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The Future Of Fort Lauderdale: Here's What Our City Might Look Like In 2050

by Eric Barton January 2017 Also on Digital Edition

You’ve seen those videos from a half-century ago predicting a rosy future, right? Everything in the kitchen is done with the push of a button, and we all zip along in cars controlled by robots. It all seems a bit quaint now. 

Nowadays, when we talk about the world of tomorrow, it’s sea-level rise and climate change, massive hurricanes that swamp South Florida, and over-congested city centers lacking basic infrastructure. 

But imagine instead that innovation will win. Imagine the big problems of today will be solved by inventors and the hard work of many. 

So then, that’s what this story is about. It’s about imagining Fort Lauderdale in 2030, or maybe 2050, at a time when we’ve adjusted and adapted. We’ve bested sea-level rise and transportation and renewable power. 

With some work and a whole lot of conviction, the ideas that follow just might be the future for our city.

Current and projected street in Fort Lauderdale with pedestrian-friendly walkways

The Town of Many Downtowns

Fort Lauderdale’s downtown wasn’t technically a neighborhood just a few years ago. But in the last generation, it has grown dramatically to 11,000 residents, and in another decade or so, that number is expected to triple.

That influx will bring benefits. Once we break 18,000 residents, major chain restaurants and stores will see downtown as an area with buying potential, says Chris Wren, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. That will also mean more dry cleaners and dentists and the simple household things that downtown residents now have to drive elsewhere to get. 

Within a decade or so, downtown will be dotted with big-box and boutique retailers who will figure out ways to reconfigure stores to fit tighter spaces, says James Cook, director of retail research at JLL, the commercial real estate company that runs the Galleria Mall. Imagine a “flexible format” Target occupying a couple of levels at the bottom of a condo building. Or picture a Converse store taking up the entire bottom of a high-rise office building, with interactive displays allowing you to design your own shoes. 



Shopping centers themselves will also become more like mini downtowns, Cook says. The Galleria has plans to add 1,600 luxury apartments and 150 hotel rooms to its 35-acre property. It’s a plan that has hit resistance, but some version of it is probable in our future. And as dense high-rise condos and apartments become the norm, the Galleria’s plan will likely be copied by other shopping centers.  

All that density will also increase the little extras, Wren says. Pocket parks and dog walks will pop up between high-rises. Walkable and bikeable streets will connect neighborhoods. Shady trees and bougainvillea arches will make waiting for public transportation more comfortable. A permanent farmer’s market with chefs serving fresh dishes will anchor downtown. 

Within the next few years, Broward College will turn its downtown location into a real campus, with more classrooms, a tech accelerator and businesses to serve students. A college campus downtown has always been part of the city’s master plan, says Jonathan Schwartz, an associate vice president with Broward College. Finally adding it will create a new vibrancy with an influx of college students living in the city center, Schwartz says. 

“People are tired of living in the suburbs,” Wren says. “As they come back downtown, it’s going to create a demand for all these extras.”

As all those extras sprout up, Wren predicts Fort Lauderdale’s city center won’t just become the downtown for the city. It’ll become an epicenter, a regional hub, a “Venice of America of the future”—an innovation that’s absolutely possible.

 Intersection of a Broward County corridor showing the repurposing of a parking lot to incorporate mass transit, bicycle, pedestrian and outdoor retail and dining opportunities
Rendering of building proposal for the Galleria Mall in downtown Fort Lauderdale,  provided by the LIVE Galleria development team. 

Rising Above the Tides

With every king tide sending flood waters rolling into neighborhoods, it has become easier and easier to imagine a future threatened by climate change. But despite the doomsday predictions of South Florida becoming unlivable, many believe we will adjust. We will beat the seas back.

It won’t be easy, though, and it will likely be exorbitantly costly. It starts with sea walls, says Anthony Abbate, an architecture professor at Florida Atlantic University’s campus in downtown Fort Lauderdale and an expert on sea-level rise. The sea walls will be raised and strengthened along oceanfronts, canals, the Intracoastal, almost everywhere. Beaches will be reinforced with natural dune systems and vegetation that will hold the sand in place. 

But those sea walls won’t keep the rising waters from seeping up through our porous soil. So after the lowest parts of our city are abandoned (areas now just a foot or so above sea level), we’ll build a series of pumps and raised streets, similar to the ones now on Miami Beach. New structures will be expected to collect stormwater on roofs and maybe even along the façade of the building. Reinforced canals will be tasked with carrying all that excess water to collection sites. “It is possible to deal with sea-level rise,” Abbate says. “There’s an exciting future that can be envisioned.”

With a serious commitment to the fixes, the city can be reinforced and ready for the rising seas by 2030, Abbate says. It gets trickier by about 2060, when perhaps a foot of sea rise means water will be seeping up under homes and buildings. By mid-century, we may have a city partially on stilts, water flowing below homes and businesses, maybe a city of canals for streets. More than ever, we may be the Venice of America.

“We have the technology right now to deal with what’s coming,” Abbate says. “For now it’s just about making a commitment to it.”

 FAU Associate Provost and Professor Anthony Abbate and his wife, Jaye Abbate, atop the solar powered townhouse he designed in Fort Lauderdale

The Solar Collective

If there’s one phrase you’ll need to know in the future, it’s microgrid. It may be everywhere in 20 or 30 years, perhaps in every neighborhood in the city.

The microgrid is like a community garden for electricity. It involves dozens or hundreds of neighbors chipping in to buy solar panels to supply them electricity. Imagine, for instance, a solar panel farm on top of the Coral Ridge Mall, supplying power through a microgrid to the homes nearby.

Florida’s monopolistic utility laws make microgrids difficult for now, but that will change, predicts Alissa Jean Schafer, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s communications and policy manager, based in Coral Springs. There will be a time when residents demand the change, overpowering millions in lobbying money given to politicians yearly by FPL and other utility companies to keep rooftop solar from growing. 

“Microgrids already exist in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Schafer says. “Now it’s about Florida catching up.”

By the time microgrids come here, advancements in battery technology will allow these microgrids to store excess power for nighttime use. It’ll mean these neighbors who join the microgrid will have limited, or perhaps no use, for the main electrical grid. 

That grid, though, will still be needed for those who don’t join a power collective and for companies that require large amounts of power. But utilities will by then harness far more renewable energy, from far more creative places, Shafer says. Some have predicted a system of generators dropped offshore, collecting the vast power of the Gulfstream. Abbate imagines high-rises with a series of fluttering bits on the outside, the movement generating enough power to run every computer in the building. 

“If we are making good policy decisions, we can have a grid powered by renewable energy and microgrids more naturally distributing the power locally,” Schafer says. “It has to happen if we want to have a more sustainable future for the state.”

View from Intracoastal Parkway in North Beach Village, which provides a living shoreline to adapt to rising sea levels
Urban intersection incorporating streetcar, bus transit, dedicated bicycle lanes, pedestrian crosswalks and plazas and surrounding transit oriented development

Beating Congestion

Picture landing at the airport in Fort Lauderdale two or three decades from now. Whether you’re headed downtown or out west or to the beach, you’ll jump on a train next. 

It’ll be an integrated system, tying together the cross-state Brightline system with the regional Tri-Rail trains. Then, crisscrossing our city will be The Wave, a series of streetcars that will ferry you close to home. Once off the streetcar, maybe you’ll use a city bike, or with all that luggage, jump in a driverless taxi. 

Before you think this all sounds pie-in-the-sky, Wren says it’s coming. The Wave’s first phase, an undoubtedly limited 2.8-mile bit of downtown, went out to bid this fall and is expected to open in 2020. That first phase isn’t going to pull huge numbers, but it’s a start, Wren says, a way to finally add a working local train. 

A decade later, Wren predicts The Wave will have new legs, perhaps to the airport, the seaport, the beach, even possibly out west. A decade or two after that, by 2050, Wren hopes The Wave will connect mini downtowns that have sprouted up around Broward County. “We will eventually have a family of public transportation that works together,” Wren says. 

Someday, it might be possible to take an efficient public transit system all the way from the edge of the Everglades right to the lapping waves of the beach.

So, What’s Holding Us Back? 

When asked what he’d like to see public transportation look like in Fort Lauderdale, Bob Swindell mentioned a recent trip to Medellín, Colombia, where the transportation system is an integrated grid of trains and buses and cable cars suspended over gridlocked streets. 

Swindell is president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, which works to bring new businesses to town, so he knows that a workable public transportation system can only increase industry growth. “The scary thing is we have to contemplate another six million residents by 2030,” Swindell says. “We have to do something now to prepare our infrastructure for that.”

What’s clear is that, so far, we haven’t done much to prepare for that kind of growth. Swindell and others recognize Fort Lauderdale has fallen behind, not just of other mid-sized cities like Austin or Portland or San Antonio, but also places like Medellín or La Paz or São Paulo.

Why isn’t Fort Lauderdale first to innovation? Swindell says there’s been a lack of a cohesive vision of the future. But he’s hopeful, thinking that now more than ever, people want big changes. 

George L. Hanbury II, who spent eight years as Fort Lauderdale’s city manager and now serves as president of Nova Southeastern University, also believes people are finally committed to making the city better. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the potential of this city finally on the cusp of being realized,” Hanbury says. “I have lived a long time now, and we have always talked about what this city can become. I would hate to see another 25 years go by where we’re still talking about the same things.”

Hanbury believes the area has the potential to become a high-tech and bio-tech hub, like Boston or Silicon Valley. Those well-paying jobs will bring in people who will demand the infrastructure innovations we’re lacking now, he says.

It can also happen thanks to millennials, says Stacy Ritter, former county commissioner and president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Young people are staying in the city. They’re not fleeing to the suburbs the way my generation did, and that means they’re going to expect things to improve in the city,” Ritter says. 

Ritter says many politicians in city and county government fight new proposals, in fear of the bad publicity around raising taxes. The future, though, may be created by neighborhoods banding together to raise taxes themselves, like what happened recently on Fort Lauderdale beach. “These are people who are willing to pay more in taxes to afford what needs to be done,” Ritter says. 

Swindell says that at least there’s a genuine commitment to seeing things improve. “It’s not rocket science to do the things that need to be done. Other cities our size have tackled our problems,” he says. “It just takes cooperation. What we’re lacking is cooperation.”

(Rendering and images by FAU School of Architecture)


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