Stop Building On The Coast

On fleeing or defending areas vulnerable to rising seas

The Ocean is coming. Whether we like it or not, the seas are rising. Slowly, but ever so surely, it will swallow entire places and inundate others. It’s up to us how we choose to respond to this existential threat for hundreds of millions globally, and tens of millions domestically. Not responding is not an option.

There are two schools of thought with respect to dealing with sea level rise in the built environment: the first, fortify our existing communities to create defensible places. The second, shift our resources and attention away from the coasts to prepare for life inland.

This is not a binary choice. We must pursue both of these strategies, but with one major asterisk: *we should not build new development in communities severely threatened by sea level rise*

I can already hear the typing of keyboards, set to the theme of Jaws.

This will exacerbate inequality by limiting housing in areas that desperately need it, and will create a stratified society where the wealthy can afford beach homes and condos while the impoverished are relegated to the hinterlands.

How dare you tell communities what they can or can’t build. People should be able to build whatever they want, wherever they want.

This will destroy property values and is a communist takeover of our land.

If you’ll allow me, please, cut the music. This isn’t a NIMBY screed, nor am I advocating for taking anyone’s land. The ocean is already well on its way. This is a plea for common sense. You wouldn’t expect a sand castle to remain viable in the direct path of constant waves of water, would you? We can, and must, build more intensively elsewhere without ignoring the reality of the situation in coastal communities.

This is a complex issue with widespread implications on our entire society that must be tackled head on.

How Severe Is The Threat?

The science is unequivocal. While seas have only risen 9 inches since 1880, a third of that growth has come in the last 25 years. This growth is projected to accelerate further, thanks to two factors, driven by climate change. The first, you’ll have likely heard. Polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, shedding 60% more ice per year now than in the 90’s. In real terms, 1.2 trillion tons of ice per year, up from 800 billion tons 25 years ago. This ice is melting directly into our oceans, driving their global rise. Not only is the ocean rising from melting ice, but it’s also warming. Warming causes water to expand (thermal expansion), which in turn causes water to rise further.

It’s important to put this rise into perspective. 9 inches over 140 years, and 3" in 25, may not seem like much, but vast swaths of the world are perilously close to, or below, sea level. Major metropolises like Miami are just 4 feet above sea level. Half of New Orleans is at or below Sea Level. Norfolk, one of the most vulnerable cities to rising waters in the US, is only 7 feet above sea level, and lower in many neighborhoods. All told, 40% of America live in counties bordering the coast. While not all of these people are at risk to rising water, many are. The ramifications to vulnerable communities is profound. These risks are even more pronounced in other places around the world. Most notably in Bangladesh, where 15 million people are grappling with this existential challenge that threatens to engulf 11% of the country’s land.

With warming water, seas will not only rise, but hurricanes will become more powerful. In very simple terms, the warmer water is, the more energy a storm can generate from it, and the more destructive it can become. According to research published in the Journal of Climate, the intensity of category 4 and 5 storms (where 85% of all damage from hurricanes comes from) could increase 28% globally in the coming decades. This means more Katrinas, more Harveys, and more Sandys. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking the impacts from climate change are way off in the future. They’re here. 9 of the 10 most destructive hurricanes in American History have occurred since 2004. Of the 36 category 5 hurricanes to hit North America since 1924, 14 have been in the last 20 years. There is no escaping this reality.

As hurricanes get stronger, storm surges move more forcefully across land. Stronger storms dramatically increases risk to the 8.6 million people who “live in areas susceptible to coastal flooding”. This risk is further heightened by rising waters. In Charleston, a place I have a soft spot in my heart for, the number of days where flooding occurs in the city has increased 750% in just 40 years. Though it pains me, with numbers like this, and the devastating stories that come with them, it’s not possible for my heart to be soft enough to think it makes sense to build in some of these coastal communities. It’s worse than futile because it has significant, and active impacts on real people.

What’s It Going To Cost?

But just because we’re faced with the threat of sea level rise doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to defend the places we love and the people who live there. At least for as long as we can.

The problem with building up our defenses is that it’s expensive. Very expensive.

First, there’s the infrastructure of defense. These are the sea walls, hydraulic gates, barrier islands and landscaping designed to protect low-lying areas from sea level rise. Hundreds of billions of dollars in investments has been planned, or have already begun, in the largest cities and metros. Jim Morrison, writing for Yale’s School of the Environment, notes:

By 2040, building sea walls for storm surge protection for U.S. coastal cities with more than 25,000 residents will require at least $42 billion. Expand that to include communities under 25,000 people and the cost skyrockets to $400 billion. That’s nearly the price of building the 47,000 miles of the interstate highway system, which took four decades and cost more than $500 billion in today’s dollars.

The subtext here is that just like the interstate highway system, whose maintenance alone has now cumulatively cost more than the initial $500 billion program, a sea wall defense will require a once-in a generation investment into the country. The trouble is, several aid packages worth trillions of dollars have been green lit in the last year for urgently needed programs, but little money for sea level rise. Fears of inflation are circulating widely and there is a great deal of hesitancy, if not outright hostility, to fund further large infrastructure packages. Operating within these constraints, I fear we will continue to treat the symptoms of sea level rise, while never making more than incremental progress on broader initiatives. Without a national infrastructure plan to protect our shores, the piecemeal changes that have been approved will be little more than drops in a bucket.

If we were able to mount the generational response to this crisis we so desperately need (and that’s a big if), we’d have to maintain these protections across thousands of miles of coastline. The story here is much the same as the interstate highway system, with sea walls continually degrading from the corrosive effects of salt water instead of SUVs and 18-wheelers on asphalt. Oh, and by the way, the $400 billion figure Morrison notes is an intentional underestimate on behalf of researchers, as the scale of the capital requirements is so extensive beyond mere sea walls it’s nearly impossible to calculate properly. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. Here’s a report, equal parts interesting and horrifying, attempting just that. It’s not pretty. Defense will struggle to win championships against a historically prodigious opponent of unlimited power.

Beyond infrastructure, for those 8.6 million (and growing) living in at-risk communities, insurance against rising water and floods will be exorbitant. From Justin Worland’s eye-opening piece in Time:

Research from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group that studies flood risk, estimates that flooding alone already results in $20 billion in property loss annually and that this figure will grow to more than $30 billion in 30 years. A report from reinsurer Swiss Re found that last year extreme weather caused a total of $105 billion in insured losses in North America.

With so much risk for insurance firms, premiums in particularly vulnerable areas could jump 10 times where they are today in the next few years. And that’s just for protection against floods. This burden could drive buyers, the banks that lend to them, the insurance firms that protect them, and the federally backed entities that guarantee the vulnerable real estate into a climate-driven crash that would make 2008 look sophomoric. As of 2007, in Miami’s metropolitan area alone, $416 billion in assets were actively exposed to the threats of storm surge and flooding. By 2050, $23 billion of existing property could be underwater. If just one metropolitan area in one corner of the world 15 years ago had this level of exposure, it’s difficult to comprehend the scale of it today, to say nothing of the future. This is just the financial cost.

Who Will It Impact?

The costs associated with sea level rise are so large that they can feel abstract and difficult to grasp in their entirety. So what does the impact to people on the ground look like?

On the municipal scale, this is an entirely new line item for most communities. The situation would be bad enough if we were only not adequately prepared for it. But municipal budgets nation-wide have been marching unflinchingly towards bankruptcy through decades of unwise infrastructure investments. The Coronavirus has further heightened the stress of local finances, slashing revenue streams and increasing costs of providing services. Before even thinking of dealing with sea level rise and the impacts from climate change, many communities will be forced to slash existing expenditures considerably. A lack of revenue paired with an unplanned for massive increase in capital (and maintenance) outlays is a disastrous equation. Many places will simply not be able to handle this stress.

As with much else in our country, this stress will disproportionately impact marginalized groups who don’t have the resources to defend it, or move away from it. Indeed, many of the current proposals to deal with the threat have come out of large wealthy cities, or small wealthy communities. Key word: wealthy. Relief will come first to those who can afford it.

And for those who can’t? We need look no further than the frontline in this battle; Miami. Mario Alejandro Ariza writes:

Five to 6 feet of sea level rise by 2100 is likely, and likely catastrophic: An inundation of this magnitude would physically displace some 800,000 residents of Miami-Dade County — nearly a third of the current population — and render a large portion of the city uninhabitable.

He continues:

As the sea rises, a battle for Miami’s high ground is taking shape. Known as the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, the land — which averages some 11 feet above sea level, nearly twice the mean elevation in Miami-Dade County — is home to many of Miami’s Black and Afro-Caribbean communities. Developers are now pursuing several major residential and commercial projects on and around the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, including the Magic City Innovation District — a mega-development slated for construction in a low-income, urban core neighborhood of Miami known as Little Haiti. Magic City’s backers are advertising it as a safe bet in an era of climate change.

Climate displacement is a real and pressing concern. Whether marginalized groups live on higher ridge lines or down by the water, sea level rise will come first to those with the least means, whether by capital or water. This is the gravest consequence of climate change in coastal communities. Displacement could rival that of the Dust Bowl, with eery parallels: a natural event completely out of our control where attempts to reign it in are beyond our current technological or pecuniary abilities.

Generations of family, lived experiences, small businesses, tradition, community, and collective memory could be eviscerated. Everything that we attach ourselves to as people, gone. Just like the creation of urban highways, the effects from severing communities wrought from this destruction could reach forward for generations. For those with multiple houses who lose one on the beach, or have the means to acquire one further inland, the threat is real and devastating, but not existential like it is for marginalized groups.

The fight for Little Haiti is happening in a place with a lot of eyes on it. And there need to be eyes to call out this disgraceful behavior. But what happens in cities with fewer eyes on them like Newport News? Biloxi? Galveston? Or the hundreds of small towns that won’t ever hear their names in national media but will suffer the most. What do we do for them?

We need protections for marginalized communities that live on the high ground in cities close to sea level. We need relief programs for those on the shore, whether through providing grants to raise their home, or assistance with dune building and landscaping efforts to buffer the water. We need also ensure that marginalized communities don’t become synonymous as those forced to live in areas with heightened risks of flooding and climate change.

But this won’t be enough, because we don’t have the resources, and we don’t have the time. Communities will submerge, and displacement will be endemic to the coasts. My heart breaks for those who won’t have the ability to try to mount a defense, or plan for where they can move to next.

What’s To Be Done?

Take it seriously.

With all of the consequences surrounding this existential threat, it’s irresponsible for anyone to propose a new condo project on South Beach, or build homes where 500 year flood scenarios now happen every 2. While building housing for marginalized communities is noble, doing so in vulnerable areas is an abdication of responsibility by practitioners in the built environment. Just because the land is cheaper and the need for affordable housing severe, it doesn’t make the decision to build in such places any more sound. If individual people wish to continue buying and selling existing homes, that’s a risk they can take if they want. But continuing to build is a mockery of the threat we face. Those who continue to do so will be humbled.

We should follow the lead of Staten island post Hurricane Sandy. Instead of rebuilding in a place that will continue to face the increasing threats of sea level rise, they simply decided to not rebuild. This is an unimaginably difficult decision to make, but one that I think is correct. Instead of waiting for our communities to be destroyed, we can be proactive. In parallel with planning for inland growth, in the stead of communities razed or inundated by storms, we can turn those areas into parks, public beaches, or centers to teach about the damage of climate change. But continuing to build in the most threatened areas is little more than constructing sand castles in front of crashing waves.

I’m not advocating for every person who lives near the coast to move. It would not only be an absurd and unnecessary claim, but the mere suggestion would also instill no small amount of anxiety into folks that they would have to uproot the only lives they’ve ever known, or be prohibited from living a dream they’ve aspired to for their whole lives. But this doesn’t change the desperate need that some communities will have to plan for this eventuality they will face. Anecdotes and case-by-case solutions will no doubt prevail in response to this proposal, but a national response to rising seas should happen in two steps: defend the frontlines and enact strong planning further inland.

First, defense. As someone who has spent nearly their entire life in coastal counties, I deeply understand the urgency many feel in erecting barriers and building up protections to enable them to continue living in their communities. We should do this, wherever possible. Every coastal municipality should also hire full time staff to deal with rising seas and threats from climate change, regardless of their size. We must do everything we can to forestall the impacts of sea level rise in coastal communities.

To Miami’s credit, it appears to be taking the threat very seriously. The city has just hired the world’s first chief heat officer, Jane Gilbert, who previously served as Miami’s chief resiliency officer. More places should be opening these roles so that we can have as many talented and thoughtful people dedicating their time to this problem as possible.

But regardless of how much we spend on defense, we will not be able to fully solve this challenge. At best, we can hold up the tides for a period of time while we adequately plan. It’s very difficult writing this, but the unfortunate reality is that we can’t save all of our places. Not every community will be able to manage the hundreds of millions of dollars (and potentially 10s of billions given the scale), required to build up and maintain coastal defenses. Though this is an existential threat, it just one of dozens of pressing issues our towns and cities face. There simply isn’t enough money to keep up this fight.

This is where planning comes in. Each coastal community should adopt a schedule for their residents to prepare for the reality, in the not so distant future (decades, not centuries), that they may have to move. This should be coupled with a phased-in moratorium on new development in zones highly susceptible to flooding. We cannot tell builders they must drop their hammers tomorrow. But gradually over 3, 5 or 10 years? Perhaps.

We can offset a moratorium in one place by allowing for a New Deal level of building in others. This will provide coastal workers with jobs, and allow them to have an active part in shaping their new communities. In working alongside counties, metros, and states, we can develop strong regional planning to allow populations to easily move into safer, more equitable metros. This works well, because there’s increasing evidence that people don’t want to live in areas susceptible to impacts from climate change. Non-coastal communities should facilitate this demand and provide a place of safe (inland) harbor. Political vicissitudes must be sliced, and governments must lay down the law. For the future well-being of the country, we have to be able to build at a near unprecedented scale in order to shoulder the burden of millions of people who might be displaced and effected by rising seas and climate change.

We can provide residents of marginalized communities (as well as immigrants & refugees!) vouchers to move to inland cities and towns. You’ve no doubt seen one of the many internet proposals that aim to funnel people towards rust belt cities to take advantage of their affordable housing stock and provide a critical boost to their economies. When done well, I think this can be a fantastic idea. Municipalities can offer programs and incentives to people who live in communities threatened by sea level rise to move to their city. This has already proven to be successful for places like Tulsa, Topeka and Northwest Arkansas, where they’ve attracted thousands of remote workers by providing $10,000 in cash or incentives to move there. In Tucson, for every $1 it spent on it’s people-oriented incentive program, $40 was yielded in investments into the community. If such a program were scaled to include families, not only would marginalized groups get an opportunity at a new life, but they’d be revitalizing forgotten places. These folks could become a part of the renaissance of cities instead of being subject to the throes of climate change.

All of this isn’t to say that grave challenges shouldn’t be met head on. We cannot simply walk away from where so many of us live. I’m not advocating for giving up on the mission of cities, either. I’m only voicing the unfortunate reality that not everywhere will be able survive, nor will every place be suitable to live in the coming decades. We have to begin to plan for that reality, however devastating.

Not only are climate change and sea level rise here, they’ve been here for decades. Their effects are being accelerated because we broadly continue to ignore their existence and build directly in the paths of their destruction. It’s in our national interest to act as soon as possible, and treat this with the seriousness it deserves. If we don’t, future historians will finally be able to answer where Atlantis is. And it will be omnipresent.

Passionate about cities and the potential to create better places at the intersection of Real Estate Development & Urban Planning. Twitter: @cobylefko

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store