Revealing + Redressing Injustices in Climate Adaptation

My research demonstrates that major climate adaptation projects around the world are producing inequitable and unjust land use plans and projects within cities. These projects have to be seen not only in terms of what they do for or to low-income communities, but vis-a-vis what is done for or not done to wealthier residents. In addition, cities have long relied on resources from outside their own borders. Under climate change, their efforts to securitize their own safety by extracting more water or diverting floodwaters from/to rural areas can negatively impact surrounding regions. This critical research reveals how mainstreaming adaptation into current governance institutions and planning processes can sustain existing racist, classist, and unsustainable policies. It also reveals how adaptation planning implicates regional geographies – watersheds, metropolises – as well as higher levels of government whose policies drive and constrain local responses.

To counter tendencies towards inequitable adaptation, I research institutions related to core aspects of land governance: regional governance, fiscal policy, land use regulation, and property rights regimes.

Transformative Climate Adaptation in the United States: Trends and Prospects (Science, 2021)
Publisher full-text | Pre-print version

From Progressive Cities to Resilient Cities: Lessons from History for New Debates in Equitable Adaptation to Climate Change (UAR, 2020)
Publisher full-text | Blog at Urban Affairs Forum

Equity Impacts of Urban Land Use Planning for Climate Adaptation: Critical Perspectives from the Global North + South (with colleagues, JPER, 2016)
Publisher full-text | Blog at The Nature of Cities

Towards Justice in Urban Climate Adaptation: A Roadmap for Research and Practice (with colleagues, Nature Climate Change, 2016)
Publisher full-text | Blog at New Security Beat

Regional Governance of Climate Adaptation

One remedy to local, exclusionary adaptation is to upscale governance to the metropolitan region. This was the focus of my dissertation on climate collaboratives in five U.S. metropolitan regions. These have enabled more localities to begin adaptation planning by expanding access to data, technical assistance, and networks. However, initiatives advocate for more local resources and authority rather than regional capacity and governance. This potentially accelerates uneven intra-regional adaptation as the most impacted municipalities confront adaptation limits. Fundamentally, my research reveals the limits of soft regionalism in changing development choices on the ground.

Little Sugar Creek, NC. photo by Hannah Wilson

Beyond Flood Risk Reduction: How Can Green Infrastructure Advance Social Justice and Regional Impact? (SEPR, 2020) Publisher full-text (open access) | Recording of Harvard lecture

Promise and Paradox of Metropolitan Regional Climate Adaptation (ESP, 2019) Publisher full-text

A New Climate for Regionalism? Metropolitan Experiments in Climate Change Adaptation (MIT dissertation, 2017)

Explaining Progress in Climate Adaptation Planning Across 156 U.S. Municipalities (with colleagues, JAPA, 2015) Publisher full-text

Fiscal Policy & Challenges under Climate Change

Recent disasters and growing concerns about climate change have spurred calls for cities to retreat and avoid developing in coastal areas. Cities can ill afford to take these steps because the decentralization of municipal services, fiscalization of land use, and fragmentation of jurisdictions into 100+ governments per metro area make local governments jealously guard their property tax rolls. In some coastal bedroom suburbs, property taxes comprise 70% of local government revenues. However, sea-level rise, floods, fires, and other climate impacts will increase the cost of local services and reduce local revenues – sometimes upwards of 50%. This limits their ability to fund services and infrastructure, leaving them more exposed to future disasters, downgraded municipal bond ratings, and increasing the cost of future adaptation. This research highlights the need to stop fiscalizing land use and start regionalizing wealth sharing and housing production to avoid the creation of climate slums and resilient enclaves.

Fiscal Impact of Sea Level Rise to Municipalities in Florida
(Storymap forthcoming)

Surging Seas, Rising Fiscal Stress: Exploring Municipal Fiscal Vulnerability to Climate Change
(Shi & Varuzzo, Cities, 2020)
Publisher full-text
op-ed in The Boston Globe

Staying Afloat in 2100: Evaluating Fiscal and Land Use Options for Coastal Adaptation in Massachusetts. Report of Cornell workshop course, Winner of APA 2020 Student Project Award

Property Rights + the Power of Collective Land Tenure

Many adaptation projects focus on the scale of individual property – for flood insurance, elevating homes, providing disclosures during property sales, and floodplain buyouts. With 13 million people currently living within 6 feet of sea levels, we need to enable action in ways that doesn’t require every individual to navigate the complexity from scratch. Meanwhile, individual residents living in more climate-safe areas also have little power to confront and resist climate gentrification. My research, along with colleagues, explores the potential for collective land ownership – for instance through community land trusts, cooperatives, indigenous communal land management, land readjustment, or even homeowner associations – to help communities resist climate gentrification, mobilize collective action, and support more equitable adaptation at a neighborhood scale.

Resident-Owned Resilience: Cooperative Land Ownership Enable Transformative Climate Adaptation for Manufactured Housing Communities? (Lamb, Shi, Silva, and Spicer, Housing Policy Debate, 2022) | Publisher full-text (open access)
Mobile homes comprise most of all affordable housing in the United States that is not subsidized, but residents are vulnerable to both environmental risks and displacement by eviction. We explore how collective land tenure enabled U.S. manufactured housing communities to respond to these threats.

Promises and Perils of Collective Land Tenure in Promoting Urban Resilience: Learning from China’s Urban Villages
(Shi, Lamb, Qiu, Cai, Vale, Habitat International, 2018) | Publisher full-text
We show how collective tenure enabled Shenzhen’s rural poor to capitalize on the city’s urbanization and improve their built environment, social and environmental services, resist and negotiate the terms of displacement. However, these rights did not extend to migrant tenants. Property rights accrue to the holder of those rights, and the wider the net, the wider the redistributive benefits.