Florida Adaptation Planning Guidebook

by Emily Henke, PLA, ASLA, APA

Urgency of adaptation planning diagram
Adaptation planning follows four major steps, with multiple opportunities for public involvement and comment. Landscape architects that like big picture thinking already have skills to support this process. / image: Emily Henke

Generally misunderstood as a bunch of tree huggers, many landscape architects have intrinsic skills that are surprisingly well suited to assisting in all steps of adaptation planning. Maybe you are the type of landscape architect that appreciates plants and what they can do for urban environments but aren’t obsessed with individual species. If you find yourself frequently looking at the big picture, more interested in understanding and improving the relationship between humans and their environment, then you will find adaptation planning a natural extension of your skills and interests.

While the guidebook discussed in this article describes steps that are currently being taken in Florida, the concepts are applicable to any coastal area that experiences flooding. Many local agencies around the country already complete Hazard Mitigation Plans that capture a wide range of disaster types, which may include hurricanes, tropical storms, flooding, and sea level rise.

Florida is currently experiencing a variety of physical effects related to sea level rise depending on a local community’s specific geography. Some communities, like Miami, are already experiencing “nuisance flooding,” that is, floods that occur at high tides and/or king tides, which are not during storm events (also known as “blue sky” flooding). Cities like St. Augustine may only experience flooding as they coincide with disaster events, like Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Places like Escambia County that are not expected to experience significant flooding even with disaster events for 50 years have the tools of adaptation planning at their fingertips to make long term decisions about where to locate critical infrastructure that may have a 75-year lifespan, like a power plant or wastewater treatment facility. In this way, the adaptation planning process is designed to be flexible to accommodate this varying timeline of anticipated effects.

Baby Steps: Historical Context in Florida

In 2009, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact was put together by the counties of Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe. In 2011, the Community Resilience Initiative, led by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO), began in the City of Clearwater, the City of St. Augustine, and Escambia County. They completed these adaptation plans in 2016. Additional local agencies have taken the initiative to define and adopt Adaptation Action Areas on their own.

The history of adaptation planning in Florida is very short; only 10 short years ago the first significant step was taken. / image: Florida Adaptation Planning Guidebook

In 2015, Governor Rick Scott signed into law Florida Senate Bill 1094, “An Act relating to the peril of flood.” This bill requires consideration of future flood risk from storm surge and sea level rise in local government’s comprehensive plans. In accordance with SB 1094, Florida Statute section 163.3178(2)(f)1 now includes sea level rise as one of the causes of flood risk that must be addressed in “redevelopment principles, strategies, and engineering solutions.”

While addressing the Florida Peril of Flood statute within the elements of the comprehensive plan is mandatory, not all subsequent steps recommended in the guidebook are required, nor do they need to be completed all at once. / image: Florida Adaptation Planning Guidebook

Completed in 2018 as a response to the new law in Florida, the Florida Adaptation Planning Guidebook compiled more than five years of stakeholder involvement and research during the Community Resiliency Initiative (CRI). This initiative was directed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the FDEO as part of the Florida Coastal Management Plan. The Guidebook is scalable and intended to be used by local government planners in cities and counties of any size, providing a framework to develop an initial, or update an existing, adaptation plan. Focusing on four steps, the Guidebook contains best practices and resources useful to any coastal community. While it is the goal to complete all four steps, the entire endeavor does not need to be undertaken all at once.

Building Momentum: A Problem Well Stated is Half Solved

The first step in adaptation planning is defining the context for the adaptation plan. The local agency needs to assemble a steering committee, set guiding principles and motivations, establish the planning area and describe geographic content, and define the public outreach approach and opportunities for community participation. Landscape architects are an excellent choice to assist a local agency in defining their capabilities and setting big picture goals.

Geography has a major influence on how adaptation planning is realized in individual local communities. / image: Florida Adaptation Planning Guidebook

The second step is to prepare a Vulnerability Assessment, which contains three components:

  • an Exposure Analysis, which incorporates mapping and answers the questions of where, when, and how much flooding the community would experience under different sea level rise scenarios,
  • a Sensitivity Analysis, which defines what is at risk under each scenario and what are the quantifiable impacts, and
  • Assign Focus Areas, which are big picture goals based on this information. Landscape architects, especially those who love GIS and data, will be interested in this step.

From the beginning, landscape architects are trained to examine competing priorities. We are comfortable with both the built environment and the natural environment, are at ease designing for the real world, and experienced in sharing complex ideas with clients and with the general public.

The last step is the preparation of adaptation strategies. In this step the local agency would assess adaptive capacities, prioritize adaptation needs, identify adaptation strategies, and integrate those strategies into existing plans and other mechanisms. Examples of these are comprehensive plans and local mitigation strategies. Here again, landscape architects are comfortable working in multidisciplinary teams to design actual solutions that can physically be built. Many adaptation solutions involve low impact development or ecosystem restoration, which require a planting plan and therefore a landscape architect.

Get Involved: All Hands on Deck!

Sea level rise and climate change are hot button topics and solutions to these issues should not be solved by one discipline. Landscape architects are trained to have a broad view of many issues. We are able to interact with many disciplines, which allows us to create solutions in ways that others cannot see. This unique perspective gives local communities an edge in procuring solutions that will stand the test of time.

Emily Henke, PLA, ASLA, APA, is a NEPA Planner and Landscape Architect for SNC Lavalin – Atkins in Tampa, Florida. She has a B.S. in Landscape Architecture and an M.S. in Earth Science. Her 9 years of varied experience in the Landscape Architecture, Planning, Transportation, and Environmental fields has led her career to incorporate projects in the rapidly expanding resiliency field. She was a key contributing author to the Florida Adaptation Planning Guidebook along with her colleagues at Atkins.

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