Waterworld: Who’s Funding the Latest Effort to Withstand Sea-Level Rise?

 Photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

 Photo: EQRoy/shutterstock

A design competition can be an appealing way to stoke new ideas and engage more people in a community problem. It also has a way of casting an optimistic light on something that might otherwise be dreary. 

You can see why the approach has been popping up when it comes to the idea of city resilience, an entire discipline that’s sort of based on flipping potential disaster into a bright future. In South Florida, where city streets regularly flood during high tides, teams will soon have an opportunity to put their design chops to work on the slow-motion catastrophe of sea-level rise. 

Keeping Current is a new suite of design competitions hosted by the Van Alen Institute, a New York-based nonprofit that uses design and architecture to take on various social, environmental and cultural problems. Van Alen is a 100-plus-year-old outfit known for its envelope-pushing competitions and research projects, including a recent effort to reimagine the criminal justice system in New York. 

In Keeping Current, teams will participate in three separate challenges, with a total budget of $850,000, to design solutions to the consequences of sea level rise in South Florida, with emphasis on bringing together stakeholders from different sectors, and actually implementing the ideas in the area’s infrastructure plans. 

It currently has five funders, including a big player in resilience and city philanthropy, the Kresge Foundation. The Knight Foundation, which funds Miami as one of its target geographies and is a big fan of innovation challenges like this one, is a funder, as are the Miami Foundation and Target, the lone corporate sponsor.

Finally, there’s the Rockefeller Foundation, which should not be a surprise, considering it's planted a big stake in the concept of resilience in the past five years or so. Rockefeller’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, in particular, backs strategic planning, leveraging other sources of funding, and notably paying for more than 80 municipal staff positions to work on resilience in their respective cities. One of the criteria in Keeping Current, in fact, is alignment with the resilience strategy that’s been developed through 100 Resilient Cities, which shows Rockefeller's influence on the initiative.

The Florida competition is carrying the torch of other Rockefeller-backed programs associated with something called Rebuild by Design. It sprung from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, with Rockefeller and Van Alen Institute as a partners, but led by the the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The competition challenged teams to incorporate resilience into disaster relief, and many of its winners are now receiving funding and moving toward implementation, including one plan to restore the city’s oyster beds as breakwaters.

While lacking the substantial federal funding post-hurricane, the model has been extended with support from Rockefeller and others to a similar competition in the San Francisco Bay Area, and preventative efforts in other cities. 

South Florida is a natural place to extend such an effort; Miami is one of the most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the country to the impacts of climate change. The city is responding—voters passed a bond initiative that will generate $200 million toward flood prevention and sea level rise, and elected a young mayor who has embraced climate resilience—but faces a tremendous challenge. 

Resilience is a tough issue for philanthropy, in that it can't really address the problem without leveraging huge amounts of public funding to foot the infrastructure bills necessary. But it might serve as a way to nudge various governments and other stakeholders forward when leaders are slow or resistant to take action. And in the case of these design competitions, funders hope to bring different ideas together to envision a shiny future, beyond sandbags and emergency response.