Impressions of Miami

I just returned from a trip to Miami, where I was visiting my father (who was down in the city for the holidays). It was my first time there and I thought it would be useful to think about the city from an urban planning perspective—something I’ve tried to do more in the past year and that I’ve found helpful in understanding how cities work and what they’re like from day to day. This will (I hope) be the first of many entries on cities and urban planning, but for the record I should note that I have no formal background in the area and would definitely value suggestions/thoughts from those who do.

So with all that in mind, my basic impressions:

1. The city feels extremely new. Part of it, I think, is the fact that almost all the buildings downtown are white. This gives the skyline a really striking look when seen from afar, and the effect is really beautiful—gleaming white skyscrapers up against a very blue body of water. But the clean look of the skyscrapers means the downtown area doesn’t feel worn in.

I realize that downtown might not be the best neighborhood to judge a city by, so let’s take Little Havana, which is probably the city’s most famous area along with South Beach—certainly, from an outsider’s perspective, the one that has the most historical cachet. The city’s Cuban community largely dates to the Cuban Revolution in 1959; the first wave of Cuban exiles came soon after Castro took power. When you’re used to older Northeastern cities, this seems like almost no time at all.

2. Everyone speaks Spanish. I don’t really have a problem with that since I do too, but in most shops or restaurants I walked into, staff immediately said “Hola, qué tal?” and went from there. I generally think gringo paranoia about “Press 1 for English, para español marque 2” is very overblown—see this Junot Diaz quote for a funnier version of how I feel—but whereas in other cities Spanish might be the working-class lingua franca, in Miami it seems to be the default for almost everyone.

3. Transit and density: There’s no way around it. Miami is a car city. In this sense it’s very similar to the rest of Florida, which has massive amounts of open space and no transit infrastructure. But Miami’s urban core has a NYC-style level of density, with huge skyscrapers and lots of people packed into a fairly small space. If you travel three miles outside downtown in most directions, the zoning turns suburban (detached houses, separated residential and commercial uses, etc), so this combination of suburban sprawl and a very dense downtown leads to traffic and excruciatingly high parking costs because there’s no space for surface lots. The city has one above-ground subway line that links the suburbs, airport, and downtown, and a free monorail system that loops around the downtown area. But some sort of train between downtown and the Miami Beach area seems like a no-brainer, and there is none—you either cab it, or take a slooow bus. Check out this chart, which shows that Miami’s combined housing and transit costs are the highest in the US.

4. Exclusivity. There’s no denying that the city’s main attraction is its gorgeous beaches, but prompted by this post-Sandy op-ed, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of beaches in or near cities. I think there’s a compelling case to be made for treating beaches as a public good, but while a park down towards the southern tip of the island provides public access to that part of the beach, Miami Beach is a long island and most oceanfront property is owned by swanky hotels along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. You have to walk through the hotels in order to access the beach.

Other cities have things to mitigate this sort of exclusivity: New York has solid public transit to its beaches, for example, and San Francisco and San Diego have much of the best beachfront land set aside for state parks. Miami Beach is an expensive area with high parking costs, exclusive hotels, and very little public transit to its most valuable resource. The whole thing is really a shame.

I should clarify that that the city has a lot going for it—great food and weather, wonderful Cafe Cubano, and a world-famous clubbing culture (if you’re into that sort of thing—I’m not). And I really did enjoy my visit, since I almost always have fun getting to know new cities and spending time with the fam. But I don’t write this just to kvetch—I really do hope it can be the jumping-off point for a broader conversation on this blog about what makes for dynamic, interesting cities.

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