In the absence of any national plan for helping the communities most at risk from climate change, a group of members of the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) are exploring ways to relocate the populations of cities with precarious futures — Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Phoenix — to under-populated rust belt cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Detroit. These cooler, northern-situated cities will be better insulated from the effects of climate change and have “underused infrastructure,” with lots of vacant homes, said Paddy Steinschneider, founder of Gotham Design & Community Development, at CNU’s conference in Savannah, Georgia.
While the idea of moving the population of South Beach, Miami to Detroit is shocking, Steinschneider thinks we have lost “awareness that humans are a migratory species. We’ve survived so long because we have moved.”
And while many national and state level leaders are in denial about climate change, insurance and financial companies certainly aren’t. Local leaders may face political pressure to not give into climate change and tell their population to retreat and relocate, but it soon may not be up to them.
“If insurance companies won’t insure homes in at-risk places, financial companies won’t offer loans.” That means no more new development or re-development. At the same time, the value of existing property will decline. “What happens in communities when real estate assets no longer have any value?” This may happen sooner than we think in communities dealing with forest fires, flooding, drought, and water shortages brought on by climate change.
For architect and urban planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the question is “what do we do when we have to leave?” Instead of fleeing catastrophe, like the Americans who escaped hurricanes in New Orleans and Houston in recent years, “what if we came up with a plan so we can evolve less catastrophically?”
Plater-Zyberk thinks communities threatened by climate risks have to take their heads out of the sand and think through options now. Communities can either defend and fortify, while securing new water supplies; accommodate climate change — by living with flooding or other extreme weather events; or retreat.
If they elect to defend and fortify, they must prioritize. In Miami, where Plater-Zyberk teaches, “South Beach is a financial hub we depend on, so it will be defended first.”
Retreat and relocation has mind-boggling regulatory and financial implications. In the example of a coastal area permanently flooded due to sea-level rise, policymakers would have to decide to buy out property and transform it into “surface water storage,” giving owners the funds to move elsewhere. Plater-Zyberk said there must be a process for cleaning and recycling coastal land that no longer has any value so it doesn’t further pollute.
As part of a colloquium on relocation she taught at the University of Miami, Plater-Zyberk’s students created “adaptation maps,” based on the geography of Florida, tracking how the “flora and fauna of the Everglades will change, how the crops grown on agricultural lands will alter, how coastal and inland communities will be impacted.” Overlaid on environmental change are possible economic and political changes. As ecosystems and farmlands shift, the economy of Florida will be deeply impacted. As a result, “politics will become more unpredictable.”
Plater-Zyberk bemoaned the fact there are no solid adaptation plans in place anywhere in the states. “There is a lot of preparing to get ready to get started.”
A MIT study on relocation possibilities in Boston identified relocation scenarios: relocate in town, to an adjacent town, a new town, or cross country. Matthew Hauer, a professor at University of Georgia, is calculating how many people in at-risk communities on the East Coast will relocate and where. But these are just models and projections.
There are likely no solid plans because there are still so many unknowns: “Should communities be required to go or should it all be voluntary? If a property is underwater, who does it belong to? If it’s underwater and filled with toxic building materials that are polluting, who pays for this?” She wondered whether short-term home mortgages will appear in at-risk communities, like a car loan, with a limited length of value.
Laura Clemmons, CEO of Collaborative Communities, who works with communities in the South hard hit by hurricanes, said “most people driven out of their homes usually end up about a 3-hour drive from where they were.” They seek affordable rentals. “In their minds, they will go back and rebuild. They believe they are coming back.” But as they wait for up to a year for insurance money, temporary places become permanent. For receiver cities, the influx can create pressure on infrastructure, home prices, and school systems.
Prisca Weems, a founding partner at Future Proof, explained how poor residents of New Orleans were forcibly evicted and displaced after Hurricane Katrina. “They were distributed throughout the country without being told where they were going. They didn’t have the resources to return. It’s almost impossible to think. It seems un-American.” Weems thinks receiver cities should come up with plans to “attract residents peaceably and appropriately, and get ahead of the curve and absorb people.”
At that point, we heard from Alissa Shelton, with Bank Suey from Detroit, who provided the sole receiver city perspective. She said in Detroit, “there is already tension with new people trickling in.” Hundreds of thousands of people coming into Detroit? “Oh really?”