By Sofia Zuniga, Samantha Schalit
This year, the 2020 Miami Book Fair goes online. We'll miss the smell of print pages mingling with open air, and navigating the array of book covers displayed in nomadic tent shops. But, we'll happily shop online & engage in live talks with the Miami Book Fair's featured authors.
Still, the need for a change of scenery feels like an itch you can't quite reach, so The Greenway Imperative: Connecting Communities and Landscapes for a Sustainable Future, stood out on our shopping trip.
Written by Charles Flink, a landscape architect with 35+ years of experience, the book covers his work across the nation, including Miami. President and founder of Greenways Incorporated, Charles worked with the Trust for Public Land and the Miami River Commission, serving as a fundamental part of the planning, design, development and success of the Miami River Greenway.
The Miami River is the oldest natural landmark in South Florida and is an iconic waterfront full of restaurants, public art & parks for locals and tourists alike. It’s become a vital part of the city for people to feel connected to nature and their community.
So, we wanted to know more from the author himself: to discuss green spaces, historical roots, and the impact of gentrification on communities.
Charles, you’ve said that “greenways are connecting us to nature and connecting us to each other.” Why are open green spaces increasingly critical today?
With the shelter-in-place requirements that are happening all across the world, and here in the United States, people have so few options for socially-distanced activities. But also, human beings are social creatures, so we really miss the interactions with each other.
Greenways offer us a chance to go outside, to see our neighbors and friends; to be connected with nature and a healthy environment, to walk, to bike, to connect in ways that are really important for not just for our physical but also for our mental wellbeing.
You also mentioned in the book that you wanted the Greenway to positively impact communities on the waterfront. But unfortunately, communities like Little Havana suffered gentrification. Could you elaborate on what your goals were versus the negative effects?
When we were working in Miami, the South Beach community was the hottest real estate market, and there weren’t any major developers to speak of on the Miami River. In fact, the tallest building on the Miami River at the time that we were working directly on the river was the Hyatt Hotel, which now looks like a little shrimp compared to some of the high-rises. So I feel like the Greenway was instrumental in changing people's attitudes about the river being a vibrant real estate market.
When we were developing our plans for the Greenway, we were very in touch with the residential communities along the river: Little Havana, the Spring Garden neighborhood, even Overtown, which was off the river. Those were all residential areas that we wanted the Greenway to benefit. Honestly, I don't think anybody anticipated the explosive real estate growth that has happened in the 20 years since. Some of that activity I would refer to as organic growth that has been happening in cities all across North America. Cities have had a renaissance; moving back into the city and out of the suburbs has been a high desire line for a lot of Americans. So you have to contribute some of that, to that.
I do think the Greenway is showing what was once perceived as a liability could become an asset and help fuel some of that real estate growth and development; and today we have this area that is now referred to as the Miami District or Miami River District, and it's quite a successful real estate venture. The downside, is that large developments begin to impact the affordability of the adjacent residential areas: their property values begin to rise on the hope real estate values rise; rents rise, home prices rise.
I think everybody would like to benefit from rising values, but the issue then becomes displacement. It was never our intent to displace the very people we were trying to serve. It's a very difficult issue to address in a capitalistic society where the increase in real estate values is what a lot of people hope for in their lives, so they can sell their homes and make a profit.
But what happens if you don't want to leave the neighborhood? Not just Miami, but New York, Atlanta, Chicago, many other urban areas are struggling with the impact of gentrification, of rising values and displacement of especially communities of color, who were often living in these landscapes when this began to happen.
So I don't have any great answers. I wish I did, because if I did, I'd be deploying them across the United States but it is something that has happened. It's a regrettable aspect of coming in and doing the Greenway because the Greenway, I feel, helped to stimulate that rise. I hope that Miami-Dade can continue to work on solutions in those communities, in those residential areas, where people don't have to be displaced, they can stay in their homes and afford to live there. But it’s a real issue.
In the same chapter, you said that “restricting the Miami River is a violation of the spirit and the intent of the Greenway.” Could you expand on that?
Humans are very attracted to water. We love water of all kinds. We love running water, we love still water. We like lake fronts, we like shorelines, we like rivers. So there's just sort of that natural attraction that draws people to be along water. I think in our urban areas, it's just critical that we not privatize them. The long term impact is really detrimental to urban landscapes.
I'm just a big proponent of where I've had a chance to work in urban communities and urban riverfronts. I've really tried to stress to the local elected officials how critically important it is for the health of their community, that they keep these waterfronts publicly accessible and open and don't be tempted to sell off chunks of that real estate to private enterprise, whether that's a place where people are going to live or park their yachts or whatever. It's just really critical that they do this and complete the Miami River Greenway. If you think of it as kind of a string of pearls, with all the different parks that are found along the river, with public access; and then where we're able to build that Riverfront promenade and keep that open for public use.
Is there anything that you want to say to people so that they may really take action to protect the Miami River Greenway?
I think that the kind of communities we all live in today with modern telecommunications, it's very easy to get overwhelmed, to feel like your voice doesn't matter, like your actions don't matter. But I would tell you, from working across the United States, and being so fortunate to travel around the world, that that's not the case.
We're more similar than we are different, we share many, many more things in common, regardless of our cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Your voice does matter, your contributions do matter. I think if you can cut through the noise, which there's a lot of today, and focus on things that make your life better, your neighbors’ lives better, your community better, stick to those kinds of thoughts, you will live in a better community.
I've seen it firsthand, the efforts of one person really matter. I was talking with Meg Daly about The Underline and I mentioned in the book in another chapter, ‘the power of one.’ And Meg picked up on it because she's one of those people that's really made a difference in her community. I think if everyone just thinks that way and thinks about ways in which they can make their community a better place, they can achieve great things.
Charles will be having an online event along with Meg Daly, founder and president of Friends of The Underline, on November 19, which can be watched on the Miami Book Fair’s website.