The Underwater is a socially engaged art project by Xavier Cortada aimed at working with communities in Miami to amplify “Underwater Voices” – those who are often underrepresented, underserved, and undervalued. In coordination with local partners, this effort uses data-driven art to systematically reveal Miami’s vulnerability to rising seas and mobilize residents to demand that government equitably plan for a future impacted by climate change. 

In spring 2022, Cortada’s project was launched in Miami with the support of the Xavier Cortada Foundation, Creative Capital and the University of Miami Laboratory for Integrated Knowledge (U-LINK)‘s On the Move: Climate Migration and Retreat in South Florida, the Caribbean, and Beyond interdisciplinary research team (where he serves as one of four principal investigators).

Little Havana

Cortada partnered with his alma mater, Miami Senior High School, to implement The Underwater across Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Working with Miami High’s science department, over the course of a few weeks, more than eighty 90-minute-long, interactive presentations were given to over 2,000 Miami High students. During each of these “Underwater Stories,” students learned why Miami is referred to as ground zero for climate change, used an app created by scientists at Florida International University to discover their home’s elevation above sea level, and ultimately painted their number on an “Underwater Elevation Marker” given to them by Cortada’s team. Importantly, students were encouraged to plant the elevation-marked signs in their front yards as a way of sparking climate-related conversation and action with anyone who inquires about them.

At the end of each presentation, students were also invited to browse the “Underwater Intel.” This online resource hub contains a curated selection of videos, books, podcasts, and more for anyone who wants to dive deeper in their climate education. Additionally, the Intel highlights Miami-based organizations to get involved with, inspiring leaders to learn from, and special places around South Florida to explore. With the understanding that everyone has different interests and passions, the resources are divided into the following topics:

  • Science, Nature & Conservation
  • Justice, Law & Policy
  • Business, Energy & Technology
  • Art, Culture & Media
  • Health, Wellness & Diet

Once all of the Underwater Stories, Markers, and Intel were shared, The Underwater convened residents at the Little Havana Climate Town Hall and Community Connection Fair on April 27th, 2022. At the town hall, Cortada was joined by his colleagues from the University of Miami for a panel discussion and Q&A focused on preparing the community for a future with rising seas. At the fair, students and their families had the ability to learn about and get involved in ongoing local efforts ranging from climate advocacy and adaptation to sustainable seafood and native tree planting.

Xavier Cortada describes Underwater HOA, the precursor to The Underwater

Local context

Miami is dealing with a wicked problem.

Today, cranes populate the Miami skyline, building more and more skyscrapers at the water’s edge. Growth is what fuels the economy – increased development grows the tax base and keeps property taxes from rising. Developers push for growth. It’s a high reward game with little actual risk: they will get their ROI two years later when the condos get sold.

Buyers, mostly international cash investors, are also hedging their bets – hoping to flip their affluent properties a few years later and long before the psychology of sea level rise bursts the real estate bubble. Because of this brazen overdevelopment, citizens don’t have a real sense that sea level rise poses a true threat to their homes, savings, jobs, and community. 

Politicians, who are evaluated in two-year and four-year election cycles, aren’t incentivized to plan for the long-term. They engage in ribbon cutting ceremonies for new buildings with impunity even if that will only burden future generations. Their pro-growth actions signal to constituents that everything will be fine, but all they are doing is kicking the can down the road. 

In Miami, rising seas will disproportionately impact people of color and poorer residents living in low lying areas (as low-income neighborhoods are abandoned, property owners will lose everything) and higher lying areas (evicted renters – the victims of climate gentrification). The Underwater aims to uplift and amplify these voices in the pursuit of social and economic stability for all Miamians.