When Worcester embarked on its nascent plan to become a climate haven — a refuge for those displaced by environmental disasters — it wasn’t just an expression of the city’s priorities as it endeavors to become the greenest midsized city in America by 2050. It was a decision made by necessity.
“What’s the saying? Out of every crisis comes opportunity?” said John Odell, Worcester’s chief sustainability officer. “Well, we are in the position where we can see the climate crisis and the potential impact of that crisis. Unfortunately, it is coming. But we’re in a good place for Worcester to be well-positioned to handle it.”
Other Massachusetts inland communities will also become climate havens in coming decades, whether they plan for it or not. The time to plan is now.
Tens of millions of Americans are expected to become climate migrants by the century’s end, moving from coastal regions, the South, and the West where the threats from storm surges, rising heat, and wildfires grow each year. The Bay State, with its cooler temperatures, natural resources, and strong economy, has already grown faster than any other state in the region over the past decade. Climate migration will only accelerate that trend.
For example, in 2017 when Hurricane Maria’s devastation drove more than 100,000 Puerto Rico residents to the mainland, over 6,200 migrated to Massachusetts. Only Florida and Pennsylvania received more. The following year, more than 6,800 additional Puerto Ricans settled in the Bay State.
But only 5 percent of that migration went to Boston. By comparison, 20 percent went to Springfield and 15 percent landed in Worcester — which was already the fastest growing city in New England.
Add the fact that the Commonwealth, too, is getting warmer and rising sea levels are already affecting its coasts, and those effects will get worse. If residents of Boston and other impacted communities want to remain in the state, many will move westward.
Nationwide, rising sea levels are expected to displace 13 million Americans by the end of the century. That number doesn’t include other climate-exacerbated disasters like storms, wildfires, drought, and extreme heat. The number also doesn’t include migrants from Central America, the African continent, and elsewhere fleeing increasingly untenable environmental effects.
Planning for climate migration is far more complex than simply seeking ways to increase affordable housing stock, although that is a fundamental part of it. Communities must also ensure their transportation systems and utilities are ready to handle the population boom. They have to be proactive in attracting businesses to ensure job opportunities for new residents while growing local tax bases to support the increased demand on municipal services. They must ensure that their own climate mitigation plans, which can include everything from green energy production to sustainable streetscaping and urban reforestation, contemplate rising populations.
Odell said Worcester got a jump on such planning due to its recent population boom — a 14 percent increase from 2010 to 2020.
“The fact that we were able to absorb that natural growth, and still manage the continued growth that we have had, is a good sign we can manage future growth, whether it is driven by economic opportunity or climate change,” Odell said.
Cities and towns, of course, cannot plan for climate migration in isolation. The federal infrastructure law includes nearly $50 billion in climate resiliency funding for local communities. Earlier this month, the state released a draft climate change assessment, which lists the potential increased costs of responding to climate migration as one of the “most urgent” environmental impacts on the state. Federal and state authorities must work with communities to provide them the resources they need.
Municipalities can also take notes from other communities that have successfully implemented climate-haven plans, like Buffalo.
Like Worcester, Buffalo’s population had already been on an upswing after decades of decline, in part from a plan to double its affordable housing stock and through partnerships with nonprofit groups like Be In Buffalo to help attract businesses and revitalize the city’s downtown area.
After Hurricane Maria, the city saw more residents moving from Florida, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. Despite the drastic difference in weather, many of those residents stayed in the famously snowy city.
Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of Buffalo’s office of strategic planning, said the fact that the city was already planning for and managing growth with a social justice lens made it easier to welcome incoming climate migrants too.
“We’re mindful of the potential for displacement” of longtime Buffalo residents to accommodate the population growth, Mehaffy said. “So, we want to be intentional about how to anchor housing affordability and growth in a way that will also close the racial wealth gap and achieve equity.”
For Massachusetts communities that don’t have a climate-haven plan in development, time is running out. Odell said he has learned firsthand that advanced planning is far more effective than reactionary, piecemeal policy-making. Other communities should learn that lesson now.
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