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The Architect/Broker Who Is Miami’s New Climate Resilience Committee Chair Is On The Hunt For Win-Win Solutions

Aaron DeMayo’s desire to help his hometown better prepare for climate change started long before he was elected as chair of the city of Miami’s Climate Resilience Committee in January. 

DeMayo is a Miami native who moved back to the city after college at the University of Florida. After returning to his hometown, he experienced two flooding events — the overtopping of sea walls during a king tide and an extreme rain event in Edgewater — that pushed him to look more deeply into what was happening and how to fix it. 

He marked king tide dates on his calendar and went out into the community to document their impact while kicking off a career in real estate at firms like Colliers and Property Markets Group

Aaron DeMayo runs an architecture and design firm while chairing Miami's Climate Resilience Committee.

He started attending and making public comments at all of the city’s Sea Level Rise Committee meetings. In 2019, he founded Future Vision Studios, an architecture and urban planning firm that prioritizes resilience and adaptation strategies. He was first appointed to the Climate Resilience Committee in 2022 before being voted as chair in January.

On the committee and in the private sector, DeMayo is eyeing small-scale solutions to promote climate resilience and master plans to protect the city from climate change, he told Bisnow in an interview last week. 

He advocated for a recently passed resolution promoting green roof infrastructure and is working to ban gas leaf blowers — which he said produce the same amount of emissions in 30 minutes as a truck driving from Texas to Alaska — and replace them with electric units. At the same time, he is developing a large-scale infrastructure plan to protect Miami from storm surge and sea level rise. 

His Connect and Protect Miami plan, a decade in the making, combines natural mangrove forests to protect against storm surge with a hybrid levee system spanning Miami’s coastline that would hold back rising seas. He has presented his plan to the Army Corps of Engineers, which is developing its own plan to protect the city’s coastline.

But as the newly elected chair of the Climate Resilience Committee, DeMayo is focused on smaller-scale solutions that benefit both the community and the region’s development sector. He sat down with Bisnow to discuss how the city is adapting to climate risk, his advisory role that straddles the public and private sectors, and some of the mutually beneficial solutions he hopes to advance. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

DeMayo began collecting data on flooding in Miami when he graduated college and returned to his hometown.

Bisnow: Walk me through the role of the Climate Resilience Committee and what it does.

DeMayo: In 2019, the Miami Sea Level Rise Committee was consolidated with the Waterfront Advisory Board and became the Climate Resilience Committee. 

There's two main responsibilities of the CRC. One is to advise recommendations to the city commission on strategies and policies necessary to address issues related to residents and businesses in preparation for climatic changes and weather changes. The second responsibility is to review and evaluate issues related to waterfront properties owned by the city and their disposition or development. 

Each of us are appointed by the commission, and then we offer recommended policy or advisory information to them. 

Bisnow: Have you found that the city commission is generally open to the recommendations of the committee?

DeMayo: The cities that take an honest look at what the predictions for the future are and then proactively, comprehensively and boldly look to address them are the places that are going to have the most favorable impacts. We should look to make the best decisions we can with a long time horizon. A win-win approach is what I think we can apply to policy and what the Climate Resilience Committee can offer. 

Last year, we had a successful code implementation change, Ordinance 14242, which includes an incentive to create green roofs. It's more than the beauty and aesthetics of looking at a green roof, which are very nice, but there's also the biohabitat created for insects and birds. 

There are technologies that can be added into the green roof that retain water so that, when we have very intense rainstorms, they reduce the impacts of those intense storms on the overall system. That has a benefit to the project and the neighborhood because reducing our flooding helps increase our FEMA flood score, which reduces insurance rates. 

It's a win-win for the developer because the code allows for additional area to be built on the rooftop in exchange for that same square footage having a green roof. Developers want an enclosed rooftop area for amenity spaces or commercial spaces. The residents of the building or their tenants have a benefit of using that space. 

This type of comprehensive win-win scenario — where the developer gets more rights, there's benefits to the residents, there's benefits to the city, there's benefits to the ecosystem — that's where I think we can find the common ground that’s really needed to move forward.

Bisnow: Does the city of Miami fit in that category? Are they taking a bold, comprehensive approach and addressing this head-on?

DeMayo: We have seen a number of strategies be implemented across the county and the city. A sea level rise strategy, a heat strategy, a waterfront implementation strategy. 

After doing all of the due diligence, it's up to the elected officials to implement. Hopefully, we can have this very comprehensive, long-term approach where we look at all of this data that's been created over the last few years and all these different strategies and find where they meet so that we can use our limited resources as efficiently and effectively as possible. 

Now that we have these reports, it's where the rubber meets the road to see how they begin to get implemented. I'm hopeful that that type of decision-making continues and that when we propose ideas like what we did last year, it's adopted.

DeMayo's Connect and Protect Miami plan includes natural sea walls and a system of levees.

Bisnow: Let’s talk about those bigger solutions. What is this Connect and Protect Miami plan you and Future Vision Studios have come up with?

DeMayo: When I began looking into the overtopping from the king tide over the seawall when I got back to Miami and then that extreme rain event, I started thinking about all of these different ideas and came up with this solution to utilize the bay itself and the MacArthur Causeway to create this larger-scale solution to protect us from storm surge events. 

That’s slowly developed over the last decade into what I now call the Connect and Protect Miami plan, which is a system of natural green infrastructure and mobility solutions for protecting us from storm surge, sea level rise and other issues. 

The concept is to use the least amount of infrastructure and resources the most efficiently and effectively. It would give us a moment to pause, to take that time to be honest about what the future may hold for sea level rise, for storms, and to plan effectively to ensure that existing mortgages can last. 

Bisnow: When it comes to the idea of building in the most vulnerable locations, there’s a concept in climate circles of managed retreat, which effectively means moving people out of the most flood-prone or at-risk areas. Is that kind of solution even feasible in a place like Miami? 

DeMayo: The concept of managed retreat is in relation to understanding future potential conditions and planning for them. If we know that certain low-lying areas are going to have certain potential conditions at a fairly high probability, it would make sense to plan to build there in a proactive way, where the building and the area around it can be adapted, which is a concept related to what's called future-proofing. 

In a lower-lying zone, we want to put the habitable spaces in an elevated location. What I'm concerned about is what is happening below that. Sometimes, even if it's not considered habitable space, it still has a function to the building. 

If we don’t consider how that space could be adapted, we can create buildings that may not serve their useful life. I hope this year to advise staff to look into ground-floor heights and how they could be adapted, especially for larger and taller buildings. If we are building in certain zones, we should safeguard those massive investments that are being made.

Being responsible toward adaptable ground-floor heights is also good business. Proper planning is good business. It allows for a level of certainty, the reduction of risk in the insurance markets, it allows for the bond markets to have more certainty. It makes sense to acknowledge it. 

Bisnow: It sounds like you're more bullish on the concept of future-proofing than you are on the idea of managed retreat.

DeMayo: There are areas of Miami that are going to be difficult to adapt due to the low density, the areas which would require a higher cost per foot, higher cost per unit to adapt. I think that we can have scales of infrastructure to help those communities last a little longer. But there's areas that, based on projections of sea level rise, it may not make sense to be building on. 

But in my small capacity as a member of the Climate Resilience Committee, I don't have the authority to be making those decisions. What I can do is suggest these win-win scenarios of these ground-floor height adjustments that make sense for development now by reducing risk and make sense for the future as well.