By Paris Santiago, FAU Center for Environmental Studies
The following is a Q&A conducted with Tony Cho, a Miami real estate developer who formed the Future of Cities consortium to fund sustainable real estate projects. Future of Cities developed the Climate and Innovation Hub in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, an office and event space that aims to use net-zero energy and act as an incubator for climate solutions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What motivated you to work on climate issues in the first place?
I’ve been passionate about climate, resiliency and sustainability for as long as I can remember. … Fifteen to 16 years ago, I started South Florida’s first green building resource center, which was really targeted at creating a space where we could provide people within the real estate and development professions choices to do more sustainable finishes, tiles, countertops (with) recycled/up-cycled materials and certified (materials). They used to participate a lot in the U.S.G.B.C. green building councils and travel around and really learn the latest and greatest on sustainable building materials.
We’ve got projects across the eastern seaboard in Florida. In Jacksonville we’re developing a whole climate-forward socially innovative arts and innovation district called Phoenix; in Central Florida, we’re doing a whole regenerative nature-based retreat center and community and farm; and in Miami, we’ve got our Hub.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about sustainability just because I know that we have a finite amount of resources, and I just believe that we consume much more than we should. I feel like being sustainable just makes logical sense to me and I feel like it’s a responsibility that we all have.
How do you think this problem is being handled on the local level?
Well, I think as opposed to five years ago, at least there’s a robust conversation happening and most of the universities have schools focused on climate change, sustainability, resilience. There’s more research, awareness, conversation and dialogue, and this is the second year that we’ve had the Aspen Institute Climate Conference. I would say there’s more of a spotlight.
But I don’t see the innovation or the investment necessary to rapidly prototype solutions that is the equivalent of the urgency of the need. That’s really why I created the Future of Cities Climate and Innovation Hub: I wanted to have conversations around climate. I want to have conversations about climate tech and climate solutions in innovation and clean tech, and the role that the built environment plays within climate. …
Is there something positive that you see being done about climate change that might be going unnoticed?
Well, I think there’s initiatives that are being taken. The ReefLine, for example, which is an art installation that also doubles as a barrier for stormwater surges. The Underline is a pedestrian thoroughfare that gets people out of automobiles. To me, those two initiatives are two of the most important things that are happening in Miami.
Our Climate and Innovation Hub is a positive thing and we’ve invested a lot of money to demonstrate what’s possible without any grants or incentives, and it was a very difficult road. We’re really trying to now do a community garden and rainwater catchment systems and all of these things. They’re difficult to get permitted. They’re not actually easy or encouraged or accelerated.
They should be incentivizing these types of initiatives, not creating hurdles and obstacles to getting them done. There’s not enough familiarity in the building departments of many cities. This is all nuanced and new to them. They are just following their code, which is way outdated.
How do you think climate change is going to affect future generations?
I think climate change and biodiversity loss are the issues of our time. I don’t think there’s anything else that compares because that’s where our refugee crisis gets exacerbated. That’s where our food scarcity and security issues come into play. Our water scarcity. Therein lies the opportunity for the greatest amount of innovation and creativity and consumer behavior changes.
We consume just way too much. How many people need multiple automobiles? How many people need multiple houses? And we all do this. I live between two places, but I’m running a retreat center that’s also a demonstration project. It’s about what is needed and what is necessary, and looking at what is sustainable for a species
I don’t know if you know this: The built environment exceeds the amount of the natural environment now on planet Earth. That was a pivotal moment, and we continue to gobble up more and more biodiversity areas, which have a dramatic impact on ecosystem stability and species.
In your opinion, what is something that the average person can do about climate change?
I think what they can do about climate change is being educated and caring about it, and sharing information with other people. Embracing innovation and solutions, and just trying to be mindful and conscious.
I know it gets overwhelming for people. Some people try to recycle, then their municipality doesn’t recycle. People put in efforts and they get stymied or discouraged. I would say it’s really important that we keep the flame alive and the vision, the activism and the awareness building. Shining a light on people who are doing great things and living in balance with nature I think is very important, and sharing best practices.
Solar tubes and rainwater catchment systems are things that people can do in their homes that are simple. Having a philosophy about zero waste, recycling and upcycling, not throwing everything in the landfill. …
I think that when we look at a place like Florida … there is so much magic and so much beauty here and so much opportunity and so much new capital to be stewarded. I would say what excites me and what gives me hope is the opportunity to be the new Atlantis, to create something new and really make this the demonstration project of resilience and sustainability because it’s needed so much. We are at sea level, some of us below sea level in a very fragile environmental situation that is very threatened by sea-level rise, so why not?
I believe in resilience and the ability of humanity to innovate when under pressure and stress, and I think we have to just get our heads out of the social media bubbles and really focus on the task at hand. We have been able to land a man on the moon, we’ve been able to do all kind of things. We invented the internet … Why can’t we find a solution for sea levels rising (and) climate change?
Why can’t we work together and why can’t Miami be a demonstration of how to solve or how to adapt or how to mitigate? That’s my hope and that’s why I haven’t abandoned ship. …
This Q&A was conducted by Paris Santiago, a graduate research assistant at Florida Atlantic University who is pursuing a master’s degree in the environmental science program. She has worked as a research assistant for FAU’s Center for Environmental Studies since 2022. The center manages and funds The Invading Sea.