How Car-Clogged Houston Could Be a Climate Policy Leader

April was supposed to be a big month for Houston city planning. America’s largest unzoned city was poised to host the American Planning Association’s national convention for the first time, bringing thousands of attendees to town. Walking tours were arranged; awkward cocktail mixers were scheduled.

Of course, with a global outbreak of the coronavirus, it wasn’t meant to be.

Undeterred, Houston quietly adopted the Bayou City’s first citywide climate action plan on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If city leaders can pull it off, America’s sprawling oil capital could end up teaching a lot to more traditionally green urban strongholds.

Houston is no stranger to the extreme weather events believed to be associated with climate change. In 2017, the city was slammed by Hurricane Harvey, resulting in over $120 billion in damage and 68 lost lives. In the aftermath, the city moved to expand stormwater management infrastructure and aggressively control floodplain development. The recently passed climate action plan takes a more proactive approach, setting out ways that Houston, which is one of the largest per capita greenhouse gas emitters among U.S. cities, can minimize its impact on the environment in the first place.

The plan includes plenty of mainstay climate-policy prescriptions, including calls to electrify the city’s fleet of vehicles, switch to renewable sources of energy, and improve energy efficiency in buildings. But then things become rather unique. The city’s first bicycle master plan, adopted in 2017, gets a lot of play, as does the MetroNEXT Moving Forward plan, a widely lauded $3.5 billion push to overhaul mass transit in the notoriously auto-oriented city. The emphasis on mobility makes sense, since nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and Houston maintains one of the highest rates of automobile use in the country.

Toward this same end, one of the plan’s more innovative proposals calls on policymakers to eliminate minimum parking requirements by 2030. While Houston famously lacks zoning — meaning that it doesn’t segregate uses or restrict densities — it still enforces some conventional land-use regulations. These include minimum parking requirements, which mandate that developers build off-street parking for each project, regardless of actual demand. In Houston, this can mean up to two parking spaces for every apartment or four spaces for every thousand square feet of office space.

Thanks to the pioneering work of urban economist Donald Shoup, minimum parking requirements have lately come under fire from affordable housing activists and environmentalists. The former note that the construction of an underground parking garage can raise the cost of an apartment by as much as $34,000. The latter point out that mandating parking bakes in resource-intensive sprawl, foreclosing the possibility of a more urban, less car-dependent lifestyle.

Several cities — including Buffalo, Hartford and San Francisco — have already scrapped minimum parking requirements. And in 2019, Houston itself moved to increase the number of neighborhoods it exempts from minimum parking requirements, dubbed locally as the “market-based parking” area. But most neighborhoods along the city’s major new light rail lines remain subject to the requirements, potentially undercutting walkable infill development.

In pursuit of less driving and more energy efficiency, the plan also calls on policymakers to rally behind infill. With the proposed “Walkable Places Ordinance” and “Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance,” a blend of improved sidewalks and light design guidance could soon improve the pedestrian experience in Houston’s potentially walkable nodes, reducing the incentive to drive. With minimum parking requirements gone, small patches of walkable urbanism could soon take root among some of the Sun Belt’s most notorious sprawl.

Indeed, Houston’s infamous lack of zoning could end up being one of its greatest assets in pursuing climate goals. Without all of the anti-density baggage that comes with zoning — from apartment bans to an onerous approvals process — there is relatively little standing in the way of a rapidly densifying Houston and all of the environmental benefits it brings.

The city has a long way to go before it becomes anyone’s idea of an environmental exemplar. But if all goes according to plan, Houston could soon rank among those cities that have scrapped out-of-date parking requirements — a group that conspicuously doesn’t include progressive stalwarts like Portland and New York City. In a city otherwise famous for its supposed lack of planning, easing up on the right rules might just turn Houston green.

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Complex Climate Problems Call for Multi-Sector Solutions

It is increasingly clear that climate resilience cannot, and should not, be divorced from economic resilience. The siloed sectors that have worked to solve environmental problems in the past will not be enough to tackle our existential climate change challenges, which are intertwined with our racial and economic inequality. In Seattle, the team is supporting the development of a community-governed entity that will direct and leverage public, philanthropic, and private investments to create climate justice and economic opportunity while mitigating displacement. They are already advancing a pipeline of projects, including parks, housing, and neighborhood facilities, that will serve as a proof of concept for following a different process that centers community priorities. 

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How to Emotionally Survive Climate Change

One evening last summer, at a loft event in Brooklyn, attendees were asked to set down their drinks, lie on the floor, and close their eyes. As the recorded hums of cicadas and crickets filled the room, two women walked around brushing flowers against the cheeks of the supine people. Afterwards, participants took turns visiting an altar, which was lit by candles and piled with ripe fruit, hunks of honeycomb, and a heap of dead insects.

Part group therapy, part performance art, and part party, the gathering had a pointed goal: to make people feel something about climate change. That is the work of Nocturnal Medicine, a two-year-old project by a pair of New York City landscape architects. Through live events, online installations, and self-published texts, founders Larissa Belcic and Michelle Shofet act as elicitors of and guides to the difficult feelings created by climate change.

“There is no infrastructure in our society to process the emotional responses coming up around the changes that are happening constantly and every day,” Shofet said on a phone call. “We’re bombarded with them and we might feel bad, but we don’t have a set practice for holding the feelings and letting ourselves process them.”

At Nocturnal Medicine’s “Elegy for Insects” event in Brooklyn, attendees visit an altar covered in dead insects. (Nocturnal Medicine)

The Brooklyn soirée was designed to be such a practice, in this case a confrontation of the climate-abetted phenomenon of catastrophic insect population decline. By prodding people onto the floor, washing them in a sensory bath of pollinator stuff, and inviting them towards an open-casket viewing of arthropods, Shofet and Belcic hoped to send participants over an arc of nostalgia, discomfort, confusion, and grief—but as part of a gentle, shared experience.

And it does seem to do something. Some visitors laugh or cry; some move silently through the process. But almost everyone at least starts talking about climate change. “A lot of people have come up after and told me, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know how badly I needed this,’” said Belcic.

Ian Crowe, a 31-year-old product designer who attended a second Nocturnal Medicine event held at a plant nursery in L.A., said he felt a catharsis afterwards. “It felt like I was attending earth’s funeral.”

An eco-conscious ritual for outer-borough creatives may sound a bit like a Portlandia sketch, particularly when many millions of global citizens are far more directly impacted by the droughts, storms, and human conflicts that the heating planet has already contributed to. But the drumbeat of doom still takes a psychic toll on those watching from the sidelines. A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association on the mental health effects of climate change found that “gradual, long-term changes in climate can … surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion.” Growing shares of the American public report experiencing negative emotions about the issue: The 2019 edition of an annual survey by Yale University found 46 percent of Americans said they feel “outraged,” 45 percent said they feel “afraid,” and 66 percent said they feel “worried” about climate change, a ten percent point increase since 2014. More than half also reported feeling “helpless.”

Fear and paralysis might be normal reactions to vast, terrifying threats, but few of us explore the depths of the feelings themselves. After hearing of the latest climate horror—mass species die-offs, blackened forests, apocalyptic global temperature forecasts—overwhelmed news consumers might shake their heads and move on with their lives, while activists hammer onward with political action. At either end of the engagement spectrum, the emotional cocktail that comes with watching the world burn is often left untouched, said Renee Lertzman, a research psychologist and author specializing in environmental communications. That’s partly because this is such a new phenomenon.

“It’s not like the kind of anger, sadness, and grief that we normally think about when someone passes away,” Lertzman said. “This is a whole different category: There’s an actual loss and sadness when you hear about a billion animals killed in a wildfire, plus an anticipatory loss. We’re already grieving what we understand is going to be gone, based on science’s predictions.”

“Elegy for Insects” attendees listen to insect sounds and receive flower brushings. (Nocturnal Medicine)

Lertzman argues that our inability to process these latent feelings has consequences for the planet. Without reflection and mourning, people can become inhibited from taking meaningful action: After all, behaviors like denial, disassociation, and even paralysis that arise in the face of climate change all stem from real feelings about it. This is a problem on the individual level, as well as for governments, NGOs, and other organizations urging people to alter behaviors or advocate for change, often relying on frightening imagery and statistics to instigate action.

“They’re jumping over the ‘pause,’ where people need to be able to say, ‘What the fuck; I need to process this,’” Lertzman said. “Folks need to figure out what this stuff means and how they feel, and the quickest way to get there is to get people talking and relating to each other.”

Attention towards the affective dimensions of climate change is expanding, alongside the scale of the global crisis. Google search interest for the term “climate grief” has tripled since 2018, and a growing cohort of psychologists, therapists, and amateur practitioners is working on it.

Apart from Nocturnal Medicine, another project offering an artistic response to environmental trauma is Kate Schapira’s climate anxiety counseling booth. Every summer since 2014, the Brown University poet and lecturer has set up a Peanuts-style advisory table in a local public square, and tries to talk through the climate angst of the strangers who walk up. The goal is to break down big fears into concrete questions and bite-sized actions, which can be as small as Googling what happens if my daughter’s apartment floods? or how will seniors evacuate? “I give people little cards written with prescriptions, because for a lot of people, there is a too-muchness to this problem,” Schapira said. “Climate change affects everything that there is, so how are you supposed to think about that?”  

At Nocturnal Medicine’s “Momentary Chapel” event in Los Angeles, an altar heaped with dead bees, fruit, and honey invites attendees to look, taste, and smell. (Nocturnal Medicine)

An eco-grief circle called We Heal For All offers a self-care-themed approach to climate resilience. Liz Moyer, a former climate policy and sustainable development professional, started the project when she found her own psyche heavily taxed by fighting for the planet. Now, once a month, she opens a 90-minute video chat to a mixture of NGO workers, activists, and anyone else who wants to talk about how their hearts are faring in the face of climate change. “In our society, there are many opportunities to talk about science, advocacy, and strategy,” she said. “My intention is to offer something complementary. It’s a place to come into our bodies and our hearts, share from that place, and hold space for each other.”

All of these practitioners said that they view the act of emotional processing as a requisite for meaningful activism. Perhaps the eco-horror pageantry of Extinction Rebellion, an international climate activist group known for die-ins, face paint, and elaborately costumed protests, is an example of what can happen when attunement to pathos turns into action.

Activists from the Extinction Rebellion protest movement in London in October. (Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” in 2005 to describe the grief triggered by environmental loss or destruction. It may be a new phenomenon for wealthy people in wealthy nations, but it’s familiar to indigenous communities whose lands were long ago seized by colonizers or degraded by resource extraction. Thanks to global climate change, Albrecht writes, “we face a pandemic of solastalgia.” And yet, treating this outbreak is likely to be just as inequitable as everything else associated with this era’s disbursement of resources, as the emerging field of climate grief counseling already shows: While poor communities around the world are most affected by the ravages of global warming, they are also least likely to have the time or funds to access therapy or other interventions.

That curative gap can delay critical preparations and community actions, experts argue. For example, Colette Pichon Battle, the executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, frequently talks about how the lasting trauma of Hurricane Katrina continues to act as a barrier to political mobilization against climate change among communities of color in Louisiana. “We’re not like some other communities where something bad is happening, and the response is, ‘Let’s all galvanize,’” Pichon Battle said in an interview in 2014. “We’re actually in a different place: ‘Something bad is happening, let’s deal with everyone’s trauma first.’” In a 2019 TED talk, she called for more resources for healing the psychological trauma experienced by climate survivors.

For their part, Belcic and Shofet would like to find ways to extend their work outside their familiar network of creative professionals; they’re currently making inroads with the New York City rave scene to see how climate grief might intersect with the euphoria of dance. Meanwhile, they’re gathering anecdotal evidence of how their offbeat climate ceremonies, filled with sounds, sights, touches, and tastes, can jump-start healing for those who attend.

“When people show up, they are sometimes uncomfortable or they don’t know how to act,” said Belcic. “There’s a hesitancy to be serious and sink in or even just access what they think or feel about this topic. But I think it helps to watch other people open up. Then they’re able to start talking. It helps give other people permission to feel something.”

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Where America’s Climate Migrants Will Go As Sea Level Rises

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through Louisiana in 2005, cities like Houston, Dallas, and Baton Rouge took in hundreds of thousands of displaced residents—many of whom eventually stayed in those cities a year later. Where evacuees have moved since hasn’t been closely tracked, but data from those initial relocations are helping researchers predict how sea level rise might drive migration patterns in the future.

Climate experts expect some 13 million coastal residents in the U.S. to be displaced by the end of this century. A new PLOS One study gives some indication of where climate migrants might go.

“A lot of cities not at risk of sea of level rise will experience the effect of it,” says Bistra Dilkina, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, who led the study. “This will require an adjustment in terms of the [increased] demand on the cities’ infrastructure.”

Dilkina and her team used migration data from the Internal Revenue Service to analyze how people moved across the U.S. between 2004 and 2014. Movement from seven Katrina and Rita-affected counties to unaffected counties between 2005 and 2006 was categorized as climate-driven migration. Researchers then combined that analysis with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projections on the effects of sea level rise on coastal counties, and trained a machine-learning model to predict where coastal populations will move when forced to leave their homes—and how that, in turn, affects the migration of non-coastal residents.

Blue indicates counties where flooding will displace residents if sea levels rise by six feet by 2100. Counties in shades of pink and red will see higher-than-average migration, with the darker shades representing larger population increases. (PLOS One)

In the worst-case scenario, in which sea levels rise by six feet by 2100, the resulting map shows portions of almost all counties on the East and West Coasts, and along the Gulf of Mexico, under water. It also shows that cities closest to the flood-prone areas, and that aren’t typically attractive destinations for newcomers, could see a higher-than-average influx of migrants. In Florida, for example, that means people may increasingly move to the shrinking core of the peninsula as the coastlines disappear into the ocean. Demographer Mathew Hauer, whose climate migration research was a building block for Dikina’s, explained in Audubon Magazine that people tend to move to familiar places nearby, where they might already have friends, family, or some other support network. People may also flock to major urban centers like Dallas and Houston, which the model predicts will absorb the most migrants, and drive up the pace of urbanization.

In the short to medium term, cities on the receiving end will likely face a housing crunch, according to Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Harvard University who was not involved in the study. He points to the 2018 wildfire that displaced some 50,000 residents in and around the city of Paradise, California. “It’s increased the property values of neighboring towns,” he says. One such town is Chico, which became the top refuge destination and turned into a boomtown almost overnight. By the end of that year, home sales doubled and housing prices jumped 21 percent, compared to December 2017.

In the long term, “that’s going to lead to displacement, housing pressure, and probably even to homelessness among people who are being indirectly forced out by the people moving in,” Keenan says—a phenomenon he calls “climate gentrification.”

Those with the means to move will likely relocate to another big city away from the coast, in search of comparable or better economic opportunities, according to the latest study. Many may end up moving to the suburbs in the Midwest, where the model shows a larger-than-average influx of migrants compared to historic trends.

Dilkina is careful to describe the study as only an “approximation” of how sea level change might drive migration patterns, not a precise picture of where people will actually move. “There’s still a lot of need for understanding different drivers and externalities,” she says, adding that her team will be presenting their results at various meetings and conferences with other academics who may want to collaborate. “We are setting up a model to be improved as we go.”

For one thing, sea level rise is just one effect of climate change. Heat waves will drive people north—and could make make cities like Duluth and Buffalo “climate havens.” Urban flooding will reshuffle populations within a city. And extreme storms will move people in yet other ways. Meanwhile, as in Paradise, “forest fires are going to have dramatic effects on the West Coast, including the Pacific Northwest,” says Keenan. “All of those things are changing land economics, housing economics, and public finance.”

Whether researchers can paint a precise picture of future migration patterns will require better—and more explicit—metrics for measuring how and why people move, and a better understanding of social behavior overall, says Keenan. Currently, migration data is both delayed and indirectly collected via proxies like Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) assistance applications and address changes submitted to the IRS and the post office.

Precision aside, though, Keenan thinks the value of this kind of study lies in the messaging. The map presents a “minimal threshold of the amount of people that would potentially be on the move,” he says. Socioeconomic factors—where companies create employment opportunities, who has the means to move, and how racial discrimination keeps people out, for example—will also play a role in dictating how many people move, and to where.

At the very least, it will alert policymakers to start analyzing current infrastructure investments and plan for the long term. “So if we’re going to build a road,” he says, “is this for today’s population of is this for tomorrow’s population?”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story overstated the assessment of blue regions on the climate migration map. They are counties where flooding is likely to displace residents if sea level rises by six feet by 2100.

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CityLab Daily: America After Climate Change, Mapped

What We’re Following

At last: You don’t have to use too much imagination to predict the fundamental weather impacts of climate change in the U.S. by the end of the 21st century. Estimates show the temperature will increase an average of 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to more extreme weather events, from heatwaves to wildfires to floods.

But lots of other potential impacts are less inevitable, according to Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s

(McHarg Center)

While the broad takeaways are unsurprisingly dire, there is reason for some optimism that ambitious policy proposals could make a difference. “We get the future we build for ourselves,” Fleming tells CityLab’s Sarah Holder. Read her story: America After Climate Change, Mapped

Andrew Small


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How Universal Pre-K Drives Up Families’ Infant-Care Costs

An unintended consequence of free school programs for three- and four-year-olds is a reduction in the supply of affordable child care for kids younger than two.

Kendra Hurley

Navigator: Lost Landscapes

What can archival materials tell us about our cities?

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Change Comes to a Suburb That Loved Sprawl

Oakland County, Michigan, has long spurned transit and kept Detroit at arm’s length. But new county executive David Coulter isn’t afraid of density.

Amy Crawford

The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

Jonathan English


What We’re Reading

“Mayors for Mike”: How Bloomberg’s money built a 2020 political network (New York Times)

Inside the post-apocalyptic underground future (The Guardian)

This clever bus stop features rotating pods to shield passengers from the wind (Curbed)

California is spending big on the 2020 census, while Texas decided not to devote any money to the job (New York Times)

This GPS-based haiku generator writes poems about your current location (Fast Company)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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America After Climate Change, Mapped

In 100 years, what will a United States transformed by climate change look like? At this point, you don’t have to use much imagination to predict what’s coming: Temperatures will continue to climb; sea levels will continue to rise. And, by the 2060s, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that global migration patterns will bring 100 million new people into the country, who will settle from coast to coast.

Almost everything else about the climate of tomorrow and the nation’s ability to survive it is less inevitable, however, says Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology. “There are certain general things we’re certain about, but the shape and content of the future is not one of them,” he said. “We get the future we build for ourselves.”

With other researchers from the McHarg Center, he designed a series of maps of the U.S. for an online collection dubbed The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal. The website use a variety of projected and current data sources to sketch out the country’s possible fate, displaying its geography in economic, ecological, agricultural, and ideological terms. Climate models vary, as do timelines and confidence intervals for each map. But collectively, Fleming says the images provide visual evidence that it’s not too late for grand interventions to make a fundamental difference. Ambitious proposals like the Green New Deal—which involves a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s energy and building infrastructure—could be the key, he said.

“By the end of 21st century, the temperature will increase an average 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit.” (Courtesy McHarg Center)

The broad takeaways are dire, as usual. Heat-related deaths in the southern U.S. could grow—but so could cold-related deaths in northern areas. Workers exposed to outdoor temperatures in Texas and the Gulf Coast would be most at risk for heat-related deaths, but everyone’s risk could be heightened.

The southern U.S. can expect to see spikes in climate-related mortality. (Courtesy McHarg Center)

According to GDP projections through 2099, more than three quarters of U.S. counties will be suffering economically because of the damage climate change wreaks; about a quarter will benefit. “The losses are largest in the regions that are already poorer on average (Southern, Central, and Mid-Atlantic), increasing inequality as value transfers to the Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes Region, and New England,” the report finds. Rural, non-coastal regions like Arkansas, where Fleming grew up, are often left out of serious conversations about climate change despite their dependence on crops and livestock that can be damaged by drought, heat, and heavy rains, along with the accompanying risk of soil erosion.

“Economic damage is considered as the combined value of market and non-market damage across the agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor sectors.” (Courtesy McHarg Center)

No corner of the U.S. will be spared by the effects of climate change: Sea-level rise could displace up to 13.1 million people by the end of the 21st century. But adaptations will have to look different everywhere, Fleming said. High-poverty Mississippi will contend with coastal flooding, variations in agriculture viability, and huge energy expenditure demands as a result of extreme heat. As a result, many residents could become climate migrants. In Manhattan, the most urgent concern may be flooding; up by the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, the threats center around industry and farming. Northern cities like Duluth and Buffalo may indeed transform into some form of “climate refuge,” thanks to abundant fresh water and cooler temperatures. But they could also be vulnerable to other, less desirable impacts from mass migration.

“We both can and have to expand the definition of frontline community,” said Fleming.

(Courtesy McHarg Center)

An estimated 100 million people will migrate into and around the country seeking refuge from the various climate impacts. And as they do, more energy resources, water, and density will be needed. “Most demographers expect an increasing share of these people to live in major American cities like New York, Chicago, and Phoenix,” the project reads. To accommodate them in high-density places like New York City, we’ll need 12 new NYC-sized cities; the same population will require 68 lower-density places like Phoenix.

The planet-saving power of density. (Courtesy McHarg Center)

Such findings resonate with proposals like Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal for Public Housing, which calls for billions of investment in upgrading existing public housing stock and a nationwide emphasis on building more dense, transit-friendly communities.

The sweeping scale of such proposals may seem daunting, especially given the current political climate, but the project makes a point of acknowledging America’s legacy of infrastructural transformation. There’s a “History of Big Ideas” map that traces earlier planning initiatives and mass mobilization efforts that are “[v]ariously inspiring and cautionary,” like the Garden City and Greenbelt projects and Tennessee Valley Authority of the original New Deal. We’ve done it before, it implies. We can do it again.

“These are things that the country can take on together if and when it decides to make the climate crisis the sort of generational investment it deserves to be,” said Fleming.

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Rethinking Coastal Property in an Era of Climate Change

The country has provided hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from recent coastal storms but done little to rethink the existing policies and programs that contribute to coastal property losses, or to define new measures that account for the new realities of more damaging storms and rising sea levels.

A key first step toward smarter policies is to improve disclosure of risk associated with coastal properties. This will require better mapping of areas at risk of both storms and rising seas. National standards are needed for disclosure of coastal flood risk prior to sale. Lenders and supporting agencies need to evaluate and disclose coastal flood risk.

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CityLab Daily: Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?

This is a second version of today’s newsletter that corrects two nonworking links in the original. Thanks to those who sent feedback.

What We’re Following

Buffalo chills: As many cities begin to see what a warming world looks like and gear up to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, Buffalo, New York, is unusually well-insulated from the problem. Rising temperatures have yet to produce more heat waves or extreme rainfall in Western New York and the city had only one 90-degree day in 2019. Experts say the region’s cool climate and ample fresh water could make it an attractive destination as the planet heats up.

What’s more, the city has plenty of space to take in more people after seeing its population decline since the 1950s. The city’s mayor even called it a “Climate Refuge City” in his February 2019 State of the City address. As one SUNY Buffalo State climate scientist put it, “With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less.” On CityLab, Jeremy Deaton explores whether the city will be prepared for a potential migrant influx: Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?

Andrew Small


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Turkeys Are Moving to the Suburbs

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Time Capsule

(Madison Johnson/CityLab)

Loyal CityLab readers, we want hear from you! The last ten years have seen cities and metropolitan areas transformed in fundamental ways, while other predictions and promises about urban life haven’t come to pass.

As we reflect on the legacy of the decade, Team CityLab wants your input on what we should be covering and what you saw change in the places where you live. Send a few lines our way in this quick survey: What Defined the Decade From 2010-2020 in Cities?


What We’re Reading

Uber says 3,045 sexual assaults were reported in U.S. rides last year (New York Times)

How America’s second-tier cities can catch the superstars (Bloomberg)

Toronto’s secret success: Suburban buses (The Globe and Mail)

U.S. cities plans for worsening heatwaves fail to protect the vulnerable (The Guardian)

The parenting tax of school choice (JSTOR Daily)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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Will Buffalo Become a Climate Change Haven?

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Maria Robles saw rainfall so severe that it punched a hole through her roof and flooded her home in San Juan. “We lost everything inside the house,” she said. “Everything, everything, everything.”

The storm marked the beginning of a long journey that took her from the convention center in San Juan to a hotel in Florida to an airport in Philadelphia, concluding with an 11-hour bus ride to Buffalo, New York — her husband had once visited the city as a teenager and remembered liking it. She arrived with two of her four children in tow. It didn’t take long for Robles and her family to settle into their new home. She landed a job in a factory that makes face cream, lip balm, and other personal care products, while her husband found a job in a plastics factory. Robles said she still struggles with the frigid weather, but she would gladly take a snowstorm over a hurricane any day.

Robles may not have known it when she moved in, but Buffalo is unusually well-insulated against climate change. Rising temperatures have yet to produce more heat waves or extreme rainfall in Western New York. Experts say the region’s cool climate and ample fresh water could make it an attractive destination as the planet heats up. And Buffalo has room to grow — the city’s population has dropped by half over the last 70 years of industrial decline.

These facts have not gone unnoticed. In his 2019 State of the City address, the mayor dubbed Buffalo a “Climate Refuge City.” Civic leaders are hopeful that the coming wave of climate refugees will revive Buffalo, filling its vacant lots and abandoned storefronts.

“Buffalo is stepping up and preparing to welcome this new type of refugee,” said the city’s mayor, Byron Brown. “We believe that we can accommodate people who have experienced displacement due to harsh weather and natural disaster.”

As Buffalo becomes a more appealing place to migrate, can it remain a haven for refugees like Robles, who come in search of affordable housing and a decent job? Or will Buffalo become a cold-weather haven for the professional class? With ample space for newcomers, Buffalo doesn’t look like cities typically at risk for gentrifying. But what happens if high earners from vulnerable cities like Miami and New York flock to the shores of Lake Erie? Will Buffalo be prepared?

“With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less.”

In 2016, SUNY Buffalo climate scientist Stephen Vermette set out to show how climate change had made life harder in western New York with the hope of galvanizing locals to take up arms against the carbon crisis. He scoured weather records going back to 1965 and found that temperatures have risen a little more than 2 degrees Farenheit over that time, roughly consistent with the rest of the Lower 48.

But that’s where the similarities ended. While warmer weather has fueled fires in California, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, and flooding in the Midwest, climate change has left western New York mostly untouched. Vermette found no evidence that rainfall has grown more severe, or that heat waves have grown more frequent — Buffalo had only one 90-degree day in 2019. He said the breeze off of Lake Erie acts like a natural air conditioner, helping to keep the city cool.

“When I would present this data, I was somewhat apologetic, because I couldn’t find some of the trends that we would expect to be seeing in western New York,” said Vermette, author of The Face of WNY’s Weather. “It’s bad news if you’re trying to demonstrate that the climate is changing.”

Vermette thought there must be a gap in the data or a flaw in his analysis, so he crunched the numbers again and again, every time arriving at the same result — a flat line. It was only after repeated attempts to find evidence of worsening weather that Vermette started to think that western New York might be responding to rising temperatures differently than the rest of the country. This was a revelation, and one he would see corroborated by other experts.

“The way I described it at a meeting once was, ‘With climate change, the world is going to suck, but Buffalo may suck less,’” he said. “We may not only be able to adapt. We may actually thrive as a region in a world where the climate is changing.”

In a city now said to have only two seasons — winter and the Fourth of July — climate change will mean longer summers and shorter, milder winters. And where other cities like Los Angeles and San Diego will be plagued by drought, Buffalo will have a steady supply of water. The Great Lakes region is home to around 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, much of it flowing past Buffalo’s doorstep along the Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario.

Experts expect these facts will drive people to move to Buffalo, and they say the city will have room to accommodate them. Since the population of Buffalo peaked in the 1950s at around 580,000 people, residents have steadily left the city, bringing the current population to around 260,000. As a result, Buffalo has enough land, housing, sewer infrastructure, and water infrastructure to support hundreds of thousands of additional people.

Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban planning at Portland State University, is currently undertaking a wide-ranging analysis of factors like temperature, sea-level rise, historical migration patterns, and other variables to predict how the populations of 82 U.S. counties will shift as the planet warms. He said that Erie County, home of Buffalo, is among the counties projected to see the biggest increase.

“By the end of the century, we’re going to see a massive relocation and redistribution of urban populations,” he said. “Buffalo is really well situated in many ways.”

“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know.”

In September of 2018, Harvard climate adaptation expert Jesse Keenan told The Guardian that, as the planet warmed, Americans might find refuge in northern cities, naming Duluth and Buffalo. The article caught the eye of Mayor Brown, who named Buffalo a “Climate Refuge City” in his February 2019 State of the City address.

Notably that speech included no mention of what the city was doing to prepare for the expected influx of climate refugees — no new blue-ribbon committees, no new policy announcements.

“I heard that line, and I was waiting for something else to come out of his comment, and there was nothing,” Vermette said. “There is no initiative by the city. There is no embracing what we’ve done here. It was just a thing to say.”

In April, the New York Times picked up the thread, scribing a story on how Duluth and Buffalo had positioned themselves as climate havens. While Vermette and his collaborator, sustainability expert George Besch, spoke to the Times for the story, the mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment because, according to a spokesperson, the mayor had no progress to report.

Downtown Buffalo. (Nexus Media)

“I did everything I could to get a meeting with the mayor just to prepare him,” Besch said. “He never even bothered.”

When interviewed for this story in October, Mayor Brown had several achievements to list. He touted Buffalo’s recent designation as a Climate Smart Community, which is conferred on cities that take steps to cut carbon pollution and prepare for extreme weather. He said that Buffalo is installing LED street lights, placing solar panels on city buildings, planting trees, and upgrading the sewer system to better guard against flooding — laudable goals, to be sure, but not the kind of initiatives experts say are needed to make Buffalo a bona fide climate refuge.

Vermette, for instance, is seeking funding to run a high-resolution climate model, one that accounts for the effects of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, to better understand what rising temperatures will mean for western New York. While Buffalo may be protected from the worst ravages of climate change, it is not invulnerable, he said, and the city needs to know what to expect.

The Liberty Building in downtown Buffalo features two replicas of the Statue of Liberty. (Nexus Media)

Besch wants to ensure that Buffalo continues to be a refuge for people of modest means and not just a haven for high earners. He and other experts interviewed for this story recommended planning for more high-density affordable housing in areas with access to public transportation. They also said the city should plan to preserve green spaces, including many currently empty lots, to help keep Buffalo cool.

“If they’re rhetorically saying, ‘Yes, come here, come here,’ I would like to see what’s actually happening on the ground,” Shandas said. “I think it might be pretty premature for us to be saying that it’s an ideal place, in part because we haven’t really seen the preparation necessary for larger numbers of people.”

Besch was more emphatic.

“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know. You’ve got to work and earn it,” he said. “I could declare myself a millionaire, but the bank would not cash my checks accordingly. I would need to earn it.”

“Will we essentially recreate what I call the ‘White City’?”

In the weeks after the Robles family arrived in Buffalo, their new neighbors welcomed them with gifts. They received coats from a local dry cleaner and food from a nearby pantry. WIVB, the local CBS affiliate, ran a news story about Robles and her children spending their first Thanksgiving in Buffalo. After that, she said, people started calling into the station to ask how they could help. Some donated food, clothes, or presents for the children. One woman even bought them a brand new washer and dryer. “New, new, new, I tell you. New,” she said. “I was the first one who used it.”

Maria Robles (middle) with her four children. (Nexus Media)

This is the spirit that pervades Buffalo. “Buffalo is a very giving city, a very compassionate city,” said Casimiro Rodriguez, head of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York. After Hurricane Maria, he traveled to Puerto Rico to help with the relief effort. While there, he went on radio and TV programs to encourage people to move to Buffalo. He helped many newcomers, including Robles, find housing and enroll in schools once they arrived.

For Buffalo to remain affordable and accessible for people like Robles, the city may have to enact smart housing policies to help support climate refugees.

Besch draws a distinction between climate refugees and climate migrants. The former would include those like Maria Robles, who came to Buffalo with what she could pack in a suitcase after a natural disaster. The latter would include those like software developer Lindsay Tropf.

Tropf moved to the city as part of 43North, an initiative funded by New York state that awards money to select startups that relocate to Buffalo. The program has drawn entrepreneurs in growing fields like clean energy and biotech. Tropf is the CEO of Immersed Games, which make educational software to teach students about climate change.

“We needed to leave Florida and find a new home for our startup, and I had been doing a little research to try to figure out what is going to be the safest place in the country to live in the future,” she said. “That was one of the initial things that they told us about — the research on Buffalo being recommended as a safe haven for climate change.”

Lindsay Tropf at the offices of 43North. (Nexus Media)

After living through Hurricane Irma, Tropf said, this was significant. “I don’t have to shut down my office for two weeks every year fleeing for our lives from hurricanes,” she said.

The only thing more attractive was the cost of living. As she likes to tell recruits, someone earning $100,000 in Manhattan could enjoy the same standard of living in Buffalo for around $39,000 a year, according to NerdWallet. That fact has sent many young, white-collar workers like Tropf packing for Buffalo.

Mayor Brown said that in next year’s census, for the first time in decades, the city expects to see a small measure of population growth. Many hope that new workers and businesses will help revitalize the local economy. But a growing population could also present new challenges—the recent influx of millennials has reportedly spurred gentrification and led to an uptick in property values.

Brown believes that gentrification has not yet taken hold in Buffalo, saying that the challenge for the city isn’t high housing costs, but low incomes, which is why City Hall is focused on initiatives that create jobs and raise wages. But experts fear such policies won’t be enough to protect Buffalo’s working class in the longer term, especially as climate change draws more high earners to the city. They say civic leaders need a plan to prevent future gentrification.

“Say Buffalo becomes this magnet that’s attracting everybody that’s looking for a good place to live. It will become the East Coast version of San Francisco,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. “Will we essentially recreate what I call the ‘White City’? The White City is a city for white people and other groups who can manage to afford to live there.”

Keenan, the Harvard climate adaptation expert, said Buffalo could become another example of climate gentrification, a phenomenon already underway in Miami, for example, where property values are rising faster in high-elevation, low-income neighborhoods that are better protected against sea-level rise. Keenan said that climate gentrification exists on both the small and large scale.

“It isn’t just people moving from one neighborhood to another neighborhood. It’s a kind of trans-state and, you could even argue, transnational proposition,” he said. “You can either get ahead of this, or you can sit back and observe it.”

A mural of Buffalo in downtown Buffalo. (Nexus Media)

Taylor said that parts of downtown Buffalo with new offices and apartments have already seen an exodus of black residents. He believes that, rather than focusing on luring developers to build loft apartments and boutique office buildings, what he referred to as “the San Francisco model,” the city needs to be willing to preserve affordable housing.

“The San Francisco, the Chicago model, the Washington, D.C., model, the New York City model — that’s the model that they’re using here. And they are caught between this idea that there is either this model that they’re using, or death,” Taylor said. “They’re frustrated because they can’t figure out how to get this square peg called ‘equity, equality, justice’ into this round hole called ‘the market.’”

“They have this wide-right mentality.”

There is perhaps no better moment that captured the spirit of Buffalo than Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991. The Buffalo Bills, who were favored to win by seven points, trailed the New York Giants in the final minutes. With eight seconds left, kicker Scott Norwood had the chance to clinch the win with a difficult 47-yard field goal attempt. In a heartbreaking turn, he sent the ball sailing wide right. The Bills lost that game and the next three consecutive Super Bowls, and the phrase “wide right” became synonymous with the team and, to some extent, the city.

“One of the things that I have said about Buffalo is that they have this ‘wide right’ mentality,” Taylor said. “They have this mentality where they are always kind of there, but never there.” The defining feature of the city, he said, is that it never seems to live up to its potential.

That being said, Buffalo is nothing if not resilient. After losing that first Super Bowl, the Bills’ head coach Marv Levy roused his players by appealing to their toughness, famously posting the text of the 14th century poem “Sir Andrew Barton” in the locker room.

‘Fight on, my men,’ Sir Andrew said,
‘A little I’m hurt, but not yet slain;
I’ll just lie down and bleed awhile,
And then I’ll rise and fight again.’

Levy was speaking to the character of the team, but he might as well have been talking about the city and its people.

“You can’t have a working-class town like Buffalo without a strong union tradition, without workers fighting for their rights, a place where the soil is drenched with the blood of native people fighting for their lands and their rights, where the Underground Railroad took blacks from slavery to freedom,” Taylor said. “That’s the foundation upon which the city is built.”

The challenge for Buffalo, he said, is that it must not model itself after San Francisco and New York City, attracting white-collar migrants who displace working-class natives. If it is going to be a climate refuge, he says, it needs to do better than the gilded coastal metropolises.

“Do you want to emulate them? Or do you want them to emulate us? Do you want to travel their road to greatness, or do you want to take another road to greatness?” he said. “It won’t happen naturally. We’ll have to fight to make that occur.”

This work is supported by a grant from the International Center for Journalists funded by Microsoft News.

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