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.

Building Equity Into Climigration

Communities across the U.S., like the Alaska native village of Kivalina pictured above, are devising climate migration plans in response to coastal erosion and rising seas. Photo from: U.S. Department of the Interior | National Park Service

Communities across the U.S., like the Alaska native village of Kivalina pictured above, are devising climate migration plans in response to coastal erosion and rising seas. Photo from: U.S. Department of the Interior | National Park Service

There are a host of equity and justice issues related to climigration. The simple fact that people and organizations with more resources tend to be better equipped to manage change than those with fewer resources means that differences arise among people exposed to the same climate impacts. So what can we do to anticipate these differences and try to reduce the likelihood that managed retreat will create or further exacerbate inequities?

Lessons from Just Transition and Anti-Gentrification

One idea we’re exploring is learning from other frameworks with equity lenses that have been developed to address population movements. Here we focus on two, just transition and anti-gentrification, and seek to highlight some key strategies from each, and how those same strategies might apply to managed retreat efforts.

Although the subject matters differ – just transition provides a sustainable pathway to a zero-carbon economy and anti-gentrification to urban revitalization – both frameworks devise a set of strategies that maximize benefits and minimize hardships for communities adapting to social, economic, and environmental transformations.

The table below highlights some of the key strategies from both frameworks relative to funding, policy, and engagement to match the organization of this site around possible solutions. We elaborate on these ideas below the table.

Funding & Financing

Just transition emphasizes the need to support communities early, and in ways that address the problems they are likely to face as jobs shift from carbon-dependent to carbon-free industries and practices[1]. Similarly, investing in education, training, job-searching, and general community building for those who may have to move due to climate change could ease the transition and level the playing field for those with different resources to draw on.

For climigration, the most obvious early investment would be a fund to help people move, and to ensure it covers more than simple real estate transactions, as moving costs and other expenses fall harder on some than others. Other early investments might include education and training in the various federal, state, and local programs that provide funding for relocation. Perhaps a state or federal program could invest resources in providing a way for individuals in one retreating community to connect with counterparts in others to commiserate and share ideas. A local non-profit could be funded to do the legwork to investigate other neighborhoods for possible relocation, such as finding out about schools, public transportation options, and other community resources. Government and foundation or corporate resources could be reserved and set aside for transforming places from developed to undeveloped in smart ways that convert former private property to public assets the whole community can enjoy and that provide protection from future storms or other climate-related challenges.

Drawing lessons from anti-gentrification is slightly more challenging, as the purpose of managed retreat is to help people move somewhere else, whereas anti-gentrification is focused on keeping people in place. Still some of the strategies that seek to mitigate inequities for the people who live in places that are changing around them provide inspiration for climigration.

Various funds and tax programs have been developed to ensure that people with fewer means can afford to stay in place as the property around them becomes more expensive and they would otherwise be unable to continue to live there. Some examples include an anti-displacement tax fund to subsidize the increases in property taxes for people who have lived in a community for a long time, Community Land Trusts (CLT) to provide land and housing that is permanently affordable, Stabilization Vouchers (and other housing protection vouchers) to ensure that long-term residents have choices in their own neighborhood rather than being forced to move to another, and Individual Development Accounts that provide matching funds for personal savings toward a large investment, such as a new home. Each of these mechanisms demonstrates a unique approach to ensuring that low-income individuals and families can weather the changes around them. Likewise, creative approaches are needed to provide matching funds, subsidies, or tax benefits to those whose costs for relocation may be beyond their means so they are not disproportionately harmed by the transition.


The just transition framework stresses the need for early assessments of social and employment impacts[2]. Committing to protect workers’ rights and providing social protection and necessary income support are key for a sustainable transition. This gives workers confidence in the security and opportunities that lie ahead. In addition to putting forth new policies, just transition recommends formalizing current ones, such as programs that address rescue and rebuilding efforts after climate disasters[1].

These policy guidelines can be applied to climigration. Coastal communities represent various socio-economic demographics. The social and economic cost of relocation can be drastically different for each community. Assessing the social and employment impacts of resettlement could help ensure that adaptation strategies better target the needs of the community. For example, a community might have traditional land rights that need to be considered when deciding where to relocate. Providing financial and social assistance to vulnerable populations via programs like safe, affordable housing and buy-in-for buyout programs could help create more resilient communities. In addition to implementing new policies that proactively respond to global warming, current government disaster assistance programs should also be securely funded and staffed to manage climate disasters once they hit.

A suite of anti-gentrification policies could serve as models for climigration, including city funding for middle-income housing production and senior home repair programs, changing fair housing rules to create housing vouchers for low-income residents, freezing property taxes for long-time residents and restricting large-scale and increasing mixed-income development[4]. Similarly for climigration, it’s in the public interest to work with communities identify risks to their housing security and provide the necessary resources to improve their situations if need be. Such measures could include building low-income and middle-income housing in areas less threatened by climate change, and issuing subsidies and vouchers for relocation. This technique is especially valuable in helping renters move as they do not benefit from direct home buyouts. Additional tax benefits and other measures to protect the most vulnerable and least mobile populations, such as senior citizens, should also be considered.


Engagement & Consensus Building

In both the just transition and anti-gentrification frameworks, social dialogue is key to a community’s sustainable transition. For a just transition to take place, it is necessary for all stakeholders be involved in social dialogue, consultation and “the monitoring of agreements, which are public and legally enforceable”[1]. Governments, communities and business should inclusively discuss their options, concerns and roles in climate adaptation plans. With input from every level, policies are more likely to be cohesive and sustainable.

One key principle of anti-gentrification is that communities “anticipate and proactively respond to change”[3] rather than waiting for the inevitable. Gentrification, like climate change, does not happen overnight, so communities that can see the writing on the wall should engage with city officials and planning departments as early as possible. This allows them to influence city, neighborhood, transportation, funding and development plans and monitor similar trends in nearby communities. Another principle of anti-gentrification is encouraging communities to develop a shared narrative that shapes and helps protect their identity. Forming flexible, local, and diverse partnerships with other organizations can help communities can strengthen their ability to preserve affordable housing in light of gentrification. Finally, to meaningfully address inevitable conflicts, anti-gentrification guidelines suggest using formal approaches to conflict resolution. By holding facilitated discussions, encouraging political participation and training local leaders, communities can successfully resolve tensions both before they escalate and after they erupt[3].

All of these strategies can be applied to climigration, particularly the efforts to develop shared narratives. Climate adaptation can be an emotional experience due to the potential loss of social, cultural and historical ties to a place. Discussing what a community wishes to preserve as a legacy, and taking the opportunity to consider what they would like to change in their new environment could be incredibly valuable. Also, as with gentrification, climate change adaptation is a controversial issue. Often, communities disagree among themselves and with government officials on whether and how to plan for and remediate the impacts of climate change. For this reason, all stakeholders would benefit from similar conflict mediation mechanisms. Facilitated discussions would help parties resolve misconceptions, distrust, and disagreements.

Isabella Szabolcs is a consultant at the Consensus Building Institute where she helps research climate change adaptation strategies and natural resource conflicts. She also develops multimedia content for CBI.

Isabella Szabolcs is a consultant at the Consensus Building Institute where she helps research climate change adaptation strategies and natural resource conflicts. She also develops multimedia content for CBI.

Carri Hulet is a Senior Associate at the Consensus Building Institute where she helps communities tackle difficult decisions, such as those related to climate change. Carri leads CBI’s climigration efforts.

Carri Hulet is a Senior Associate at the Consensus Building Institute where she helps communities tackle difficult decisions, such as those related to climate change. Carri leads CBI’s climigration efforts.


[1] (2017). Just Transition: A Report for the OECD. Retrieved from Just Transition Centre Website:

[2] (2015). Frontlines Briefing: Climate Justice: There are no jobs on a dead planet. Retrieved from International Trade Union Confederation Website:

[3] Brown, S. (2015). Beyond Gentrification: Strategies for Guiding the Conversation and Redirecting the Outcomes of Community Transition. Retrieved from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies Website:

[4] Price, D. (2014). 7 Policies that Could Prevent Gentrification. Retrieved from SHELTERFORCE Website: