Using Vacant Properties for a Climate Resilient Future
May 11, 2023
By Erin Kelly
Communities across the country are battling the effects of climate change. Urban heat, stormwater runoff, and increasingly destructive storms all require places to engage in “climate adaptation planning” to respond to these threats to community health and well-being. One often-overlooked resource is the opportunity presented by vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated (VAD) properties—what some call “blighted properties”—to address common climate adaptation challenges.
First, let’s define some key terms: Climate adaptation planning refers to how we adjust to the current or expected effects of climate change in order to minimize harm. Mitigation refers to strategies that reduce climate change, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Climate resiliency is collectively the ability to prepare for, adapt to, and recover from the impacts of climate change.
For communities with many VAD properties, climate adaptation planning advances equity; the people and communities disproportionately affected by VAD properties are also the most likely to experience direct burdens arising from climate change. Activating vacant and abandoned properties for climate adaptation offers the ability to create and enhance access to high-quality, affordable housing suitable for a changed climate. Investments to address problem properties and improve housing stock can improve residents’ quality of life, strengthen public health, and foster a more engaged community. Despite these benefits, most strategies on climate adaptation to date have focused on places with strong real estate markets, dense neighborhoods, and city centers.
Below are some emerging opportunities to link climate adaptation planning to work addressing VAD properties.
Ways Vacant Properties Can Help Address Urban Heat
The Fourth National Climate Assessment identifies extreme heat among the most serious threats to human health in urban areas across the United States.
Vacant and abandoned properties could help support strategies for reducing extreme heat. For example, a city could plant trees on targeted vacant lots or remove light-reflecting surfaces like stone and concrete from vacant land in heat-impacted neighborhoods. For communities ready to commit to longer vacant land reuse timelines, climate adaptation finance offers a new stream of resources for realizing concentrated tree planting efforts that could correct inequitable patterns of greenspace and tree canopy coverage in cities.
Ways Vacant Properties Can Help Manage Stormwater
Climate change-related flooding causes an estimated $20 billion in property damages annually, and that number is expected to rise to over $30 billion in the next 30 years. Redeveloping vacant land and properties to include green infrastructure as primary or complementary features of the site can support local efforts to capture and slow the release of water, and other environmental and community benefits.
Vacant Properties and Managed Retreat
As more communities consider managed retreat in the face of sea level rise—i.e., moving people, infrastructure, and ecosystems away from vulnerable coastal areas—VAD properties can both be designed to absorb water and to provide housing in new locations.
But the conflict between water and property extends beyond coastal communities and into the households of millions more Americans currently living in low-lying, non-coastal flood-prone areas. As the frequency and intensity of local precipitation changes, the 100-year floodplain designation is no longer a sufficient indicator of potential water-property conflict. Flooding, extreme storms, and managed retreat can create new vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties. Recent white and grey papers have explored the limits and concerns of FEMA’s flood risk map, however, development continues unencumbered in these watersheds.
Future migration associated with climate change may be one of the most significant opportunities to reinvest in existing vacant properties. Communities may seek to become destinations for climate in-migration proactively; however, much-needed federal policy and coordination is still ramping up. Little work has been completed looking comparatively at conditions and opportunities across county lines to understand how climate-related shifts in population might indicate opportunities for some communities with VADs to anticipate the work of receiving new residents.
What Can We Do Now?
To date, most research linking vacant properties to climate adaptation has been devoted to inventorying the presence of sustainability planning within “legacy cities” and to sizing the potential for individual climate adaptation and mitigation strategies at a national and global scale. In practice, projects happen at the property or neighborhood level, with most emerging policy recommendations targeting federally assisted housing, community land trusts, and disaster recovery. National assessments of the risks arising from climate change are helpful; however, communities with many VAD properties are nuanced and not always well-represented through county-level data sets or in climate modeling scenarios.
- Make a Plan to Address the VAD Properties You Have: Many communities struggling with VAD properties don’t have institutionally-backed plans connecting and prioritizing resources to transition these problem properties to climate adaptation. Communities with pervasive vacant and abandoned properties should focus on creating a cohesive plan that articulates climate-informed priorities for future land use with existing VAD inventory.
- Change Local Policies and Zoning to Promote Adaptation: Adaptation will include physical, tangible change to property and neighborhoods. As a result, cities must 1) change their land use regulations to support climate adaptation uses and 2) update their acquisition and disposition strategy for publicly held properties to support implementation.
- Leverage Federal Resources: As communities work upstream to make the need for additional federal resources known to their representatives, they should also make sure to creatively leverage federal resources available at a local level. For example, communities around the US have access to an unprecedented infusion of federal funds in the form of the American Rescue Plan Act—which can be used to tackle vacant and abandoned properties in a manner that prioritizes climate resiliency—and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties can help communities realize climate adaptation goals, but the most important component is input from impacted residents and local leadership. In the end, climate adaptation is not about what’s best for a property or structure—but what is best for people and a community.
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