Future Tense

You Can Build It. But Will They Come?

A cardboard box that says New Olympia on it, with a capitol building inside, floating at sea.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

A managed retreat researcher responds to Brenda Cooper’s “Out of Ash.”

Multiple choice question: Your favorite beautiful, coastal city is at risk of being flooded by sea level rise, and you have the power to do something. Do you

a)   Build a sea wall
b)   Rearrange it into the hills
c)    Move the entire city inland
d)   Do nothing

These are the options facing today’s leaders. The research is unequivocal: Sea levels are rising, and we’re expected to see 1 to 3 feet of global sea level rise by 2100 if emissions aren’t cut. While some cities elect to ignore the sea at their doorsteps, others are on the hunt for any possible solution to the rising tide. Miami is considering a 20-foot, $6 billion sea wall. Texas is planning for a $29 billion dike to guard against storm surges in the Houston Ship Channel. Fiji has relocated a small village a mile inland onto a hillside. But Indonesia is doing something almost without precedent: building an entirely new capital city hundreds of miles away from Jakarta.

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In Brenda Cooper’s short story “Out of Ashes,” the future governor of Washington has done something similar: She’s managed to successfully relocate the state’s capital inland, to “New Olympia.” Her only problem? No one wants to live there.

In the world of climate policy, the idea of moving people and homes away from sea level rise, known as managed retreat, is so politically toxic that politicians are hesitant to speak about it, much less plan for it. So Cooper’s governor seems to have accomplished the impossible just by getting planners, builders, and corporations on board with building out a new capital city from scratch about an hour’s drive inland from Olympia.

The governor’s task isn’t entirely unprecedented, even if her scale is breathtaking. The tiny town of Valmeyer, Illinois, was relocated entirely in the 1990s, after witnessing the destruction of repeated flooding. With almost 70 percent of Valmeyer voicing support, the town of 900 was rebuilt a mile away, at a cost of $45 million and four years of waiting. In the end, though the move was considered a success, about 22 percent of Valmeyer’s original residents didn’t take relocate to the new Valmeyer. Some chose to move to other towns, while about a dozen families remained in the original location. Today, the new Valmeyer continues to lack commercial development, with the town’s former businesses unable to weather the long pause before Valmeyer’s reopening.

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Grantham, Australia, retreated in 2011—and experienced its share of growing pains, too. Over 11 months, almost 90 families were relocated less than a quarter-mile from the site of a devastating flood at a cost of about $18 million. But even with the regional council footing the bill for the land, some Grantham residents got “stuck” in the old town, because they didn’t receive enough insurance money to be able to relocate to the new town.

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So it’s no surprise that a bigger relocation leads to bigger problems, at least in Cooper’s world. Washington’s governor, Louise, can’t help but feel like she failed her constituents when her beautiful new capital is a ghost town. While the new city’s construction was delayed, the people of flooding Olympia left for elsewhere. Now, New Olympia is dead whenever the state assembly isn’t in session, and “sterile” even when it is. There’s no nightlife, the university won’t be open for another few years, the city can’t draw work-from-home techies, and the franchises can only afford to stay open half the time—even with subsidies they’ve managed to claw from the government.

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Gov. Louise knows she’s done something wrong, but she can’t figure out how to fix it. She’s tried to provide everything people might need in the gleaming, inland city. Moving there seems to be a rational decision in the face of climate destruction. So why won’t people take the plunge?

Perhaps the first mistake is assuming humans always act rationally about their housing decisions. Miami real estate has gone up 150 percent in the past 10 years, even as planners prep for 2 feet of sea level rise by 2060. Recent research has shown that sea level rise isn’t leading to decreased property values for coastal homes.

But it’s also possible that those living in and buying houses on threatened coasts aren’t acting irrationally—they’re just placing a higher value on the myriad intangible factors that make a place into a home. It’s certainly true that some residents can’t afford to relocate to inland areas, or have jobs they can’t perform elsewhere. But for others, it’s cultural ties and family networks keeping them in place. For still more, it’s the atmosphere of a city that keeps them there—clubs, museums, festivals, performances.

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This absence of cultural ties, of atmosphere, is more or less what a constituent confesses to Gov. Louise when she asks why he wouldn’t relocate to “sterile” New Olympia.

“I like the opera,” he admits, sheepishly. “There’s no opera way out there.”

These cultural and emotional connections are one reason why even perpetually high-cost-of-living coastal cities like New York and San Francisco have no trouble drawing in new residents, and why cheap, inland cities like Tulsa and Topeka are offering cash to people willing to move there.

This kind of strong, emotional connection that roots an individual to a specific area is known as “place attachment,” and it’s proven to get residents actually invested in their “places,” in setting norms and preserving neighborhoods. Place attachment is exactly what’s missing from communities like New Olympia that start from scratch.

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But can we fix that? Are there ways to build place attachment to create appealing communities for those whose homes are no longer safe for habitation?

The answer begins with the same discovery Gov. Louise made: the importance of community engagement.

By getting large swaths of the community meaningfully involved in the planning process of creating a new space, governments can create a shared sense of investment and commitment to new areas of development. Ensuring that residents get ultimate self-determination over what new communities look like, rather than being subjected to top-down decisions, can go a long way in rebuilding trust. This is particularly essential given the long history of inequitable and unjust relocations of low-income communities and communities of color.

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Wide-scale community engagement can reveal residents’ city design and use preferences, which will prove essential in creating a city that actually appeals to them. An individual’s bond with nature is one key element in place attachment theory. What kind of greenspaces do residents make the most use of? What kinds of public spaces are well-utilized in the current community, and how can we repeat their successes?

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And, importantly, what are the intangible “things” about a place that make it special, that make it feel like home, rather than a collection of buildings? Norfolk, Virginia, is a populous coastal city at great risk of sea level rise. In 2016, in preparation for Norfolk’s Vision 2100 plan for a changing environment, the city engaged residents in community asset mapping in order to gain essential, citizen-level data on the people, places, things and spaces that make the city great, so these assets could be accounted for in future planning.

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By allowing members of the community to take the lead in planning, designing, and even budgeting for new cities and towns, we can create a sense of investment and improve the odds that people feel attached to new places, that these spaces feel like home.

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Because ultimately, as much as it frustrates Gov. Louise, you can’t force people to move to a new city, no matter how great it is. The government shouldn’t control whether people abandon their homes to set off for a new city. There will always be holdouts, as Valmeyer proved, and residents deserve the right to stay in those places if they so choose. But by ensuring that communities shape the cities of their future, we can create cities that can soon become homes. We can work hard to build cities informed by their future residents, so that when we build it, they will come.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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