Some call it the Accidental Region. Long and slender and lacking a single cohesive center, an area whose regional identity is still a work in progress, South Florida is the result of a hundred small cities that have spread like blotting ink over sand and marshland for the past 50 years.
And over the next two decades, another 2.2 million people — 249 every day — will move into this already crowded corridor stretching from the Florida Keys to Indian River County, according to the South Florida Regional Planning Council. Most will settle in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties —the epicenter of the state's explosion in Hispanic households.
"The reality is that our western wall is the Everglades, and our eastern wall is the ocean. Those are the only boundaries that matter," said Julia A. Trevarthen, director of the Institute for Community Collaboration, a nonprofit public policy group based in Hollywood that is doing a study projecting what South Florida could look like in 2060.
Within those borders, the 21st century community being formed is as complex as any ever seen in America. No ethnic group will dominate, many will live with a global foot still planted in their native countries, and race, language and color will be only entry points into a megalopolis that already is larger than 35 states.
Seven out of every 10 people now moving into South Florida were born abroad —more than a third of the entire region is foreign-born. Largely, but not exclusively, Hispanic, they come from dozens of different countries that are a mélange of race, ethnicity and history.
"One of the most interesting things about South Florida is that just because someone is Hispanic in Broward or Palm Beach County, you can no longer assume they're from Cuba or Puerto Rico," said Dario Moreno, director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. "They may be from Venezuela, or Colombia or Argentina. Or they may not be Hispanic at all, but Brazilian," who speak Portuguese, not Spanish.
"Likewise, just because you see an African face in Broward County, that doesn't mean any more that the person is African-American," continued Moreno. "They could be Jamaican, Trinidadian, Guyanese, or from somewhere else in the West Indies.
"That's why you travel to parks now in south Broward on a Sunday afternoon and see so many people playing cricket," Moreno said.
More than a third of South Florida's population today is Hispanic, about 2.1 million residents — roughly two-thirds of the state's entire Hispanic population.
The Latinization of South Florida is now so far advanced that geographers no longer talk of "white flight." That's long since past. Rather, it's "congestion flight" — second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans and others who are moving up into Broward and Palm Beach counties to escape the crowding in Miami-Dade.
The region is growing younger. The widening gap between births and deaths is being accelerated by the departure of retirees to cheaper destinations, such as Tennessee and North Carolina. The proportion of younger families with children is growing, the numbers of childless "empty nesters," shrinking. For five decades, more than 20 percent of seniors who moved from one state to another chose Florida as their new home. That changed in 2000, when Florida's numbers dropped below 20 percent, according to the U.S. census. By 2005, 16 percent of the total population was 65 years and older — a percentage that steadily drops as one moves south through South Florida. For the first time in decades, Broward and Palm Beach counties also have seen growth dip while the number of exiting late boomers is increasing.
At least 50 percent of the population of South Florida moves every five years. So rapid is the movement that Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are now considered "flow through" counties by regional planners as residents move up and down the coast seeking new jobs, bigger homes and more opportunity. "There's this cross-pollination across the counties, more and more each day. The lines are very blurry as to how people actually live their daily lives," said Trevarthen, who lives in Boca Raton but commutes to her job in Hollywood.
South Florida is home to 1,400 multinational businesses, and that number is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. Expect an Asian increase — the one group underrepresented here — in the next decade as Japanese and Chinese firms use ports and the other resources of South Florida as a platform for ventures throughout Latin America, some experts say.
The good news is that such investment likely will correct the salary gaps that have driven many people out of the region. The bad news is that this process will take time, economists say.
Many living here likely will leave. They will be driven by some of the same forces that once pushed them from hometowns in New York or New Jersey: wealth, opportunity and weather.
"The cost of living just became too great — I saw my property taxes on one building go up from $4,000 a year to something like $19,000 before it became too much," said Carol Johnson, 60, who moved to Tennessee from Fort Lauderdale two years ago. She and her husband are building a new home.
Many others will move in to replace them.
"There may be traffic, congestions, but there's also a real energy to the place for people in their 30s, for young families," said Christopher Moore, 33, an industrial engineer with Florida Power & Light Co. who lives in Jupiter.
Raised in North Carolina, Moore has traveled in Africa, India and Europe for his education and job. He loves the fast-paced blend of work and leisure this region offers. He's typical of the cosmopolitan "knowledge workers" South Florida needs to compete against such global commercial hubs as New York City, Silicon Valley, Tokyo or Shanghai.