A new plan B: Relocate American cities

By Alex Slaymaker | June 19, 2013


Attorney and author Elizabeth Edwards, the late wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards, put it best: “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you've lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that's good.”

As Edwards realized during her battle with breast cancer, Americans must adopt a mentality of resilience to overcome major challenges. In the case of climate change, accepting the new reality can help push the discourse from debating the existence of climate change to action. Planners, politicians, and citizens have started to vocalize the necessity for more aggressive planning and adaption measures to increase the resilience, flexibility, and physical strength of existing cities. A second, more extreme conversation—to discuss the gradual relocation of the nation’s most threatened cities—demands greater investigation and scientific research.

American society currently lacks resilience in its physical infrastructure, development ideologies, methods, standards, and laws. Millions of Americans live and work in threatened coastal areas that are vulnerable to extreme storms, sea-level rise, and other climate impacts. Important economic, political, and cultural cities like New York City require intense planning and preparation for climate change, but they are unlikely to be relocated in this century. Modest attempts to mitigate the effects of climate change on coastal development without requiring fundamental societal changes include expensive storm barriers and “soft” forms of adaptation (for example, protecting wetlands that provide natural flood protection). Although these mitigation techniques will benefit cities in the short-term and greatly extend the vitality of our most important cities, city planners need to start determining the safest and most resilient locations for future long-term habitation.

Current models and data have already predicted which cities will experience the  greatest increase in extreme weather events and other consequences of climate change. Now, researchers must use these predictions to perform a multifaceted survey of the viability of American cities, to determine the economic, political, and social benefits of relocating cities to areas with decreased vulnerability. For example, in 2003 residents of the village of Newtok, Alaska, decided to relocate in order to escape the coastal erosion and sea level rise that is threatening their homes and water supply. Although Newtok is a small community, its proactive response to climate threats can be a model for other communities, both large and small. A 2003 report by the US General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office) found that more than 180 Alaskan villages are at risk, and a follow-up report in 2009 identified 31 villages that face imminent threats. At least 12 of the 31 have accepted their changing reality and decided to relocate or to explore relocation options.

The time will come when many Americans, and humans living on the coast worldwide, will be forced out of their homes by storms, rising sea level, and other effects of climate change. Intra-national migration will prove far more fluid if citizens and structures move systemically as a managed disaster prevention method, instead of as a forced response to devastation. America has the advantage of vast swaths of livable inland open space, a resource many threatened countries—such as Bangladesh and small island states—lack. Serious scientific research, policy changes, and financial investment now could potentially save money, resources, and lives in the future. It is the federal government’s responsibility to stop subsidizing coastal development and to offer more incentives for sustainable development. Only research and modeling can predict the safest locations in America to start anew, but Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina have made it abundantly clear these locations will not be coastal.

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