Where Will Climate Migrants Go?

Urban farm in Braddock, Pennsylvania / iStock Images

We are living where we shouldn’t be living. In more communities across the U.S., climate change is causing flooding, wildfires, extreme heat, and sea level rise. According to a group at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU)’s Virtual Gathering, one solution is for communities threatened with climate impacts to move to “receiver cities.” The hollowed-out “legacy” cities and small towns of the Midwest could become new homes for displaced climate migrants because they have solid infrastructure, many open lots and empty homes, access to water, and lower risks of climate change-driven weather impacts.

Still, more planning is certainly needed to ready receiver cities for an influx of migrants from coastal communities like Miami, which are experiencing rising sea levels and flooding, and desert communities in the Southwest, which are battling drought and reduced water supplies.

Legacy cities are former industrial communities that have fallen on hard times. Dan Baisden, a midwest urban planner, said these mid-sized cities in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, have experienced population declines, job losses, and increased concentrations of poverty. “Braddock, Pennsylvania has seen a 90 percent drop in population, and Johnstown, Ohio, a 70 percent drop.” While these legacy cities may be good places for climate migrants, they also aren’t “fully ready to accept them.” Through the CNU Legacy Labs project, he is helping these cities devise climate adaptation plans that “build density and social structures.”

There are other planning efforts underway to help guide migrants to safer places. Scott Bernstein, founder and director emeritus of innovation at the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), is developing a series of urban climate action plans, mapping instances of extreme heat, drought, and flooding. He has located the places with the highest and lowest frequencies of severe weather, heavy water events, and bearing winds. His goal is to identify the communities with the lowest risk of climate dangers.

Similarly, architect and urban designer Dhiru Thadani is examining development patterns of 120 communities in the U.S., including dozens of small towns, to determine which could best expand to handle population growth and a large influx of climate migrants. He noted that the U.S. population is expected to grow by 100 million by 2050.

With new urbanists Andrés Duany and Paul Crabtree, Korkut Onaran, principal of PEL•ONA Architects & Urbanists is writing a book on “directives for enabling adaptation” aimed at federal and state policymakers. The book calls for a new federal policy-making framework, an Adaptation Enabling Act in the vein of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1924 and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act of 1928, which devolved powers to local communities to zone and plan. The proposed Adaptation Enabling Act would give states and local governments the power to generate climate adaptation and migration plans.

Large influxes of climate migrants could happen sooner than expected. Patty Steinschneider, president of Gotham Design & Community Development, asked us to envision 100,000 people moving north from Brooklyn, New York, in the immediate aftermath of some major natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy. Communities near Brooklyn need to plan for emergency receivership as well as a potential long-term permanent influx. Just as many who have fled cities because of COVID-19 will not return, not all climate migrants will be able to or want to return to their original communities.

Baisden noted for a community like Toledo, Ohio, which has a very small planning staff that is already overrun with existing responsibilities, planning for a rapid influx of, say, just 100 families would be very challenging. “They have no long-term planning capacity. We instead need to work directly with communities on the ground.” Onaran said communities could possibly designate “receiving zones.”

For Jesse Carpentier with ICLEI USA, there is a lack of long range climate adaptation planning because its value hasn’t been sold well. “People act on emotions rather than logic. Immediate gratification will always be more appealing than long-term benefits.” So these planning efforts, which have a multi-decade horizon, need to bolster stakeholders through short-term incentives like awards, recognition, and certificates, “which really do work.” Adaptation efforts must also have “tangible co-benefits” for communities in the form of economic gains and aesthetic improvements.

So what can potential receiver communities do to prepare for both climate change and incoming climate migrants? Recommendations included creating comprehensive policies that incentivize migration, developing plans for reusing and adapting existing community assets, and investing in green infrastructure and planting thousands of trees. Communities can also let others know they are open and welcoming of climate migrants.

Prisca Weems, a founding partner with interdisciplinary firm Future Proof, noted that climate migrants will not just be an issue within the U.S. A 2018 report from the World Bank finds that 143 million people are now already migrating in-country each year.

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