By Chad S. Boda
“They start at 6 a.m., if you can believe it,” my friend told me with a hint of frustration. This was his neighborhood, and we were both gawking at a huge pile-driver sitting atop the dune across from the Turtle Shack in Flagler Beach. The machine is being used to sink pillars 30 feet down as foundation for the new concrete seawall being constructed by the Florida Department of Transportation. I hadn’t visited Flagler Beach in more than a year, and sitting there with my friend, looking at the scale of the construction underway, it was clear that the city and its beaches will never be the same again.
These seawalls are being installed along both North and South A1A in the name of protecting local businesses and property. But will they? Most people would agree that being business-friendly in Flagler Beach also means acknowledging that local shops and restaurants are unlikely to thrive if the local beach disappears. And with sea level rise and stronger hurricanes as a result of climate change, the destruction and loss of beaches not only in Flagler, but around Florida, is already becoming a stark reality.
One section of seawall in Flagler Beach wouldn’t be a problem if it were the only seawall around. This was the case for some time, with a mere 150 feet of seawall outside the Topaz Hotel being the loath of the town for more than a decade. But after the ongoing seawall projects are complete, this will be far from the case. Flagler Beach’s seawall length is set to increase 88 fold, from 150 feet to nearly 2.5 miles. And the fact is that the Flagler Beach seawalls are yet more pieces in an ever larger and ever more troubling trend in the hardening of America’s shorelines.
A shocking study conducted by researchers at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, reported in the prestigious journal Science, used data from NOAA to show that nearly 15 percent of the entire United States’ shoreline is covered in concrete. That is over 14,000 miles of seawall, or enough to stretch from Flagler Beach to Los Angeles and back again… three times. To make things worse, concrete shoreline is expected to grow to nearly 30 percent by 2100 if the current trend holds up. Hotspots for hardened shorelines include Boston and San Francisco, but most impacted of all is the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts, including Florida, which collectively account for 66 percent of all hardened shoreline in the entire country.
And while seawalls may (sometimes) work to protect coastal infrastructure, they can mean serious problems for beaches and the creatures that call them home, particularly as sea levels rise.
The paving of America’s coastline is, of course, not the evil plot of some nefarious man-behind-the-curtain. Rather, the wasting of America’s beaches amounts to death by a thousand drills, each inflicted by one private resident or one municipality after another. Along the way, no one seems to be paying attention to the over-all impact of these seemingly small decisions.
This process of post hoc decision-making has been termed “the tyranny of small decisions” by the famous economist Alfred E. Kahn in the 1960s, and the idea was later extended to environmental degradation by a well-known environmental scholar Eugene Odum in the early 1980s. When reviewing the history of coastal wetland loss along the US east coast between 1950 and 1970, Odum made a stunning and troubling observation.
“No one purposely planned to destroy almost 50 percent of the existing marshland along the coasts of Connecticut and Massachusetts,” Odum wrote. “In fact, if the public had been asked whether coastal wetlands should be preserved or converted to some other use, preservation would probably have been supported. However, through hundreds of little decisions and the conversion of hundreds of small tracts of marshland, a major decision in favor of extensive wetlands conversion was made without ever addressing the issue directly.”
The main point is this: many uncoordinated small choices can result in large-scale, often destructive outcomes that nobody asked for and nobody really wants.
Today, more than half a century later, Florida is facing the same fate. And unlike in Odum’s time, we can no longer claim ignorance. The tyranny of small decisions is now a well-known phenomenon, and it has seriously important lessons for a state like Florida, which is committing the same kind of mistake noted by Odum, but on a much larger scale and at a much faster pace.
“The wasting of America’s beaches amounts to death by a thousand drills, each inflicted by one private resident or one municipality after another.”
Given that a full 90 percent of the nearly 400 Flagler Beach residents who answered a public survey I conducted in 2016 claimed that a healthy beach was absolutely central to their quality of life, it seems clear that nobody wants Flagler’s beaches to disappear, and yet that is exactly what could happen in the absence of better beach management policies, particularly at the Department of Transportation.
Adding one more seawall here, one more seawall there, can and has added up to a far more significant impact on the environment. Continuing to build even small seawalls will only hasten the degradation and eventual loss of the beautiful beaches that make Florida the world’s most popular tourist destination. We have known for over a decade that East coast states and local governments plan to develop the majority of lands most vulnerable to sea level rise, which will lead to even more seawalls in the future. However, the scientific consensus is clear: taking an ecosystem-based approach to managing coastal habitats and beaches, in particular building living shorelines rather than concrete walls, is going to give us the best chance at ensuring a healthy beach for generations to come.
To avoid this terrible but silent seawall tyranny, we have to start thinking bigger, and acting smarter. This means planning on a much longer time scale to account for sea level rise. It also means thinking and planning on a landscape scale, so that erosion control projects work with rather than against the natural dynamics of the barrier island ecosystem Flagler Beach residents call home.
From my perspective, the FDOT seawall projects were forced on Flagler Beach, so the blame lies elsewhere. Florida’s coastal management policies at the state-level need a major rethink to account for the impacts of climate change. And Florida needs political leaders with the foresight to accept the challenge and lead the way forward.
Dr. Chad S. Boda, a Florida native who has advised the Flagler Beach City Commission on beach erosion, researches and teaches on Sustainable Development at the Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies in Sweden. See his previous pieces for FlaglerLive here.