenal brought on by the super moon) carried the creature deep into the urban fabric of the city. A study from the University of Miami found that since 2006, high-tide related flooding has soared by 400 percent. Even though the threat that climate change poses on coastal communities has now been long established, coastal urban populations continue to grow, and massive urban developments continue to be constructed in South Florida and around the world. Rising sea levels, increased storm frequency, storm surge, coastal erosion, and salt water intrusion are having a visible impact on many aspects of the fabric of our cities. Compromised infrastructure such as sinkholes in roadways, flooded intersections and basements, overflowing septic tanks, and rotting foundations are appearing all too often. In some places salt water intrusion through tidal inundation, like the one carrying the octopus, are corroding sewer lines, contaminating freshwater drinking water wells, impacting soil profiles, and changing eco-systems and habitats.

Nowhere is this more visible than in South Florida. With nearly 20 million residents, Florida is one of North America’s fastest growing regions. Its extensive suburban landscape is enabled by the continued manipulation of a dynamic estuarine environment and a pervasive real-estate-driven housing pattern. Thirty-five miles of levees and 2,000 hydraulic pumping stations drain a metropolitan area of 15,890 km2 everyday; resulting in the world’s largest wet subdivision with an anticipated $101 billion worth of property projected to be below sea level by 2030.  Furthermore, a recent study estimates massive migrations within the United States due to climate change. Thirteen million Americans—many of them in the southeast—are directly at risk of relocation due to sea level rise. Florida, will see the highest level of migrants as it is set to lose as many as 2.5 million residents.

Palm Beach County’s Suburban Fabric and the Edge of the Everglades (drawing credit: Fadi Masoud)



Broward County Suburban Fabric and the Edge of the Everglades: image credit: Fadi Masoud


Hollywood, Florida post-hurricane Matthew and King Tide – Oct 2016 (image credit: Fadi Masoud)


An ongoing collaborative research and design study between Broward County’s Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department, the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture and Landscape and Design, and the MIT Urban Risk Lab places much of the blame on the urban fabric’s inability to adapt to changing water levels. Due to the porous geology that underlines the region, sea level rise has dramatic implications on regional hydrology and flood protection measures. The overall structure that defines Florida’s metropolitan areas results from the combination of hard infrastructural lines, developer-driven master plans, reductive normative zoning, and prescriptive form-based codes. These conventional tools have proven marginally effective in dealing with the increased flooding vulnerability on the Floridian urban fabric.


East Coast Levee in Broward County (image credit: Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald: Future of Suburbia Exhibition – MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism)


Much of the work implores the agency of urban planning and architectural design’s standards and codes in enabling the ubiquity of the status quo. The research asks why does land use zoning continue to remain static when we know that landscapes are dynamic?

We question why powerful legislative spatial planning tools, such as land use zoning plans, remain inherently planometric, fixed, and reductive? As such we are working with Broward County to incorporate the idea of a dynamic “flux zoning” approach into the municipal codes, standards, and rules governing their land use environment. Our first task was to design an interactive mapping web-platform to better understand the potential adaptability of the urban fabric in the face of increased flooding vulnerability due to climate change.

The platform combines a series of maps that have never been visualized in tandem before. For example, it overlays flood risk, ground water level and soil permeability with existing and projected land use zoning, topography, land values, infrastructure age, and live-feed data from wells and storm tidal gauges. The platform further visualizes various district’s relationship to ground water storage averages and potential predictions. Lastly, the user has the option of selecting a series of context-specific multi-scalar adaptation interventions from a matrix of projective urban codes.

Flux Code Platform (image credit: MIT Urban Risk Lab and Daniels Faculty)


Previous studio work coordinated by Assistant Professor Masoud is beginning to gain traction in South Florida. Earlier in 2016, the Deputy Director of Environmental Protection and Growth Management in Broward County, Leonard Vialpando, presented some of the work at the Regional Climate Action Plan Implementation Workshop: Essential Tools: Integrating the Southeast Florida Sea Level Rise Projections Into Community Planning. Key concepts such as clustering development along elevated transit corridors and ridges, inland islands generated through “flux zones”, and the design of interconnected water corridors as open space, are all being discussed as near term adaptation strategies for the County.

The fourth iteration of this design studio comes in the wake of the devastation Hurricane Harvey brought to Houston, and only a few days after Broward County announced an Evacuation Orders in anticipation of Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded.  

University of Toronto students with travel to Broward County in November 2017 to meet with local officials and work on a North-South transect of the County. Our future design and adaption strategies for one of North America’s most climatically vulnerable regions will also be shared at the 9th Annual Southeast Florida Regional Climate Leadership Summit on December 14-15, 2017.