In the years to come, as increasingly high temperatures, rising sea levels, and an increase in the intensity of hurricanes and other storms make it more difficult to live in coastal areas, the United States may see a wave of internal migration, as people and businesses relocate to where climate change’s effects are not as severe.
That could turn cities such as Cincinnati into “climate havens,” boosting their populations and opportunities for development, according to a pair of speakers in a presentation on migration trends and their effects at ULI’s 2019 Fall Meeting in Washington, D.C.
When it comes to the effects of climate change, “we’re all toast, but not all toast is alike,” said Larry Falkin, director of the city of Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability.
In contrast to Miami and other endangered coastal metropolises, Cincinnati—a medium-sized city with a population of slightly more than 300,000, according to recent U.S. Census data—will see much less severe effects from the planet’s warming trend, Falkin said. The city is far inland and 500 feet (152 m) above sea level. And unlike California cities that are vulnerable to punishing droughts that can make it difficult for people to get enough water for their needs, Cincinnati experiences 42 inches (107 cm) of rainfall a year, “and the trend is getting wetter,” Falkin noted.
The city is expecting some negative effects from climate change, including mudslides from the additional rain, and there are concerns about food insecurity and the spread of diseases, according to Falkin. But because the city is immune to so many climate-related threats, he said, “maybe there’s an opportunity.”
The city already is planning to take advantage of climate-related population shifts. Falkin cited a passage from the city’s 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, which predicts that “many businesses seek to ensure continuity of operations, and may consider relocating from disaster-prone locations to relatively safe locations like Cincinnati. This will provide economic opportunities if Cincinnati is prepared to market itself to these businesses.
“We need to get ready for a rapidly growing population,” Falkin said. “That’s something we haven’t experienced for many decades.”
The city’s built environment is capable of absorbing another 200,000 or so new residents, he estimated. (A 2017 U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services report estimated that there were 37,400 vacant housing units in the Cincinnati metropolitan area.) In addition, according to the report, officials plan to create additional affordable housing for short-term use by temporary climate refugees. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, about 2,000 people from New Orleans fled all the way north to Cincinnati, he said.
City officials have discussed how aggressively they should market the city as a climate haven. Falkin even displayed an image of a mock billboard for hurricane-prone coastal cities, touting Cincinnati as a place to relocate. While they are not actually considering buying such advertisements at present, “we created this to help us think it through,” he explained.
The other speaker at the session, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia economist Kyle Mangum, focused more on the bigger picture of U.S. internal migration trends and dynamics of population movement.
It might seem as if the movement of the U.S. population is simply a matter of some cities declining in population as people move to more desirable destinations with more pleasant weather and/or more employment and economic opportunities, but the actual dynamics are more complex, Mangum said.
On average, there is about a 3 to 4 percent chance that a particular household will move in a given year, and all metropolitan areas see some inflow and outflow, Mangum explained. “No matter how good or bad a place may seem, there are always people coming in and going out,” he said.
And although some cities grow faster than others, the fast-growing cities actually have more transient populations, so that they have both higher inflows and higher outflows than slower-growing locales, Mangum explained. People who are living in a place other than their home state migrate elsewhere at about twice the probability of those who are living in the state where they were born.
“The new population in a city is going to be less attached to it than people who grew up there, and that affects turnover,” Mangum said.
Most migration inside the United States actually involves moving over relatively short distances, with people tending to go from one city to another one in the same region. “The flow networks tend to be geographically local,” he said.
In addition, people who have moved away from their home states tend to return to them 31 percent of the time, according to Mangum.
Mangum said that normal migration patterns can be disrupted in rare instances by events such as natural disasters. But over the past century, there have been only two such “shocks,” as economists and demographers call sharp deviations from the norm. One was the Dust Bowl migration that occurred during the 1930s, when severe drought and unsustainable farming practices led to dust storms that carried away topsoil from the Plains states and forced large numbers of farmers to migrate westward. The other was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the storm’s fury and the damage in its wake caused about half of the population of New Orleans to flee.