Why not have an Underline for our waterways?

Tim Watson teaches in the English Department at the University of Miami. You can follow him on Twitter @otherwisemiami. 

img_20160819_134623285_hdrMiami is slowly moving away from its 70-year dependence on automobiles.

Free trolleys criss-cross the county (if only we could find their schedules all in one place!), plans are on track for light rail to the Beach and for extensions of Metrorail along 27th Ave and the South Dade Transitway; bus rapid transit may link West Kendall and FIU to the airport and downtown.

Citizen activism has led to ambitious plans for a network of greenways that could rival Atlanta’s Beltway: the Ludlam Trail, the Miami River Greenway, and, most transformational of all, the Underline, a linear park that will run under the Metrorail alongside US1 from Dadeland to Downtown.

However, there’s one untapped travel and recreation resource hiding in plain sight: the canals that flow throughout the county. Although they’re publicly owned by the South Florida Water Management District, they’re effectively privatized because they’re mostly inaccessible to residents. Wouldn’t it be great if there was easier access to one of the few spots in Miami-Dade where you can be guaranteed some serenity, a different view of our urban landscapes, and a chance to exercise with a breeze on your face and manatees for company? Step away from the rowing machine and slip into a kayak in the Coral Gables Waterway!

Most of us can’t afford a kayak, though, or wouldn’t use one enough to make it seem worth the expense. Even if we could, once we’ve hoisted it up onto the roof rack aren’t we’re back down in the car-centric rut again?

Inspired by the success of bike share schemes, and remembering the spot where the Coral Gables Waterway intersects the future Underline at the intersection of Riviera Drive and US1, it struck me: what Miami needs is a kayak share scheme.

Imagine: you cycle along the Underline, lock the bike up (or return it to a bike share station), and there is a rack of kayaks waiting for launch. Pay on your phone to get the code to unlock a boat, a paddle, and a life vest.

Paddle north and you can make your way up to the Biltmore or the UM campus; head south, and you can float down to Ingraham Terrace Park and out to the bay. This isn’t going to transform your morning commute, but it might just transform your weekend. Now imagine six or a dozen kayak share launches in our canals, and the future of Miami boating begins to look fluid indeed.

When I posted this idea on Facebook last month, I learned a couple of things. I’m not the first person to come up with the idea. Minneapolis just launched the Mississippi River Paddle Share, with three paddle stations on a seven-mile stretch of river. If they can do this in the upper Midwest, think what we can do in subtropical South Florida!

I’m not even the first person to come up with the idea at this exact spot. Much of the initial planning for the Underline was done in a 2014 University of Miami architecture class taught by Rocco Ceo.

One of the students, Katherine Flores, now working in New York, developed a concept for a staffed boat rental concession on the Coral Gables Waterway at Riviera Drive. You can see plans here under the title “Little Venice on the Underline.” Now that the Underline is on the horizon, I would love to see a version of Katherine Flores’s original idea become a reality.

There are a few interior spots in the county where you can rent kayaks and canoes. At the Blue Marlin Fish House in North Miami Beach you can launch into the Oleta River, and in Palmetto Bay at Bill Sadowski Park you can access the C100 Cutler Drainage Canal, which is a lot more picturesque than it sounds. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a central canalside boat rental, easily accessible by public transportation or by bike?

The urge to paddle the canals of Miami-Dade county takes us back in time. George Merrick, developer of Coral Gables, brought gondolas to South Florida in the 1920s and gondoliers ferried people from the Biltmore to Matheson Hammock lagoon. Lightweight polyethylene sit-on-top kayaks are a little more maneuverable and a lot more democratic than the Venetian vessels Merrick hoped would bring aristocratic Adriatic glamor to the South Florida wetlands.

But let’s give Merrick his due: he saw that our waterways are precious, not only for flood control, but also for their recreational potential. If sea levels keep on rising here in the 305, we might all need more practice navigating our backyard waterworld.

Your View is a recurring series of opinion pieces from members of The New Tropic community. To share your ideas, goals, and work about Miami with the community in a Your View piece, please submit it to [email protected]