Tracking Miami's 'climate gentrification'

Climate change isn’t just affecting the natural and built environment, it’s also impacting property values and contributing to displacement. Cities facing “climate gentrification” — a term popularized by climate change scholar Jesse M. Keenan at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design — are seeing neighborhoods change as higher elevations become more valuable, influencing development along the coasts and contributing to complex socio-political stresses.

A recently published study by Keenan and a team of Harvard researchers puts a finer point on climate gentrification, through a focus on Miami Dade County. The study suggest that preferences for single-family properties are correlated to elevation, through two hypotheses: 1) the higher the elevation, the higher the price appreciation rate, and 2) appreciation rates within the lowest elevations have failed to keep up with those of higher elevations. Both hypotheses are confirmed in the study.

We sat down with Keenan to dip a bit deeper into the political and social difficulties of climate change planning, the implications of climate gentrification, and the contentious trade-offs communities face when it comes to resiliency and retreat.

 Jesse M. Keenan

Jesse M. Keenan

How do you see this research dovetailing with retreat discourse?

Four to five years ago, when I was developing the theory behind climate gentrification and coining the term, I was really thinking about micro, inter-district interactions. But the more I traveled the world and engaged in various experiences related to climate change, the more I understood and developed it to operate across different scales. It isn’t just a “move from one part of town to another” — it has implications regionally, nationally, and internationally in many ways.

Early on, I thought climate gentrification was about movement and mobility; it wasn’t until later on in the development of the theory that the immobility part of it became just as crucial. In terms of retreat or managed retreat, this is a useful analytical theory because it helps you understand the sending zone (including what happens to the place you left), and the receiving zone. I think that’s a really crucial element that creates a kind of bilateralism; that helps us see a broader picture of this movement of people, and a broader set of explanations, about what is perhaps driving people. Migration has degrees of temporality to it, transience even. It isn’t just like “you move somewhere” — there are residual connections. I think in many ways this challenges us to think across scales, and gain a more comprehensive view of migration that isn’t just about a triggering event, like a storm or a conflict, but the incremental steps that build a certain momentum and shape behaviors.

How would you describe the response to this report on climate gentrification within the real estate and political spheres of Miami Dade County?

Those that generally wield the power are usually smaller, family-led enterprises that are multigenerational developers and land holders. Within that cohort, their response has been quite positive. I think what we found is consistent in many ways with their thinking and observations for a number of years. They may have different perspectives or opinions or interpretations as to whether this may be an explanation to adequately describe what’s happening in any given geography or neighborhood, but they appreciate the big picture in terms of the underlying theory, as well as the objective nature of the economic concerns.

I would say politicians have a similar response. What I think unites them is a recognition that they need to consider the provisions and processes that are going to drive sustainable, high density development on high elevation properties. The question becomes: where are you going to shift your tax base and accommodate a shift in population so that you can accommodate this kind of development? In Miami, that’s a unique story because it’s a story historically (and likely in the future) of displacement for other, non-climate related reasons, which makes this a difficult conversation to have. Certainly the existing lobby is one that’s driven by the preservation of existing community, with its own self-interests, and rightly or wrongly there are advantages and disadvantages to that framing of the problem. But at the end of the day, it’s about accommodating development and making investments on high ground, as opposed to making investments in areas that may not be able to support long-term development.

And this is a similar set of considerations that many, if not nearly every, coastal community in the US is having. I try to help them frame that within a context of: here’s an opportunity to have mixed-income high density development that is supported by transit and the other values that we think of in responsible growth patterns. It’s an opportunity but it’s also a challenge.

Can you speak to any short-term responses or avenues for preventing the further onset of climate gentrification?

That presupposes a few things, one of which is that gentrification is a net negative. There’s at least one scenario by which gentrification is actually a mechanism for consolidating value, and you hope to utilize value-capturing methods as a means to redistribute that wealth to accommodate those that have not been as fortunate, that otherwise need economic systems of subsidization. It’s kind of a necessary evil, and if you’re talking about high density development on high ground in Miami, that’s going to lead to gentrification and that’s going to lead to displacement for some. But the question is, will it benefit the many? There are arguments for and against that proposition, and that requires a lot of additional work, research and evaluation, and probably experimentation, to see what that looks like.

There’s no doubt that climate gentrification will be painful, and have significant impacts on some lives and communities and cultures will disappear, and those are all negative things. The question is, what can we do that would benefit the greatest number of people across the greatest distribution of wealth, including a focus on low-to-moderate income populations? I don’t have any clear answers other than to say that Miami has tools and money at its disposal, but it needs to weave a narrative of how to take control of climate gentrification and use it to its advantage. Whether they try to harness that power of development, rightly or wrongly, the redevelopment is going to happen. You may as well try to extract what value you can.

I’ve talked to a number of community activists in Miami about this, some of whom have been quite vocal on climate gentrification, and there are at least two strategies. One is that you fight tooth and nail. The second is you try to negotiate, engage, and extract as much value as you can, and redistribute that among your community with a focus on preservation, cohesion, social capital, etc. But many just want to fight. I think we’ll look back on that as a somewhat failed strategy. I hope that I am wrong. I am not an expert in community advocacy.

What is the political discourse surrounding climate change in Miami Dade County? What are politicians willing to concede, or not, about it?

There’s a natural instinct to delay investment but also an understanding of the costs of delay and prevention, and I think the level of sophistication in Miami is quite high. From a technocratic, analytical point of view, I think Miami is doing the right thing. From a public engagement point of view, in the public narrative, the macro narrative, I think in many ways they’re telling the right story that resonates with people, so I think that awareness and perception is really quite high among residents.

Where I think they fall short, with climate change and climate change adaptation in particular, is with trade-offs. There’s no absolute good about resilience; being resilient doesn’t mean that there aren’t limitations — there absolutely are. But we’re not having a real conversation about what the trade-offs are. There will be winners and losers. There are communities that are going to have to manifest in different ways and in different positions and in some cases they may disappear altogether. The question for Miami is, can they move beyond the biasing of their own interest and status quo, and think about a future generation?

In many ways it’s a tragedy of the commons: if everybody wants their neighborhood protected and there’s not enough money to go around, then you spend lots of money on little projects that add up to nothing, or very little. Is that the trajectory we’re on, or are we going to have a consolidated strategy that is fluid, that takes advantage of the best available science, that also seeks to consolidate limited resources in a way that is optimized for social welfare?

Are you aware of any policies related to keeping small governments solvent in jurisdictions that are unlikely to survive climate change impacts?

There really aren’t any. There are two basic types of bankruptcy in the US for individuals and businesses: you either reorganize your debt, or you liquidate everything you own and pay off the creditors. But one of the shortcomings of municipal bankruptcy code in the US is that it’s really about reorganization not liquidation. It’s never been conceptualized as a matter of public policy that jurisdictions would just disappear. So even in the most dire circumstances of bankruptcy, there’s no help. What you’re looking at are state receiverships, and the state stepping in as the de facto oversight for a particular jurisdiction. Municipal annexation becomes an important driver.

One of the things we’re seeing is that some municipalities are preemptively trying to annex other jurisdictions to make up for a loss in the tax base. It’s hard to anticipate where all of this will end up, but there’s no help, there’s no structure, and it’s “eat what you kill” even in the world of municipal solvency. That may mean other municipalities or the state taking over and breaking up your assets, it may mean receiverships — there are any number of models. Some municipalities may need help, and that help may bring some vitality and get them over difficult points of time, and in the long run that may be a good investment. But there are other jurisdictions who think solvency is equally important. So it’s a kind of discipline, and again, winners or losers, it’s a cold world out there.