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Climate Gentrification and Resilience Planning: What Is at Stake for At-Risk Communities?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019
Anna Beeman

Anna Beeman

Research Associate

It is estimated that over 800 million people will be at risk from the impacts of rising sea levels by 2050, concentrated among 570 coastal cities across the world. Some of these cities have already started to experience the impacts of sea-level rise and storm surges, which has catalyzed efforts by governments and individuals to begin preparing for more projected effects. In some cases, such as in Miami, these preparation efforts have spurred what has been coined as “climate gentrification.” The term describes the process of wealthier, often whiter populations moving to areas less exposed to the effects of climate change that were previously occupied by lower-income residents and communities of color, thus exacerbating displacement and disparities.

This relatively new term has been applied to shifts taking place in U.S. cities, but the process of climate gentrification in mega-cities of the global South may present their own challenges. In simpler terms, gentrification in the global North is primarily driven by the speculation of land and investment by private developers, often in areas occupied by lower-income communities of color, which eventually displaces them from their neighborhood. However, academics have recently noted that gentrification has generally played out differently in the global South. In many cases, the state or city is a key actor in attracting capital and aiding private development in areas of informal settlements. Thus, adaptation and resilience measures implemented by governments of the global South to prevent flooding or other climate-related risks may play a significant role in the process of gentrification, which presents distinct challenges for those seeking to reduce inequality and displacement in these cities.

Residents of cities such as Miami, Florida, or Flagstaff, Arizona, have reported seeing effects of climate gentrification, and their experiences are now reflected in a study published by Environmental Research Letters, which concluded that Miami-Dade County in Florida was experiencing effects of climate gentrification. In this study, the authors determined that the slower appreciation rate of land value near the coast, and higher rates at higher elevations less prone to flooding impacts, was conclusive enough to indicate that observed consumer preferences may be based on the perceived or observed threat of flooding. While there are many other factors that could contribute to these trends, the authors maintain that their findings strongly suggest climate change will have a significant influence in decisions made by property owners and investors. Moreover, in Miami-Dade County, higher elevated gentrifying areas such as Little Haiti or Liberty City, currently occupied by predominantly black and immigrant neighborhoods, may soon find that climate-induced gentrification will speed up rates of displacement. Such communities are often forced to move into areas that are potentially even more exposed to climate change threats.

In coastal mega-cities such as Jakarta or metro-Manila, sea-level rise and flooding is already a reality—both cities are experiencing a “slow-motion disaster” of water scarcity, sinking land mass, and flooding. Faced with the urgent need, both cities have implemented climate adaptation plans and resilience planning strategies in order to mitigate flooding in the most vulnerable areas. However, these infrastructural and land planning decisions by the city or state, even if they are designed to engage public participation, may still result in inequitable outcomes.

In Jakarta, the Pluit Reservoir project illustrates how resilience planning for flooding has direct impact on displacement of vulnerable communities living in informal settlements. The greater Pluit neighborhood is one of the fastest sinking neighborhoods in Jakarta, experiencing severe flooding as well as insufficient flow and infiltration due to illegal waste disposal. The city government’s reservoir project aimed to both expand and deepen the reservoir for storage capacity, as well as develop residential green spaces around the reservoir to help with water infiltration. In order to achieve this, informal settlements lined along the east side of the reservoir were ordered to be destroyed. In exchange, the city government promised to facilitate relocating residents to a nearby apartment building. The project was touted as a “success” story due to the persistent public information campaigns, providing residents with subsidized low-cost housing with basic amenities, as well as addressing employment needs for displaced residents.

How success is defined in this context, however, also depends on how the project affects the displaced residents, both in the short term and in the long term. In the short term, despite promises of relocation, apartments filled up quickly, and many residents experienced delays with their relocation at the hands of the developer. In addition, reservoir dredging occurred even before residents were relocated, and many feared that landslides or other dangerous conditions would damage their informal settlements. In the long run, the effects of “greening” the neighborhood on the east side of the reservoir through public-private investment could encourage gentrifying activities in the future. If in the long term, displaced residents can no longer afford the rising cost of apartment living, such effects may be attributed to climate gentrification. Before implementing a resilience or adaptation strategy, the city must also consider whom it would ultimately protect and whom, on the other hand, it would ultimately harm.

The process and outcomes of climate gentrification highly depends on the context, but ultimately will increase disparities among communities. Furthermore, resilience planning for climate change without social justice considerations traditionally excludes vulnerable populations, but spatial and economic intervention in these communities can also exacerbate inequities from within. Such projects must take into account the long-term socioeconomic, racial and/or ethnic injustice it could cause—otherwise, resilience against climate effects will only be reserved for certain populations.