LIVE: How can Detroit best prepare for climate migration?

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As climate disasters increase, displacement and climate migration will increase. We can expect Michigan and Detroit to be affected by climate refugees. Detroit will face obstacles and opportunities alike with anticipated population influxes. How can Detroit best prepare for climate migration?

This conversation featured:

Richard Ackerman, Director of Climate Equity, Eastside Community Network

Susan Ekoh, Climate Adaptation Fellow, American Association of Adaptation Professionals

Moderated by Nina Ignaczak, Founder and Editor of Planet Detroit.


Below is a transcript of the conversation:

Nina Ignaczak: Welcome everybody out there on Facebook. My name is Nina Ignaczak and I'm the editor and founder of Planet Detroit. And I'm joined here today by Ricky Ackerman, Director of Climate Equity at Eastside Community Network and Susan Ekoh with the American Association of Adaptation Professionals.

So Susan, I'd like to start with you. You've been doing a lot of research recently about climate migration, especially with respect to what we can expect in the Great Lakes region. What are some of your findings? What do we know about what we can expect and what we're likely to be seeing in the next 10-20 years, and what don't we know? Because I know there's a lot of unknowns as well.

Susan Ekoh: Yeah, great that you put it in terms of what we know what we don't know. We don't know a lot of things. So I'll start with some things that we know. Based on scientific evidence, we know that climate change is happening. We know that climate change and its impact are going to get more in the coming future. And so what does that mean for many communities, across the United States and also across the world? What this means is that with climatic impacts such as wildfires, increased temperatures, flooding in coastal areas, hurricanes, some of these things we're already seeing today will act as push factors. In places that experienced these climate vulnerabilities, people are going to be looking for new places where they will live. Sometimes this happens in the form of forced displacement, whereby people are impacted by sudden events and they need to move. Other times people plan for this migration. So they think about their past experiences of climatic impacts, and then they decide on where they want to move.

So we have those push factors, but same time, we also have pull factors, move factors are those things that attract people to move to new places. There are certain cities across the Great Lakes region that are currently trying to position themselves as climate refuges. So we have places like Rochester, New York you have some other cities that are really trying to take advantage. They desire population growth. So they're trying to position themselves as climate receiving places.

But one thing we want to know is who are the people that are going to be moving and where we may want to move to? So some of the things that attract people to the Great Lakes region include an abundance of freshwater, since there are many places where we are experiencing droughts due to climate change.

At the same time, it’s not that the Great Lakes region is not going to be experiencing climatic impacts. But compared to the rest of the country, compared to other places, it is will be less severe in the Great Lakes region. So this would act as a pull factor to attract people to come in there.

And also there are parts of the Great Lakes region that historically have been built for larger populations. And so they have that ability to accommodate the influx of people. So you can also think about cities like Detroit, Michigan, but that doesn't mean that those cities are not experiencing things like structural inequalities and people within those cities are perfectly okay. And yeah, so those are some of the things that we need to think about where we're considering people moving to the Great Lakes region.

Ignaczak: You're actually working with some demographic modelers who are trying to predict what that might look like, I know you don't have final results, but can you share a little bit about what the research entails and what you're hoping?

Ekoh: Yeah, so the research the researchers are working on what types of methodologies can be used in order to predict where people will move to, and that work is still ongoing. What I can say, though, is that temperatures are a huge factor in determining where people move from where people move to. And so that's one factor. There's going to be a determining factor where people go to.

In terms of demographic information, there are people that are easily going to be able to move but we also need to consider those demographically stuck people. So for example, Mike Hauer, who's one of our team members working on the demographics is finding that elderly populations are those groups of people who might be demographically stuck whereby they need to move from a place but they're unable to move due to several factors, less mobility, compared to a younger age population. So those are some of the things we need to think about where we plan for.

Ignaczak: You completed a literature review where you looked in detail at some of the assets and challenges that we have here in the Great Lakes region. So I know you mentioned some of the assets being the freshwater and extra capacity and older industrial cities that have seen abandonment in the last few decades. But we also have challenges, and you mentioned inequity. But can you talk a little bit more about what some of the challenges to Detroit as being considered a receiving are Michigan in Great Lakes and Detroit being considered a receiving community for climate migration?

Ekoh: So in the addition to the literature review, we've also done focus group conversations with various stakeholders and some of the emerging challenges that have come up from stakeholders that live and work within these communities. Is that we need to think about how climate migration might exacerbate existing structural inequities. So one question is who is moving so when we think about people who are moving in are those people with economic power? Because that has different implications if they're moving to a place like Detroit? What does that mean? For the existing communities that had those communities community is going to be transformed when housing prices go up?

It could lead to what we call or what is called in the literature, climate gentrification, whereby prices go up people are unable to maintain the neighborhood study, even those neighborhoods transformed transform, not only economically but also culturally, and they're pushed down because they can continue to afford to live within those places. So what does that do for existing communities?

The other things of concern could be racism and xenophobia, which depends on again who's moving in and how the demographics of different neighborhoods are changing, and how we need to think about c integration and ways to ensure social cohesion among people who are moving from sending communities but also people within receiving communities and access not only for incoming migrants, but also existing migrants thinking about access to social services, access to education, access to clean water, and how that affects already existing communities.

So what does that mean, in terms of when we see population growth? Are we able to provide those key services not only to their existing residents, but also to people who will be moving so these are some of the things that we need to think about?

Ignaczak: One of the things I found really interesting in your literature review was kind of this tension between how here in Michigan, we've faced massive infrastructure costs from an unmaintained infrastructure, and we don't have the funding to come near to catching up with them or it's a constant struggle. Having people come in with economic resources and able to pay taxes could be a potential solution. How are municipal and utility and resource managers thinking about that issue and how to go from, say, Detroit being 1.5 million down to less than 600,000 and then potentially going up again, but not really having maintained infrastructure in the interim. What does that look like and how does it not end up being very messy and complicated as that unfolds?

Ekoh: Planning is really important and that's something that needs to be brought, you know, for different policymakers who work on these issues. There's always the case of things, you know, getting worse than where they're supposed to be when effective planning is not done. So thinking about the distribution of resources we have, we have population growth and we have increased taxes and all of these things before economic growth. The important thing is how are those resources having benefits distributed? Are they only concentrated in places where only people with the economic power are able to benefit from them? Are they distributed equally, so that everyone benefits from such opportunities?

Ignaczak: And to that point, I'm going to bring Ricky into the conversation now. We have such entrenched racism and segregation, especially the segregation that we have in regions like Metro Detroit. We can't agree now on how to pay for water services equitably. And that's it seems like this is just going to exacerbate that going forward as there's more pressure. So I'm going to turn it over to Ricky to talk a little bit about what you see in the metro Detroit area, maybe starting with a question that came in from the audience was from Susan Rusinowski. How should Detroit prepare to receive climate migrants when we already have residents being adversely impacted by climate change and they're not being adequately supported now?

Ricky Ackerman: I think you all got right into the heart of the matter.Detroit was a city built for 2 million and we have under 700,000 people. And so in theory, people see opportunity in that – if we get more people that's positive, right? But how we need to think about is how are we serving those people now? And you know, we're a city with a high amount of low-income residents, and we currently have a very unstable housing market for them. We don't have adequate affordable housing in the city. And we don't currently have policies and programs that are supporting the growth of affordable housing.

So I think that's a huge issue when we talk about climate migration. And thinking about the different types of refugees that we might get; people who are being forced to move and might not have resources when they come here, and do have resources and are coming here and provide a potential to displace people that have less stable housing conditions.

So I think when we're talking about climate migration, we need to think first about how can we stabilize the situation in Detroit now, how can we stabilize housing especially for low income and vulnerable residents, and create programs that are going to support that so that the residents that are here already are being taken care of and treated as they should be?

So investing resources in housing; there's already scarcity in affordable housing, there's scarcity in home repair grants, we know that's something that residents constantly ask about. And those programs go fast. So so how can we support more things like that?

ECN is looking at how can we prepare our communities for climate change. So we, we have to worry about heat, we have to worry about flooding. So it's about building out our housing stock, especially including our affordable housing stock, to be resilient to these things that are coming.

And so I think, with that in mind, when we think about climate migration, we have to kind of think about it, like we do with climate change. We need to develop policies and programs that are going to take care of the needs that people have now. But we need to keep these things in mind so that we're not just, addressing the immediate symptoms and needs, but we're creating programs that are going to produce the stability long term for our communities, and be able to sort of withstand more people coming in without displacing our current population.

Ignaczak: It seems like with climate change and COVID, those two things seem to just make existing inequities starker. And it seems like the answers to these questions appear to be you know, just keep on doing the things that we ought to be doing now. Is there anything new or different that you feel we should be doing that it's kind of not on policy radar at the moment?

Ackerman: Well, I think there are tons of things we can be doing differently. I think there's a huge dilemma when we talk about climate adaptation in terms of green gentrification, right? We want to be able to build climate-adaptive housing with solar technology, with flooding resistance with green stormwater infrastructure, with Bill making it affordable. So I think that's a huge challenge and just trying to develop how do we do that without displacing people and keeping housing affordable when it already is a problem?

And but I think like some of it's really just starting with the basics, right? I mean, we don't have adequate water infrastructure, whether it comes to you know, water affordability issues related to drinking water. As you know, we had tens of thousands of homes flooding, because of heavy rain events that we know are going to get worse. Unreliable electrical grids that go down and take a long time to recover and aren't affordable in the first place, too. Even roads, you know, aren't in great condition and don't have a lot of resources to improve them.

So, I mean, we can start there, but I think, yes, how can we orient programs around all these problems, while keeping them affordable? I think that I think that's where we need innovative thinking about how we can manage those two things.

Ignaczak: So we have an audience question about Detroit's vacant land, about 20 square miles of vacant land. Is this an asset? Is this a resource to mitigate climate change? Can that be done equitably? Can it be done in a way that improves the quality of life for the residents who are here now and potentially future residents? Any thoughts either of you on that question?

Ackerman: I certainly think there's opportunity there. And I think, you know, part of this question revolves around stability and who controls that land who has access to that land, right, that we ensure that priority is going to communities in Detroit neighborhoods, people who live in the neighborhoods in Detroit and not outside developers?

That's when we have concerns about gentrification and displacement. But I also think there's opportunity there around green stormwater infrastructure to help build out greener neighborhoods and work on our flooding issues, as well as creating community assets and health benefits. And then I also think, when we talk about electricity and energy, there's an opportunity for community solar projects, which currently have legal barriers in Michigan.

But there's room there for improving the affordability of utilities, and increasing the resilience of our grid by having solar installations in our communities using that vacant land.

Ignaczak: I wonder if you guys would be willing to do a thought experiment with me. So I know one of the scenarios that ASAP is working on is looking at sea level rise and so if we get a two-foot sea level rise, X number of people are going to be displaced and a certain proportion of them are going to be coming to Michigan. And you did talk a little bit Susan about these cities that are kind of trying to position themselves, market themselves, as a climate refuge.

Beyond marketing and just sort of putting it out there that you know we are climate refugees and you should come here; what are some of the nuts and bolts things that local governments and state government should be thinking about? We don't really know when this is going to happen. But when it does happen, I think it's fair to say it could be sudden, because it could be the result of a natural disaster that's climate change-related. So how can we be prepared and not be sort of caught unawares and thrown into crisis mode?

Ekoh: So what I'm what I'm hearing is what are the needs of migrants who are going to be moving to these places? So one of the most important things really is jobs. People want to be able to maintain their livelihoods. So being able to provide access to jobs, but not just any types of jobs, like good-paying jobs, opportunities for growth, so people need to be trained. What should be provided as opportunities, opportunities for, access to social services, education, health care is also one of the things that will be needed. So these are the things that just receiving cities can plan for.

And also like Ricky mentioned, access to affordable housing, especially for low-income people who might be moving in some so these are some of the aspects that residents cities can plan for.

Ignaczak: Anything in terms of kind of the triage component, though, like in the early days of maybe a large number of people trying to move to an area all at once? Are there like, welcome sort of resources or ways to help people integrate into communities? I mean, just thinking about the Afghan refugees that are coming here now and it seems like we're scrambling. And I worry about those communities maintaining their ties and being able to stay close in our spread out Metro region.

Ekoh: So I think it's really important for and this was also something that was raised in the work that we've done so far, is the need for collaboration across agencies. There are organizations that are currently working on these issues, in terms of resettling new migrants.

So being able to have opportunities for those organizations to work with government agencies and other stakeholders is really important because it provides an opportunity to share knowledge provides an opportunity to share resources and also collaborating with the communities who will be receiving and integrating these new migrants. So there's that need for communication, dialogue, and planning across different stakeholders that may be involved in you know, the resettling of people who will be moving in. So I think that's something that's probably missing, that needs to be done.

For more information, view:

Eastside Community Network

American Society of Adaptation Professionals – Preparing Communities to Receive Climate Migrants




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