Miami, Florida is the result of more than 400 years of pressure due to human impact. Today, few places remain to catch a glimpse of the city’s past; however, a hidden and unexpected time capsule at the very northern edge of Miami city limits offers a composite of the now and then—a wide and straight river unassumingly named “Little River.” All of the best neighborhoods in the world have one thing in common with the neighborhoods on the banks of Little River: they are microcosms of the world around them—smaller, concentrated reflections of the history and experiences of their surrounding areas.
Little River has experienced all of Miami’s developmental stages, starting as the eastern-most part of the Everglades, housing important transitional waters where saltwater and freshwater meet while also defining ecological borders. Throughout history, alligators have rested on the river’s banks while manatees fed on the lush vegetation along the edges. Before the first European explorers began attempting to settle in the 16th century, the Tequesta people lived on large swaths of Southeastern Florida, and before them, records show at least 10,000 years of human activity.
Fast-forward to the late 1800s and Little River looks quite a bit different. Its waterways were transformed by Miami’s first modern settlers: plantation pioneers who managed to tame the fast-growing flora and push out the frightening fauna. Frost-proof climate attracted investment and infrastructure, flattening ancient pine forests, flattening loosely-linked river plains and straightening meandering rivers.
Once commercialization reached Little River, it helped produce food for a growing nation in the early 1900s. Its tidal waters were a challenge to production and habitation, and the river was consequently dredged and widened like the rest of Miami’s waterways.
Today, Little River is home to a medium-density urban setting brimming with modern city woes and struggling to protect its natural environment while preparing for the threat of climate change.
Out of all the threats climate change brings, sea-level rise and more frequent flooding are the most daunting for Little River’s communities. Most of the homes on either side of the river are either slightly below or only slightly above high tide elevation. Crumbling walls along the banks of the river are in desperate need of attention if they are to keep water from eroding the soil beneath residents’ homes. An invisible layer making matters worse is that roughly 50% of homes on the river’s edge are suspected to have on-site septic systems.
Safe septic systems in Florida rely on at least two feet of soil to help filter and process waste and remove nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen before the remaining liquids reach groundwater or filter into nearby rivers and canals. Due to rising water tables, there is not enough soil separating septic systems from groundwater. Phosphorus and nitrogen feed algae, which in high concentrations can cause harmful algal blooms that deprive plants and animals of necessary oxygen. To prepare for the impacts of sea-level rise and flooding, Little River needs community-wide projects such as protected river banks, septic to sewer conversions, aerobic treatment improvements for septic tanks and redrawn river set back standards to protect homes.
At its easternmost extent, Little River empties into Biscayne Bay, a large coastal lagoon housing seagrass meadows that depend on a constant flow of fresh water. Protecting Little River’s communities and water quality helps maintain a healthy Biscayne Bay and vital habitats for ocean life.
Little River’s charm and challenges lie in its natural richness and socioeconomic diversity. You are just as likely to find groups of manatees swimming as you are to see loose trash collecting in its banks. You can row to the middle of the river, turn your head to find a charming well-maintained single-family house on one side, only to look across and see a derelict multi-family building in need of repair. On its banks, you can find spiders, lizards, snakes and iguanas, or you could find used needles, cans, styrofoam cups and plastic bags. Nowhere is this stark contrast as poetically manifested as with a walking bridge that connects a low-income neighborhood from their financially better-off neighbors across the river, where the only problem is that the bridge is gated—its remnant metal door swinging freely.
Little River hosts a vibrant range of life and has the capacity to provide beautiful open spaces for its most vulnerable, and still continues to provide a near-perfect site for its thriving residents and protect the wildlife and natural ecosystems that reside within it. In the coming weeks, we will share ideas, plans and concepts for what we truly believe Little River can become. From linear floodable parks along the river’s banks to education and outreach campaigns to engage residents on the maintenance and protection of Little River, we will be sharing how you can participate to make this wonderful gem of South Florida an even stronger staple of Miami’s legacy.