Sub-tropical life

If you live in South Florida long enough you begin to take its good qualities for granted: the natural beauty of the Everglades and the beaches, the opportunities for exposure to a wide variety of cultures, the warm winters, the… um…. Well, like I said, you start to take them for granted. Human nature, however, ensures that we never get used to the problems we face: snarled traffic,  corrupt government, over-focus on tourism, transient citizens, susceptibility to natural disasters…. That list I could keep running for pages.

All too often we think of these problems as being unique to this area, that the ubiquitous sunshine have baked reason right out of our skulls. “There’s no place quite like Miami!” crows the tourism department; “There’s no place quite like Miami,” sighs the citizenry.

Of course, that’s not really true. There are dozens of cities around the world inhabiting and (sometimes) thriving in the subtropical zone. In addition to South Florida — most of Florida, really — there’s also New Orleans, São Paulo, Tijuana, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Taipei, Athens, Rome, New Delhi, Baghdad, Hanoi, Israel, Brisbane, and more than I can count. As diverse as those locations may be, they share certain characteristics; it is logical that lessons learned in one place would apply to others.

Subtropical Cities 2011 logo

This week Fort Lauderdale will host Subtropical Cities 2011, an international conference in which experts in a wide variety of fields, including urban design, tropical architecture, city planning, structural engineering, ecological design, natural resources, sociology, cultural identity, and many more. The speakers at the four-day conference will share what they’ve learned about building (and rebuilding),  planning, and living in sub-tropical cities, at FAU’s downtown Fort Lauderdale campus.

This, the third biannual conference, is co-hosted by Florida Atlantic University and the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. In the words of the press kit: “The conference will discuss the future of subtropical cities around the world as experts exchange world-changing ideas and advancements, along with best practices, to support responsible growth and environmentally sustainable subtropical design. Key themes include: subtropical cities in the urban age, sustainable practices and decision making for resilient cities and adaptation to climate.”

Having lived in South Florida for nearly forty-one years, the topics fascinate me. (The full program schedule is available here.) I will admit to a certain skepticism about the practicalities of civilized urban life in this area, given its entrenched philosophy of “Grab what you can and let the next guy deal with the mess.” Nonetheless, I retain a flicker of optimism for the region, and if nothing else, would like to learn how we could fix things, even if local leaders will never have the stomach for real change. So I will indulge my masochistic desire to expose myself to information far out-stripping my formal education, and attend the conference.*

If you work in any of the primary fields — architecture, urban planning, et cetera — it looks like a great way to get a better handle on what South Florida really needs to realize its potential. Here’s the registration form for Sub-tropical Cities 2011. If you have a layman’s interest in the topics, I’ll be reporting on the conference here, as long as my beleaguered brain holds up.

However, anyone with an interest in the subject matter should consider attending the special Friday “Legacy” session, which is free and open to the public. In conjunction with Fort Lauderdale’s 100th anniversary, there will be a special roundtable workshop discussion the issues facing the city, and how to plan for its next century. It should provide an interesting look at Miami’s rival to the north, and — in keeping with the theme of Sub-Tropical Cities 2011 — many of the lessons should also apply to Miami.

*My thanks to WLRN‘s Topical Currents, where I first heard about the conference, and to the conference itself for providing me with a press pass.

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