Research Spotlight: Planning for Climate Migration and Climate Gentrification in Florida

Sea level rise is one of the clear and present dangers associated with climate change in Florida. With the longest coastline in the lower 48 states, an economy fueled by beach tourism, and a population crowded into our coastal counties, Florida’s coastal cities and towns face an accelerating rate of sea level rise that will bring ocean tides increasingly inland through saltwater intrusion into groundwater, direct flooding over land, and stormwater system backwash.

A significant portion of coastal infrastructure, homes, and businesses will not be viable in a flooded future. Florida’s coastal residents are likely to join a global process of climate migration. Some scholars are speculating about where migrants might move and what impact it will have on existing inland residents which has given rise to the idea of “climate gentrification”. Our research team, funded by the FSU COSSPP LeRoy Collins Institute, is assessing the potential for cascading displacement pressures from climate change along Florida’s coastal cities and what planners and coastal leaders are trying to do about it.

Our research set out to uncover whether this gentrification hypothesis was starting to play out and what Florida’s communities were doing about it. We selected Duval County in the Jacksonville area, Pinellas County in Tampa Bay, and Miami-Dade County in the Miami region as focal areas of our study. We mapped populations that would likely be displaced by 3 feet of sea level rise in each county and then we looked inland to find areas that were most likely at risk of gentrification. Then, we examined plans and policies to determine whether coastal municipalities were doing anything to slow down sea level rise impacts and whether inland communities were doing anything to protect affordable housing and stabilize neighborhoods to slow displacement pressures associated with gentrification. Finally, we interviewed planners, community activists, housing officials, and community leaders in each county to understand what might be happening that wasn’t on the books already.

From our mapping exercise, we found that the three counties present vastly different demographic distributions, but there are some commonalities. Those along the coast are uniformly higher educated, have a higher percentage of Whites, have higher incomes, and higher property values than our inland counterparts. Areas at risk of gentrification pressures tend to include people with lower income, lower educational attainment, lower homeownership rates, higher single parent household rates, and lower property values. These neighborhoods tend to have higher concentrations of African Americans in Jacksonville, lower income immigrant communities from Latin America and the Caribbean in Miami, and White populations with enclaves of Hispanic or Black populations in Pinellas. Many of these neighborhoods have been targeted for redevelopment programs and policies like Opportunity Zones and Community Redevelopment Agencies.

Our policy analysis revealed that regional and county agencies tend to recognize sea level rise as an issue, but few localities and counties have adopted strong protective policies to reduce flood impacts. There are major infrastructure projects and investments happening in the wealthiest cities, but policies seem to be lagging. Affordable housing protections and neighborhood stabilization policies tend to be relatively strong in most of our inland neighborhoods at highest risk of gentrification pressures. However, affordable housing remains well below existing and projected future needs in all three of our counties. So, there is a bit of a disconnect between strong policies and implementation.

Our interviews were perhaps the most revealing aspect of this work. First, all of our interviewees noted that not only are people not moving from the coast, but the Florida development machine continues to build in areas at risk of sea level rise flooding. Some changes to building codes and design are occurring, but, by and large, development continues as people still want to live near the ocean. There are efforts underway to address needed resilience—all three counties are part of regional climate collaborative groups, they have established resilience committees and projects, and sea level rise is very much on the radar. But, no one seems to be willing to seriously consider the idea of preparing for a managed retreat from the coast. Where gentrification is happening, our interviewees could not specifically link redevelopment to coastal retreat. Instead, a myriad of drivers—already built out areas, rising property values everywhere making lower cost areas more attractive, public infrastructure investments, private redevelopment projects, relocation during the covid-19 pandemic, among others—are all at work simultaneously. Our community activists were concerned about the pace of gentrification related displacement in many of our neighborhoods and often frustrated by the lack of attention to providing and protecting affordable housing. Many of our interviewees, both advocates and public officials, have the idea of climate gentrification on their minds, but few are tackling the issue in any meaningful way as they simply aren’t seeing too much evidence of it being a pressing problem right now.

What does all this mean? In the end, climate gentrification in Florida’s coastal communities doesn’t seem to be happening yet, at least not in a direct or measurable way. Property values are going up in inland neighborhoods, but the drivers of gentrification may have less to do with an interest in moving inland to avoid sea level rise and hurricanes than it does with other attractors that drive redevelopment projects in these areas. Widespread movement away from the coast is all but inevitable in this century, and highly possible within just a few decades. Our research demonstrates where there are policy gaps for sea level rise and affordable housing protection, implementation gaps for attending to policies that are already on the books, equity gaps between wealthy communities receiving climate proofing investments and low-income communities being displaced by economic redevelopment and private investment, and an integration gap to bring together resilience, affordable housing, and neighborhood stabilization into a more coordinated effort. To conclude the report, we provide recommendations on planning for SLR risk reduction, building capacity for advocates and housing agencies, and developing a holistic and integrative strategy for addressing housing, hazards, and climate equity across agencies and jurisdictions. For more details, check out our forthcoming report, which can be found here.

Dr. William Butler is an Associate Professor and MSP Program Director at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Butler here.

Dr. April Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Jackson here.

Dr. Tisha Holmes is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. You can learn more about Dr. Holmes here.

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