The Other Housing Crisis

Another U.S. community has voted to relocate because of climate change. It’s just the beginning.

The Other Housing Crisis
[Photo: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images]

Earlier this week, citizens of a small Alaskan community called Shishmaref went to the polls. They weren’t voting on judges or taxes. They were voting on whether to move–and they voted yes, reports Grist.


Shishmaref is one of many coastal communities that have been threatened by decades of erosion as warming temperatures melt sea ice. But as other communities that have voted to leave have found, an affirmative vote is just the beginning. It could take a quarter of a billion dollars to move the community to a new settlement, according to a post from Esau Sinnok, a teenaged resident who attended the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris as an Arctic Youth Ambassador. “I hope that, unlike me, you are never asked to put a price on that home because of the effects of climate change,” Sinnok wrote last year.

Shishmaref might be a tiny town and a climate outlier. But it’s also a bellwether for coastal communities–which house roughly half of the world’s population–and a call to action for the architects, planners, and policy-makers who are creating the blueprints and regulatory codes for cities that will soon be inundated.

[Photo: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve Flickr]

The town’s reality reflects a warning scientists have made for years: that climate change will trap the people who can’t afford to move at will, or who are passionate about maintaining their community and way of life, as Fusion explains is the case in Shishmaref. Last year, researchers at the University of Washington published a study looking at how low-income areas may be hit the hardest:

“Overall, this model suggests that when extreme environmental events or conditions act as a stressor in a community, the wealthiest people may choose to remain in place and adapt or protect themselves, people of medium wealth may be driven and able to relocate, and people of very low wealth may become trapped, with the desire to relocate but without the ability to do so. The unfortunate implication is that those households that are most vulnerable to these hazards are also the most likely to be trapped in place due to lack of mobility.”

According to Shishmaref’s economic development plan from 2012, just over 30% of residents live in poverty. Legislative action and agency funding will be needed to relocate the town collectively to a new site; an AECOM analysis, which imagined a five-year plan mixing new infrastructure and relocated buildings, pegged the cost at $214 million. “We don’t see the move happening in our lifetime because of the funding,” one city official told UPI.

Prefabricated architecture will help, AECOM says–so will local labor. Another Alaskan community working to relocate, Newtok, has helped dozens of community members get training in construction and electrical work in anticipation of the relocation.


Shishmaref won’t be alone for long. Some estimates put the number of so-called “climate refugees” who will be forced from their homes within the next 40 years in the hundreds of millions. It’s a remarkable demographic shift that will require architects and planners–not to mention policy-makers–to mobilize in a way not seen since the years after World War II.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Some design professionals and cities are already debating how they should respond. The Bay Area, for example, is forecast to experience major sea level rise within the next few decades and is in the throes of a severe housing crisis. At the Bay Planning Coalition’s Spring Summit, Will Travis–who directed the Bay Conservation and Development Commission for more than a decade–presented a call to action arguing that the coastlines of the future will be “permanently” temporary, and the communities that exist along them will be “more like long-term campgrounds than permanent cities.”

Travis envisions a new kind of coastal architecture, which is easily mobile and adaptable in the face of surges and storms. “Rather than continuing to build in much the same way we always have, it would be better––at least conceptually––to build along the shoreline in a manner that will be sustainable whatever the level of the sea might be,” he writes. “To achieve this lofty goal, new architectural forms are needed.”

Kristina Hill, a landscape architect at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, is another vocal advocate for an immediate focus on sea level rise in the region. “We are living in the last two stable decades of sea level rise,” she told the San Francisco Public Press earlier this summer. “Around 2045, 2050, or 2060, it’s going to get faster.” Hill envisions housing that sits on piles, able to accommodate huge flood heights–residential developments that will fund the necessary retrofitting of flood-prone public infrastructure like highways.

A few decades isn’t a long time when it comes to city-shaping, though–as Shishmaref has found. As planners like Hill argue, we’re out of time: We have to think about what housing will look like in 2045 today.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.