Buffalo as a ‘climate refuge’? Let’s start planning for it, UB expert says

UB’s Nicholas Rajkovich offers insight on Buffalo’s spotlight as a potential climate haven

By Tessie Mar

Release Date: November 8, 2021

Portrait of Nicholas Rajkovich in a button-up shirt, standing in front of a green leafy background.
“The conversation is all about bringing people here, but what will we do to support them when they’re actually here? ”
Nicholas Rajkovich, associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In recent years, Buffalo has gained national attention from researchers and the media as a possible destination for both climate migrants and climate refugees.

These are people who have either relocated due to climate-related stressors, or who have been displaced by environmental disasters caused by climate change. Drought, flooding, sea level rise and wildfires are all extreme events associated with a warming planet.

Nicholas Rajkovich, PhD, associate professor in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, breaks down some misconceptions related to Western New York as a climate refuge. The city and region have more work to do before they can claim that title, he says.

“The larger Buffalo region needs to investigate this issue and think through the potential implications,” Rajkovich says. “The conversation is all about bringing people here, but what will we do to support them when they’re actually here?”

Rajkovich leads the Resilient Buildings Lab at UB, where he studies the impact of climate change on cities and buildings. His expertise is centered around greenhouse gas mitigation, and adaptation to climate change, with a focus on Great Lakes communities.

Places like Buffalo have been labeled potential climate refuges due to the abundant supply of freshwater, a temperate climate, available land and a relatively low cost of living.

Some Great Lakes cities, like Duluth, Minnesota, have started to discuss climate migration, tying this planning to other initiatives that address existing problems. Cities like Buffalo have the ability to do the same, and should engage in such planning, Rajkovich says.

As of now, Rajkovich is concerned that Western New York does not yet fit the description of a climate refuge and cautions against promoting this image. For example, the City of Buffalo lacks a formal plan to adapt to climate change and to build resilience in neighborhoods, Rajkovich says.

He highlights some areas of concern:

Planning in legacy cities

Buffalo is a “legacy” city, an older industrial city that has experienced sustained job and population loss over several decades. These historical trends explain the abundance of available housing, but Rajkovich says many homes are not energy efficient, or have other problems like knob-and-tube wiring and lead paint. The U.S. Census has estimated that the housing stock in Buffalo is the oldest in the United States, Rajkovich says, and the region needs a plan to address such concerns: “We need to think about programs like weatherization as not just an opportunity to reduce energy bills, but as a way to improve the quality of life for our current and future residents.” Steps like this will enable Western New York to better withstand climate impacts.

Impact on vulnerable populations

Climate change could still impact Western New York in the form of temperature extremes, changes in precipitation patterns, and other extreme events, Rajkovich says. He notes that vulnerable populations, including low-income and minority communities, are likely to be disproportionately impacted. This may exacerbate conditions like poverty and food insecurity, Rajkovich says. Other cities in the Great Lakes region, like Cleveland, Ohio, have already invested time and money to respond to these climate-related vulnerabilities, he says.

Self-reliance on locally grown products

Buffalo’s reliance on imported foods, goods and services prevents the city from being independent from climate impacts in other parts of the world, Rajkovich says. For example, much of Buffalo’s food is imported from faraway places such as California. In addition, not enough land is allocated locally for farmers to grow the amount of fruits and vegetables required for Buffalo to be self-sufficient, according to a sustainable food report prepared by the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab in the UB School of Architecture and Planning.

Water access

Rajkovich stresses that water access is another crucial factor that the region needs to consider. “Will climate migration compromise the availability and quality of drinking water for residents? These are possibilities that need to be taken into account,” he says. Though the Great Lakes system holds around 20% of the world’s surface freshwater, water insecurity is still an issue in the region. As examples, Rajkovich points to water quality problems in Flint, Michigan, harmful algal blooms in Toledo, Ohio, and the situation impacting the Tuscarora Reservation, where families have been relying on bottled water because of contamination of their groundwater.

Water-related industry

Another question surrounding water is the possibility of water-intensive companies becoming interested in the Lower Great Lakes region because of the freshwater supply. “In order for water-intensive companies to open up facilities here, we need to think through water as an equity issue first,” Rajkovich says. He notes that in Northeast Ohio, a public-private partnership is paving the way for water-centered economic growth.

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