Where to live? Resiliency in spite of climate change

In October, Jonah Engel Bromwich wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “Where should you live to escape the harshest effects of climate change?” The article hypothesizes about which cities will experience the least adverse hazard impacts from climate change. While researchers can map regional hazard trends and make projections based on climate scenarios, another way to frame the problem is by mapping community assets and the ways in which communities are resilient. Just because a community is more vulnerable, does not necessarily mean it will not be resilient. These concepts are not the inverse of one another. So what factors might indicate if a community will be resilient? Here are a few things to keep in mind.  

Newport news norfolk portsmouth
Norfolk, VA from space, 1996. Norfolk is located in the upper right quadrant, via Wikimedia Commons

Go to the places that are planning now.

The impacts of climate change will not happen overnight. Then again, planning and community development doesn't happen overnight either. Planning typically occurs forecasting 20 or 30 years out and land use decisions last far longer. Schools, roads, light rail, industry, and other factors make lasting impressions on our community. If a community is thinking about the impacts of climate change now, they are taking a step in the right direction, seeking to protect people and property of the future. Investments that are made now will be there as the tide rises and the land warms. So take a look at what your community is investing in now. Look at community plans, particularity comprehensive and land use plans.

  • Are cities investing now in vulnerable areas?
  • Is commercial and industrial development occurring in areas exposed to hazards?
  • If they are developing in areas, is there consideration for shoring up investments with stricter building codes to withstand hazards or vertical elevation to combat flooding?

If there is no consideration for hazards, the effects of consequences on the people displaced, tax dollars lost, and property abandoned (among other things) will continue to ripple outward. Places like Rotterdam and Norfolk, VA (see Vision 2100) are at particular risk to sea level rise, but they are leaders in planning for it now and making investments for a community that will last another 100 years.

Communities participating in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities are also taking steps toward resilience. Military bases across the country are also in preparation, including Camp Grayling, MI with the National Guard Adaptation Planning Pilot Project. Of course, communities should also make sure planning for climate change and hazards is folded into all areas of planning so that efforts aren’t contradictory. Are the various agencies within a community integrated and congruent? Are neighboring communities working together in a regional effort?

Hurricane damage to mobile home in Davie Florida
Damage to a mobile home in Davie, Floria following Hurricane Katrina, via Wikimedia Commons. Social service workers should be trained to handle disaster recovery for vulnerable populations

Go to places that are thinking about social vulnerability.

The cliche that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” holds especially true in this area. Uplifting ‘the least of these’ increases a community’s resilience. We know that certain populations suffer disproportionately following a disaster, including racial and ethnic minorities, elderly, single parent households, those in poverty, and others.

  • How are communities combatting homelessness and housing unaffordability now?
  • Are communities segregated by race or income?

Inequities will only be exacerbated with the impacts of climate change. When a community focuses on providing opportunities and choices to all segments of the population, it is creating a stronger whole. For instance, King County, WA developed the Equity and Social Justice Strategic Plan to purposefully address and apply the theory of change. Community based organizations play an important role as well. Social service providers should work with populations to ensure eligibility issues are addressed, such as proof of ownership, tax issues, title issues, and heirship issues, which are common roadblocks. Social service workers should be trained to handle the complexities of disaster recovery, which will be chronic.

West Hartford, Connecticut health care reform town hall meeting, 2009-09-02
A town hall meeting in Connecticut via Wikimedia Commons.

Go to places where cities engage the public.

Planning for climate change will not work without the participation of the people—it cannot be accomplished by technocrats. Cities and counties must listen to and understand the needs of their residents. Participatory local governance is built on mutual respect and buttresses community resilience. The National League of Cities has spotlighted communities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Austin for their bottom-up approach to community engagement. Not only do communities need to engage the public, but residents need get involved. Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone, revealed an alarming lack of civic engagement and social capital in the U.S. Take advice from Woody Allen--"80% of life is showing up." So attend local meetings to make your concerns known, share your experiences, and influence local planning initiatives.

If you are living in a place now that is doing these things, great—your community will be better positioned to handle adverse impacts. If you are living in a place that is not doing these things, then get involved. We can come together to effect change. We can be resilient despite our vulnerabilities, but we have to start now.