Uncovering JAPA

How Planning Mandates Spur Florida's Climate Action

Florida is one of the most vulnerable regions to sea level rise (SLR) in the world. By one estimate, half of the 13.1 million people who will be displaced by SLR-related flooding live in Florida; another study placed Miami and Tampa among the world's 10 most vulnerable regions to climate change-related hazards. Recognizing the need for action, Florida passed the Peril of Flood Act in 2015. The legislation requires planners in coastal communities to address flood risk and sea level rise in their comprehensive plans.

Mandates Vary in Effectiveness for Adaptation

In "Mandated Planning for Climate Change: Responding to the Peril of Flood Act for Sea Level Rise Adaptation in Florida," Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 3), William Butler, Tisha Holmes, and Zechariah Lange consider the impact of the mandate on sea level rise planning. The authors ask, are mandates effective? Do they spur meaningful action towards addressing challenges like sea level rise?

In a review of the literature, the authors find that mandates have yielded uneven results. While mandates have been shown to catalyze adopting stronger goals, they are only as effective as their implementation. Previous studies have found that enforcement incentives lead to higher plan adoption rates and better alignment with state priorities. Furthermore, many scholars emphasize the importance of local planning for climate change adaptation. The literature suggests that top-down mandates may not be effective without local-level political support, engagement, and leadership.

Florida provides an excellent case study for studying the efficacy of mandated planning for climate change. Before the Peril of Flood Act was passed, only 20 percent of Florida's coastal communities were planning for accelerating sea level rise. The authors note that "limited state policy guidance, local capacity, and political will" hindered local adaptation planning efforts. However, even as climate denialism dominated Florida politics, state legislators supported policies to address sea level rise.

To what extent did the Peril of Flood Act encourage meaningful sea level rise adaptation planning? To answer this question, the authors first conducted a statewide survey of coastal planners and managers. The survey found that the mandate was an important factor motivating sea level rise planning in Florida. Of the 96 municipalities that responded to the survey, 70 municipalities (73 percent) stated that they had SLR language either in their comprehensive plan (50 percent) or in the process of being developed (23 percent). Of the 70 municipalities with SLR language either in their plans or under development, 54 (77 percent) included or were in the process of developing that language in response to the mandate.

Mandate Prompts Mixed Response on Sea-level Rise

The authors also reviewed more than 150 plans to determine how communities responded to the state mandate and whether their responses were meaningful. The authors observed that:

  1. Fifty-eight plans (66 percent) included language addressing the need for or sources of planning intelligence, such as ongoing monitoring or vulnerability assessments. However, the authors note that "often, the language was relatively vague, simply stating that the community would use current and credible data to address SLR."
  2. Seventy-seven plans (88 percent) identified either a general or specific set of responses to sea level rise. The authors coded responses across a spectrum of protection, accommodation, avoidance, and retreat. Protection strategies, such as seawalls, flood-proofing, and other means of structural hardening, were identified by 41 of the plans (47 percent). On the other end of the spectrum, 19 of the plans (22 percent) also recognized that the impacts of sea level rise will necessitate relocation or retreat responses. However, the authors note that "retreat strategies tended to be one option in a long list and were rarely given more than a mention."

Nearly half of the plans recognized the importance of collaboration and coordination in addressing sea level rise. Thirty-four of those plans (79 percent) identified working with local and regional partners, whereas more than half mentioned state agencies, and around 40 percent mentioned working with federal agencies.

The authors conclude that the Peril of Flood Act spurred many Florida coastal communities to consider sea level rise risks in their comprehensive plans. However, they note that the legislation set a minimum standard of success and left it up to local governments to determine how to respond.

Many municipalities are engaged in what the authors call "complacent compliance," whereby they reference the Peril of Flood Act but include no specific principles, policies, or strategies to achieve risk reduction. On the other hand, they also identified several localities that went beyond the requirements of the legislation, demonstrating that some planners leveraged the opportunity created by the Peril of Flood Act to make substantial progress in their sea level rise adaptation efforts.

As uncovered in the literature review, planning mandates are only effective insofar as they inspire meaningful adaptation action. The authors conclude that the mandate is a starting point. To address complex problems like climate change, municipalities need to build on a mandate's foundation and adopt substantive policy commitments. Florida demonstrates that mandates can catalyze action, but effective implementation requires local commitment from planners and policymakers.

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About the author
Gemma Holt is a master's in urban planning and a master's in public policy candidate at Harvard University.

February 24, 2022

By Gemma Holt