Miami's Metrorail train in downtown Miami, Florida. Reuters/Joe Skipper

One of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods is leading the way, but also wrestling with challenges.

People in Miami love their cars, and for good reason: it’s not exactly one of the most walkable large cities in the U.S., ranking just 22nd in a George Washington University/Smart Growth America study of the 30 largest U.S. metros.

And yet there are signs Miami is trading in its decades of auto-centric urban design for a denser, more pedestrian-friendly model. Downtown Miami, where The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies are hosting the CityLab 2016 conference October 23-25, is leading the charge into that walkable future. In the process, the neighborhood is running straight into challenges likely to plague the rest of the metro area as it makes its move toward density.

As recently as five years ago, downtown Miami was a relative ghost town, especially after dark, says Stuart Kennedy, director of program strategy and innovation at The Miami Foundation. “After the office buildings closed, people immediately left,” he says. “But that’s all started to change with this huge population growth we’ve seen.”

The population boom Kennedy mentions has been striking even in the context of a nationwide downtown revival: since 2000, downtown Miami has seen a 150 percent population increase, according to figures from the Miami Downtown Development Authority. This high rate of growth has encouraged an unprecedented push toward density and walkability as the DDA advances projects such as Biscayne Green, a pedestrian-friendly makeover of six blocks along Biscayne Boulevard. Private developers are also taking on a city-approved project called Baywalk, aimed at creating a publicly accessible private walkway along the water. And retail and mixed-use developments have sprouted up to meet demand in the growing neighborhood, meaning residents no longer have to leave to get what they need.  

Taking into account the rapid pace of this kind of development, the same GW/Smart Growth America analysis found that Miami has the potential to one day become the fourth most-walkable city in the U.S. But even as downtown’s progress is undeniable, the changes have also spurred some perhaps predictable problems.

In part because development in the area began with luxury condominiums, the majority of new units downtown are expensive, effectively pricing out a large portion of the population. The average household income within the DDA’s boundaries is $110,000, double national averages and 83 percent higher than the rest of the city of Miami, as the Miami Herald has reported. More recently, signs of a slowdown in the luxury housing market and a desire to keep young people in the area has started to lead to more studio apartment development, including the developer Moishe Mana’s proposal for “micro-apartments.”

“More has to be done [about affordability], definitely. And it needs to have been done yesterday,” says Ricardo Mor, operations and programs coordinator for the Miami Center for Architecture and Design.

A pedestrian navigates an intersection in downtown Miami. (Alan Diaz/AP)

At the same time, Mor says downtown needs to be careful not to harm surrounding neighborhoods in its push for redevelopment, either by gentrifying nearby lower-income areas or by leaving them behind entirely. He points to the example of Wynwood, where critics say artists have been pushed out by skyrocketing prices and rapid commercial development. Meanwhile, the low-income, majority black neighborhoods of Liberty City and Overtown, located in prime locations north of downtown, struggle to reap the benefits of the urban renaissance suddenly sprouting up in their part of town.

Earlier this summer, the Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency granted public subsidies to a private developer for a 30-acre mixed-use parcel in the neighborhood, in exchange for a certain percentage of job and wage guarantees for local residents. But a study of the deal by Florida International University found it left much to be desired in terms of measurable benefits to low-income Overtown residents. Residents in these neighborhoods are also understandably fearful that new development is a harbinger of displacement, now that areas close to downtown are becoming more attractive.  

And the shift to a denser downtown has only just begun. The question now is how well Miami will be able navigate the twin tensions of inequality and displacement (not to mention the effects of sea-level rise) as it changes and grows. Still, even critical residents remain hopeful about the progress in downtown. “I fully endorse any effort to make Miami more walkable, bike friendly and transit friendly,” says Mor. “That’s good for low income residents, too.”

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