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.

Resistance and Retreat

Damaged homes seen on Sunshine Key, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Damaged homes seen on Sunshine Key, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Since late August of this year, three hurricanes – Harvey, Irma, and Marie – have devastated parts of the southern United States and its territories.  In the face of the destruction wrought by these powerful storms, we have seen remarkable and heroic efforts by individuals, companies and non-profits, local governments, state governments, and the federal government to respond.  In each case, individuals have come to the aid of their neighbors and friends.  Businesses and companies have sought to throw their doors and wallets open to provide shelter, food, and rescue.  Governors have acted forcefully and with focus before, during, and after the storms. These storms have revealed the strong social networks and incredible importance of social capital in responding to devastating natural events such as these.[1] 

Resistance in the face of these natural threats is a powerful and compelling human response. On the one hand, it is a force for good: individuals stocking supplies, boarding, ready to batten down the hatches, survive the storm and, out of the wreckage, help themselves and their neighbors.  This is human resilience at its best.

Stories of individual resistance took center stage in news coverage, and were frequently framed as a difficult calculation which could only be made in the moment, based on personal risk tolerance and binding life circumstance. One intrepid Florida Keys resident stayed back to watch over his 50-foot sailboat along with his two dogs, despite the Governor of Florida’s orders. He survived Hurricane Irma dogs and all, and remarked:  "Climate change is nothing more than 'Shit happens,'" he said. "And this [storm] right here? Shit happens.”[2]

But resistance, no matter how stoic, does have its costs: during natural disaster events, it can put resistors at risk at the expense of first responders and others when they do not heed the call to evacuate. Over the long term, resistance can leave residents fighting to preserve the past. Resistance, while admirable in many ways, can distract from or preclude the possibility of planning for a future where retreat or relocation may better serve residents, their communities, and their nation.[3]

The last of the three recent storms – Marie – and the unfolding devastation it has wrecked on Puerto Rico, hints at the impacts of unmanaged retreat as tropical storms become more devastating.[4] It is possible that tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, especially those with means and family connections in the mainland, will move off the Island, draining it of the social capital, labor, and talent needed to rebuild, while simultaneously stressing communities and local governments dealing with unexpected large scale migration of US citizens to the mainland.[5]

What the last month illustrates is how important it is to consider the role of coastal retreat, both now and in the future, as one tool of many to preemptively limit the damages of natural disaster. This is most obvious in neighborhoods for which devastating flood damage has become routine in recent history.[6] Shortly after Harvey’s floodwaters began to recede, Congressman Jep Hensarling from Dallas got himself into trouble—and received a great deal of criticism—for stating that U.S. taxpayers should not have to pay for homes repeatedly flooded via federal flood insurance.  He was quoted as saying, “At some point, God is telling you to move.”[7]

While the Congressman perhaps lacked timing and tact in the face of ongoing suffering during early recovery, the difficult truth behind his statement will have to be taken up by communities in the months and years ahead as they are threatened by increasingly frequent, powerful storms.

Patrick Field is Managing Director of CBI and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He leads CBI's  Energy, Environment and Land Use  practice. He often works with and between local, regional, state, and federal governments and is a dynamic trainer and lecturer, delivering curricula to professionals across sectors in the U.S. and globally.

Patrick Field is Managing Director of CBI and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He leads CBI's Energy, Environment and Land Use practice. He often works with and between local, regional, state, and federal governments and is a dynamic trainer and lecturer, delivering curricula to professionals across sectors in the U.S. and globally.


[1] "HURRICANE IRMA:  Splinters, Cha Cha Cha and a 'rising seas thing’.” Adam Aton, E&E News reporter.

Published: Friday, September 15, 2017 in Climate Wire.

[2] Ibid.

[3] "Guidance on protecting people from disasters and environmental change through planned relocation.” The Brookings Institute, Georgetown University, Institute for the Study of International Migration, and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 in The Brookings Institute.

[4] “Does Harvey Represent a New Normal for Hurricanes?” Robinson Meyer.

Published: Tuesday, August 29, 2017 in The Atlantic.

[5]Mitigation induced by sea-level rise could reshape the US population landscape.Mathew E. Hauer.

Published: Monday, April 17, 2017 in Nature.com

[6] “Amplification of Flood Frequencies with Local Sea Level Rise and Emerging Flood Regimes.” Maya K. Buchanan, Michael Oppenheimer, and Robert E. Kopp.

Published: June 2017 in Environmental Research Letters

[7] "GOP rep on paying for flood loss: ‘At some point, God is telling you to move’.” Julia Manchester.

Published: Thursday, September 21, 2017 in The Hill.