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Cincinnati As Climate Change Haven? Some Transplants And City Officials Think So

Nick Swartsell

We've all heard the story: people streaming out of Midwestern cities for the sunnier climes and bustling activity of America's sunbelt and coastal areas.

But some experts believe the extreme effects of climate change on those regions could drive people to places like the Queen City.

Fleeing Fires And Hurricanes

A few Cincinnati residents have already landed here for just those reasons, among others.

Maggie Lawson, 39, thought she had found the place where she would build the rest of her life when she moved to Oakland 15 years ago.

Then, smoke began filling the city during wildfire seasons.

"The first really intense fire season happened about four years ago," she says. "It was horrible. You don't feel safe being outside. You don't feel safe opening your windows. You don't understand the long-term impacts that the smoke is having on you. Not to mention the stress of imagining the fire spreading to your home. I lived in the middle of the city, which put me less at risk for that, but the smoke would settle on the Bay Area for weeks."

Higher heat – California experienced its five warmest years ever recorded between 2014 and 2018, scientists say – has sparked more intense wildfire seasons in places around the Bay Area and elsewhere in the Golden State. A 2019 study by researchers from Columbia University, University of California Santa Barbara and University of Idaho suggests that the number of fires across the state has increased eight-fold since the 1970s, burning five times as much forest as it did 50 years ago. California experienced its most devastating fires on record last year.

Originally from Middletown, Lawson worked hard to establish a life and a culinary business on the West Coast. But she realized she couldn't continue to live there with the increasing wildfire seasons – especially if she wanted to live near her parents, whom she could not see subjecting to the fire seasons. 

So she moved back to Cincinnati last January, where she says the effects of climate change are milder. While she said a number of factors helped her make that decision, climate was a major one.

"The wildfires weren't getting better," she says. "They keep getting worse every year. There's an uncertainty of how long it's going to last, how bad it's going to be, and the long-term impacts on your health. It's terrifying. Climate change still impacts Ohio like every other place, but it feels less acute here because the impacts aren't quite as intense yet."

Lawson isn't the only person who has included climate in her decision to live in Cincinnati.

Wary ofincreasing heat and the mounting number of hurricanes and tropical storms in his native Florida,  David Sherman, 31, moved to Cincinnati for a job opportunity as a supply chain professional in 2013.

"I didn't want to own a home in a place with that potential risk," he says of higher temperatures and extreme weather. "That's why I left. Obviously, economic factors and the job itself were very compelling as well."

Sherman says he limited his job search to cities without major climate challenges.

"Climate was definitely a consideration in my job search," he says. "I wasn’t going to move to the Southeast, for example. I definitely wanted it to be somewhere in the Midwest or Northeast or Northwest. Those were the ideal places to go. That motivated my search. A job posting in L.A. I probably wouldn't have done."

Preparing For Climate Migration 

Ollie Kroner is the sustainability coordinator for the city of Cincinnati's Office of Environment and Sustainability. He says that office has been working to anticipate more people coming to Cincinnati as climate challenges mount in other places.

Kroner says the city began to think about the issue a few years ago after seeing maps about migrants forced out of the Mississippi River Delta by Katrina. A "few thousand" came to Ohio.

"Increasingly, demographers who track different factors in where people are going are circling our part of the country as a potential place where people will choose to relocate," he says. "It's a hypothesis that has built support over time: that Cincinnati and really the entire Great Lakes Region will be an epicenter for future relocation."

Relative affordability, lack of extreme weather and access to fresh water are reasons the region may become a climate change safe haven, Kroner says.

"The changes we anticipate here aren't nearly as devastating as the changes many parts of the world are expecting to see," he says. "We're not a coastal city that is going to see sea level rise. We're not having forest fires. We're not expecting droughts… we're expecting more water. A lot of these bigger, scarier threats that the country is facing, we're just not here."

Challenges And Opportunities

The city has some big challenges it will need to address to accommodate a potential influx of residents fleeing climate calamities. But Kroner also sees big potential for attracting new residents drawn to a city with a stable climate and a track record for taking action on climate change.

As an industrial city that once had a much higher population – Cincinnati peaked at 503,000 people in approximately 1950 – the city has the room and infrastructure to support significantly more people. And Cincinnati has embarked on high-profile efforts to reduce its impact on the environment, including greatly ramping up its solar energy production, reducing carbon emissions among some of its biggest energy users and drafting its ambitious 2018Green Cincinnati Plan.

But the city will need to ensure a much larger supply of housing, including housing affordable to low-income residents. Currently, studies suggest Hamilton County needs another 40,000 units of housing to accommodate current low-income residents.

Kroner says steps toward needed transportation improvements are also key – and some of those are coming with new funding to revampthe region's Metro bus service.

"So much of preparing for an influx of residents looks like accommodating current residents," he says.

For more on this topic, tune into Cincinnati Edition, Tuesday Feb. 2 starting at noon.

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Nick Swartsell