Research Quick Take: Implementing a mandate to plan for sea level rise: top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out actions in the Tampa Bay region

Florida’s coastal communities, well known for dealing with major hazards, are taking measures to protect themselves from rising sea levels. Miami and Tampa are among the world’s top ten regions that are most vulnerable to coastal flooding associated with sea level rise. Holmes and Butler investigate how governments are building coastal resiliency into their land use and development plans. Florida’s Tampa Bay region serves as a case study.

As a federal system, the U.S. distributes responsibility across multiple levels of government. Scholars agree that different authorities need to coordinate and collaborate extensively when implementing policies. “Top-down” and “bottom-up” planning efforts are familiar in the literature, but Holmes and Butler suggest that multi-level governance is often more complicated than this dichotomy. For instance, in the Tampa Bay region, “middle-out” actions are also an important part of the landscape.

In Florida’s sea level rise planning, the Peril of Flood Act contributes a top-down mandate that sets a framework for action. This state law requires coastal communities’ comprehensive plans to address the impacts of sea level rise. The state must approve language in each plan. In practice, Holmes and Butler find that the state’s regulatory oversight has been rather loose, and local governments’ plans vary greatly. Local planners promote several different strategies to combat sea level rise, including flood protection, relocation, and natural resource preservation.

Guidance from several regional organizations helped local planners achieve consistency and coordination across governments. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council created the One Bay Livable Communities working group, which held workshops and published a website to share knowledge among planners. The Climate Science Advisory Panel, affiliated with the University of Florida, provided projections of sea level rise that planners respected as apolitical and scientifically valid. These organizations added an important “middle-out” element.

Interactions across multiple levels of government, as we have seen in the Tampa Bay region’s response to sea level rise, has proven to be an influential part of the U.S. response to climate change. A state level mandate is helpful; however, local action is also necessary. Time will tell if the Tampa Bay region’s adaptations to sea level rise will be sufficient.

Dr. Tisha Holmes is an Assistant Professor at the FSU Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Dr. William Butler is an Associate Professor at the FSU Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

This post is a summary of Holmes and Butler’s (2021) recent piece, “Implementing a mandate to plan for sea level rise: top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out actions in the Tampa Bay region,” summarized by COSSPP blog researcher, Jesse Fried.

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