David Rifkind
Illustration: Lauren Nassef | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

David Rifkind is an associate professor of architecture at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami and the interim chair of FIU’s Department of Landscape Architecture + Environmental and Urban Design. He’s on the front lines of the fight against sea level rise, but he also recognizes that this opportunity to transform our cities needs to account for more than just rising waters and the resulting financial impacts. When it comes to designing for a rising sea, he recognizes that sea level rise can pose a real challenge for architects but that they inevitably must be the leaders.

Very often, I’ll look students straight in the face and tell them, “You’re going to outlive the city you grew up in.” As an architectural historian, I am not given to hyperbolic statements, but it’s hard to imagine a future where that is not true. It’s also very hard to imagine a past where any generation of humans has ever known that they would outlive their city.

Miami, remember, has a good deal of experience with displaced people. We’ve been the shore that received large numbers of refugees from many places. Cuba is the most notable, but the list also includes Haiti and Venezuela. When nearby countries go through political or economic upheavals, we have accepted their people. A lot of locals have the personal or family memory of that kind of disruption, and there now looms another major disruption in their future.

One of the big problems we may face in Florida is an economic catastrophe that precedes any major ecological catastrophe or “submerged city” situation. Before we have water in the streets permanently, we could see a huge panic where the value of real estate evaporates overnight. The nightmare scenario is that insurers stop writing new policies, which means mortgage institutions won’t write any new mortgages, which means fewer buyers and no long-term prognosis for selling real estate, which means the value of real estate drops to zero. That kind of economic shock would cripple the region and the state. As the third-largest state in the country, it would be a national disaster.

The issues are both natural and manmade, and perhaps beyond any technological fix. But what my students do—because they are problem-solvers and critical thinkers—is they think, “Why not figure out a way to transform the metropolis that accounts for sea level rise beyond even what’s been predicted? And how do we plan overall for the next 100 years of Miami’s life?” What I love about FIU students is that because so many of them come from working-class backgrounds, they’re particularly concerned about issues of social equity in a way that many other schools are not. The other great dilemma facing Miami—beyond climate change—is income disparity. This is one of the cities where you see inequality in some of its most savage forms. You see a visual demonstration of the distance between the very wealthy and the very disadvantaged just by walking a few blocks in any direction.

How do we change that? How do you make an equitable, more democratic city? Because the city has to change in dramatic fashion, in response to sea level rise, this then becomes our opportunity to rethink social equity in the built environment.

We’re aware of the threat to us in Miami, but we also recognize the opportunity as the most visible example of sea level rise in the United States. We have a unique chance to transform the way Americans deal with climate issues, and to become a thought leader globally. Miami makes sea level rise real for Americans, and it changes the way we talk about climate change in the United States.—As told to Steve Cimino

Read more of our interviews with experts on water.