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Front Page » Opinion » Forced slowdown is the time for planning a healthier future

Forced slowdown is the time for planning a healthier future

Written by on March 17, 2020
Forced slowdown is the time for planning a healthier future

Just as health planners will soon assess what we did wrong with the coronavirus and how we could handle such crises far better, others with time hanging heavy during a civic shutdown might profitably look ahead to what else we could do better in “normal” times – steps unrelated to health issues.

Most of us have little choice but to simply react to the virus and shutdowns. But we can get ahead of the curve elsewhere.

Miami’s business and civic leaders are so often running just to catch up that time to slow down and assess the future is a hope but not a reality.

Now, many of us may be impatient to get going, but with not much positive and constructive to do, That’s the perfect time to think ahead, because that time is rare and precious.

It may be a long road back to normal after the coronavirus, but there will be a “new” normal, whether or not it looks like pre-virus 2019. Our quest is to look at factors that would make us want to tinker with that new normal.

Miami has scrambled in such rapid changes ever since Henry Flagler brought a railroad here in 1896, when the county had 400 residents, that there hasn’t been time to properly plan.

In 1940, just before World War II, our population was 267,739. In the next decade, population rose 84.9% to 495,084. Population grew even faster in the 1950s, rising 88.9% to 935,047. That 1950-1960 gain of 439,963 people was both our highest percentage gain and the largest total population gain ever.

That growth didn’t just happen. Known factors spurred it.

Wartime military training had brought hundreds of thousands of GIs here for the first time, they liked what they saw and many wanted to return. Aviation brought Miami nearer the rest of the nation. Air conditioning and mosquito control made Miami more livable. A rapid national rise in living standards made a life in Miami affordable to many millions. And the new medium of television brought images of Miami to the rest of the US.

What factors may change us in coming decades, and why? Can we get ahead of them in business, civic life and government? Today’s forced lull is the time to ponder what may come. 

Since 1960, Miami’s population growth has slowed in percentage, about 11.9% in the decade ended in 2010 – and in absolute numbers it was the smallest growth decade, 243,073. In most of the US, that would be mammoth. 

The ongoing census is likely to find that the decade just ended brought a gain of almost 300,000 persons. County planners see growth almost as large in the next two decades, with a resultant population here in 2040 of 3,367,000, up from a 2020 census total likely to be 2.8 million. That’s a population gain of 280,000 to 294,000 per decade.

Those are county planning outlooks. But Miami-Dade has consistently outperformed population forecasts for more than four decades.

The impact of these forecasts far surpasses either hopes for or fears of growth. Regrettably, our population growth usually surpasses increases in infrastructure vital to support it.

We never fully plan for growth. Roads built for 935,047 residents in 1960 or 1,267,792 in 1970 carry 2.8 million people now. Will they have to support 3.3 million people in two decades with very little expansion?

Or, will we be planning more transit like Metrorail, a system sketched when we had 1.3 million people? Or Metromover, which opened when we had 1.7 million?

Are we thinking big enough with the six-corridor transit Smart plan, which should be finished by 2040, when we have more than 3.3 million residents and many times that total of visitors?

We laid water and sewer lines when we had less than half today’s population, and we face a multi-billion gap in those systems just to meet today’s needs, much less the future. 

Just think, in Miami-Dade many people today still lack sewer hookups, commercial areas among them!

How about housing? Look beyond just influx that for a decade has brought 80 added net residents in Miami-Dade 365 days a year. At our current household size of 3.07 persons, each day requires 26.4 added housing units where median gross rent approaches $1,300 monthly and median household income is about $53,000.

Would we average fewer residents per unit if more could afford to rent, thus raising housing need above 26.4 more units a day? When planners in 1981 estimated needs, they assumed 2.5 residents per unit. Since then birth rates have declined, a larger percentage of persons are single, yet residents per unit swelled – with housing cost driving more persons into each unit.  

A population rising by 80 daily means a far larger workforce able to fill jobs but also a larger pool in need of jobs. As of last year 16.2% of Miami-Dade residents were 65 and up, a group we once branded retirees. But now more of us work well beyond what once was retirement age. What challenges and opportunities in employment does rising population offer?

Perhaps the best planning here today is in sustainability and resilience. Whether it’s fad or resolve, everyone is looking at what climate change means. And that planning is being linked with planning for transportation and infrastructure, a long-overdue first for Miami-Dade.

But that far-ahead thought is not pervasive in our civic and business communities that enjoyed such heated growth that they haven’t always plugged into the best of government and academic thought. 

A virus-forced lull creates time to close the gap between forward thinkers and those in the daily grind.

We often grow and then seek the infrastructure and human capital to support physical and population growth.

A possible constructive outcome in dealing with a coronavirus menace that extends beyond the public health arena is to use the time for community thought.

This won’t require reams of new studies. They rot in profusion on shelves today. Now is time to dust them off and see how they can apply as Miami moves ahead.

We heartily applaud our health and medical professionals, our public safety teams and everyone on the firing lines dealing with the crisis. Theirs is the heavy lifting. 

But those who are partially sidelined don’t have to vegetate. Their constructive thought could help all of Miami’s business, civic and governmental teams prepare for better times.