Miami’s proposed seawall, complete with ‘Berlin’ graffiti. Photograph: Curtis + Rogers Design Studio. Waves crashing over the seawall at Montrose Point, Chicago. Photograph: Todd Bannor/Alamy

USA - Coastal residents fear 'hideous' seawalls will block waterfront views

Aesthetics and social inequity are cause for concern as locals grapple with proposals to protect cities from climate change

There were more than a few issues with a recent federal plan to wall Miamioff from the dangers of climate change.

The $5bn proposal involved building a massive concrete seawall in the fragile marine ecosystem of Biscayne Bay. It included using taxpayer money to elevate private waterfront mansions, while constructing a wall through the middle of downtown and sometimes low-income neighborhoods.

But the idea of an imposing seawall was also – in the eyes of many residents – unforgivably ugly. Miami’s Downtown Development Authority, which was reportedly alarmed by the prospect of hulking concrete slabs, brought in an architectural firm that created renderings portraying the seawall plan as an almost dystopian vision of the future, featuring grey walls defaced with graffiti reading “Berlin” circling a moat of dirty water.

That helped galvanize an opposition which became so intense that now the project is going back to the drawing board.

It might seem frivolous to focus on the aesthetics of a project that proponents hope will protect Miami from future storm surges that could flatten homes and kill thousands of people – a danger growing more dire each day due to climate change. But the residents, environmentalists, businesspeople and politicians battling to amend this recent seawall proposal see the fight in existential terms: they are trying to preserve the soul of the city.

“Miami is all about our connection to the water,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the environmental research and advocacy group Miami Waterkeeper. “At what point are people not going to want to live here any more because of the solution they’re proposing, which is so destructive to our community and our identity.”

Seawall at low tide along the Plymouth, Massachusetts, shoreline waterfront.
Seawall at low tide along the Plymouth, Massachusetts, shoreline waterfront.Photograph: Dee Browning/Alamy

Up and down US coastlines, cities as diverse as New York, Charleston, Norfolk, Houston and San Francisco are staring down the same dilemma: tall concrete walls could technically protect homes and property from seas rising because of climate change, but the proposals are so potentially hideous that some locals are rejecting them.

“The fights are around many of the same issues,” said Billy Fleming, a director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design who specializes in climate change adaptation. “It’s about people worrying about what these seawall proposals could do to the visual character of a place.”

Coastal communities have for decades ignored warnings about climate change, constructing more and more buildings and homes in flood-exposed areas even as the dangers rise. And now that coastal dwellers are seeing the drastic solutions required to keep them safe, potentially turning their charming cities ugly, people are snapping to attention.

That’s what happened when the US army corps of engineers, a branch of the military that is also behind the Miami plans, proposed a $1.1bn seawall to protect Charleston, South Carolina, a city constructed on marshes and tidal creeks whose downtown is so vulnerable to storm surge and sea-level rise that the risks are often described as “existential”.

The plan is causing local backlash because it has the potential, in the words of the Post and Courier columnist Robert Behre, to be “pretty hideous”. He was referring to renderings produced by the city’s Civic Design Center, which showed a thoroughfare named Lockwood Boulevard blocked off from scenic views of the Ashley River by a tall concrete wall.

A South Carolina commentator named Will Folks compared it to the Berlin Wall, writing earlier this year that “one of the most gorgeous cities in the world is on the verge of erecting an unsightly Eastern Bloc edifice in the hopes of containing rising floodwaters.”

Local policymakers are also expressing reservations about the project’s visual impact. “Unless it’s drastically amended, I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” councilman Mike Seekings said in July, reportedly referring in part to fears that a concrete wall could ruin the city’s iconic seaside vistas.

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