We all know the story: tired of high housing costs and wanting space after being stuck inside during lockdown, many folks left their small urban housing situation for a bigger house farther out. It’s an understandable desire, and when work no longer requires one to be in a physical office, the dream of living somewhere with more space for less money becomes a siren’s call. Reports of migration out of cities into outlying towns and smaller, rural places came early on during the pandemic and have continued. Anecdotal and hard evidence tells of rapidly rising housing costs in smaller towns and cities in the state while wages remain stagnant, suggesting a major demographic shift with climate and equity implications playing out across California.
In October 2022, Smart Growth California hosted a webinar, “Beyond City Limits: How evolving migration patterns can reshape the state and promote or harm the state’s climate progress.” Funders met with field leaders and government officials to process the fast-changing dynamics in the state and the growing pressures on outlying cities and rural communities. What do these pressures mean for housing affordability, jobs, wildfire, and other climate risks, public health, infrastructure, and democracy? And how can Smart Growth California funders play a role in supporting healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities for California’s smaller towns and cities?
Compounding Climate Challenges
Most of the places that are seeing an increase in population are in or adjacent to the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the area where structures and other human development meet undeveloped wildland and are therefore at greater risk of wildfire. Eleven million Californians already call the WUI home, making up 32% of the housing units in the state. While lower housing costs and/or access to natural beauty tend to be the main reasons people move to these areas, the WUI is not widely set up to handle the influx of people, effectively putting property, the environment, and lives at risk. Many rural communities do not currently have the capacity for advanced planning that would allow them to improve their ability to handle the influx as well as mitigate risks.
We’ve witnessed catastrophic and tragic consequences as a result of wildfires in regions unprepared to respond. Take for instance Greenville, an unincorporated community in Plumas County that was wiped off the map due to wildfire destruction in 2021. The inability to protect the city was largely due to the constraint of not having enough housing for firefighters to use while fighting the fire.
This scenario points to another set of related issues that California residents are already familiar with: labor shortages and housing availability/cost. While housing stock plummets and prices escalate due to newcomers and short-term rentals, small businesses in these subregions cannot provide employees with pay competitive enough to support the rising cost of living. According to Steve Frisch of the Sierra Business Council, business owners now identify housing availability as the biggest impediment to their business, whereas ten years ago the biggest obstacles would have been accessing capital or regulatory policy.
While wildfire is the most pronounced danger in most of the places where people are migrating, other climate risks are present as well. For example, there is an expected 400% increase in the number of days of extreme heat, and these weather events are capable of killing more people than a wildfire. The combined climate risks of wildfire and extreme heat beg us to re-evaluate how we are (or aren’t) designing communities as resilient systems.
As California communities become more dispersed, one must also wonder how transportation infrastructure will support the movement of people. Sarah Cardona from Greenbelt Alliance reminded us that forty percent of greenhouse gases come from the transportation sector, and sprawl puts pressure on natural resources as well as the character of these communities. Sprawl displaces populations and makes it hard for communities to sustain their vibrancy when they’re spending excessive time in the car. How, we wondered together, might these growing small communities develop into “micropolitan” communities that provide affordable, walkable neighborhoods with access to resources and protect people and the planet?
Our speakers reminded us that at the heart of any solution are the people and communities themselves. Saharnaz Mirzazad from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research called for a need to invest in social infrastructure. Otherwise, she said, state planning processes will be too top-down and ineffective. Centering social infrastructure is also needed in thinking about public spending that is coming from the state and federal government: “[we] cannot deploy billions of dollars of infrastructure without spending millions in advance to have that meaningful infrastructure [engagement].” Government and philanthropy, she said, tend to work in silos, but people on the ground do not.
In addition, Kaying Hang from the Sierra Health Foundation, who co-chairs Smart Growth California’s Statewide Steering Committee, encouraged us to remember that solutions must also be targeted to each community since a small community like Davis varies greatly from Tahoe which varies from small rural places. Folks working to advance climate-forward planning policies are experiencing the tension that the climate crisis is urgent and that meaningful engagement and partnerships take time. Urgency and patient persistence must find a way to move ahead in action by developing a clear vision that people can work towards together.
Tangible solutions include:
- Centering nature-based solutions in forest management, including a well-managed landscape, indigenous cultural burning, and forest management practices (such as thinning) that reduce the scale and intensity of fire while creating jobs for local people.
- Providing community assets that promote resilience, such as greenbelts, shaded fuel breaks, and parks.
- Offering crisis-response infrastructure, such as resilience centers where livestock can go in a fire event, a place to house firefighters, centers for cooling during extreme heat events, and places for warmth during extremely cold weather.
- Increasing the number of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), small multi-family housing, and commercial mixed-use in the inward rings of urbanized areas to accommodate population shifts.
- Connecting communities through non-motorized transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create mobility.
As funders and field leaders look to advance solutions in these smaller communities, the divided political landscape is not to be ignored. Traditional messages around climate solutions may not resonate, but instead a focus on jobs, economic development, and increased efficiencies. Once folks see the benefits to their communities, they will be mobilized to keep it moving.
But beyond messaging, there must be a recognition that when communities have no hope, they live in fear, and fear cultivates ripe fodder for polarization and radicalization. With only 7% of philanthropic dollars going to rural communities, while 1 in 5 Americans live in these same spaces, it is no wonder many residents feel underinvested and forgotten. “Our job,” said Steve Frisch, “is to give them hope. That is a high bar, but it is doable.”
Thank you to our esteemed speakers: Saharnaz Mirzazad, Strategic Growth Council; Sarah Cardona, Greenbelt Alliance; Steve Frisch, Sierra Business Council; and thank you to our moderators for guiding this conversation: Mark Valentine, ReFrame It Consulting; and Kaying Hang, Sierra Health Foundation.