Climate change is restructuring social and spatial development, and societal responses to “realign” cities are resulting in new geographies of ecological enclaves, climate slums, and sites of displacement. Many institutions shaping urban land governance have contributed to and continue to propel unequal and unsustainable development. Changing inequities in the built environment, therefore, requires changing fundamental approaches to land ownership, land commodification, and regional governance.

The Adaptive Land Lab aims to reveal how current institutions contribute to unjust and unsustainable adaptation to enable policy reforms that redress underlying causes of societal vulnerability to climate change. Its research encompasses the following thematic areas:


Revealing + Redressing Injustices in Climate Adaptation

ALL’s research demonstrates that major climate adaptation projects around the world are producing inequitable and unjust land use plans and projects within cities. These projects should 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, ALL researches institutions related to core aspects of land governance: regional governance, fiscal policy, land use regulation, and property rights regimes.

Regional Governance of Climate Adaptation

One remedy to local, exclusionary adaptation is to upscale governance to the metropolitan region. For instance, climate collaboratives in U.S. metropolitan regions 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. AAL’s research reveals the limits of soft regionalism in changing development choices on the ground, and the need for harder forms of restructuring to enable just adaptation.

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.

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. This research 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.

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