Planning for Migration to Create a Better City for All

January 23, 2020 — The Big Picture

We know this for a fact: the climate crisis is going to fundamentally change our world. From receding coastlines to desertification, a warming planet is already irrevocably altering our landscapes and physical geography, and destabilizing social and economic structures around the world as a result.

One of the most under-analysed aspects of the climate crisis is the hundreds of millions of people that are likely to be displaced by these various, often somewhat invisible, impacts of our changing atmosphere. Climate-driven, socio-economic “push factors” such as declining local economies, food systems collapse, increased rates of disease, and conflict all contribute to various forms of migration — from immediate, unplanned displacements to long-term resettlements of whole communities. According to World Bank researchers, we could see over 140 million people impacted by climate change globally and in a position to need to move by 2050 due to climate related impacts.


These numbers are highly uncertain, and there’s a tremendous amount of debate around them, but as for city-builders, the takeaway should be simple: more people are going to be moving than in the past, and certain cities are likely to transform greatly as a result. What does it mean for the globally privileged few who fall outside of these climate impact zones? What are the pull factors that draw migrants toward a new place to call home?

Many large, wealthy cities that are already resilient, such as Tokyo, Vancouver, Toronto, Munich, and Seattle all share common traits exhibiting a “pull” effect for migrants. And in the Global South, large metropolises near major zones of negative impacts will also face significant, circumstantial in-migration. For the wealthy cities, aside from their climate stability, these cities provide economic opportunity, established services, and relatively welcoming politics that make for an easy choice for global migrants.


What will it take for receiving cities to help newcomers and support existing residents amidst a generation of people on the move because of climate change? In 2016, Climate Migrants and Refugees Project was founded with this exact question in mind. How can we better equip cities with the tools they need to successfully respond, grow, and thrive in the wake of a global climate crisis and climate-driven migration?

On our path to finding answers to these questions, we constantly go back to the following three pillars that we think must be a part of any future climate migration and displacement framework:

  • Advocate for Cities to be at the Table
    Policy and funding for immigration and newcomer settlement mostly comes through national policy and programs, while impacts of rapid population influx are felt at the local and regional levels. By consulting with cities and other local stakeholders, we are able to identify opportunities where multilevel synergies can thrive. Whether it’s better understanding labour needs, infrastructure gaps, or service needs that prevent pathways to settlement, national policy-makers and service societies need to engage with Cities.
  • Think Big, then Think Bigger
    Global climate-induced migration demands receiving cities need to be much more ambitious and bold about resilience planning to accommodate drastic shifts in baseline needs for housing, transportation, infrastructure servicing, etc. Over the next 30 years, cities like Vancouver, neither big nor small by global standards, will need to learn how to “grow up” quickly to address the climate crisis while mitigating the impacts of climate gentrification. Our Co-Founder George has already considered how Vancouver, as an example, could consider scaling up existing ideas and practices to ensure growth that is inclusive and equitable.
  • Look for Allies and Amplify their Voices 

    The topic of climate migration exists at the nexus of various academic and professional areas of work that traditionally have not crossed paths. Who are those allies within your community? Are they other city-based networks? Social housing advocates? Transit advocates? Migrant communities themselves? Create an inventory of who they are, and start to build those bridges. By bringing people and ideas together through a different lens, we can start to identify opportunities for partnership and develop a network of stakeholders. Fostering a community of allies helps to amplify calls to action and ensures that already vulnerable populations are not drowned out.

When you really start to dig into what it means to build capacity for climate migrants, you start to realize that addressing climate-induced migration at the local level is really just about building better cities, period. It means committing to building a more resilient, inclusive, and equitable city for all in the context of a growing community. One of the greatest challenges with this is simply the pace at which we are challenged to raise our standards, and for us, that is a surmountable challenge, and one we cannot shy away from.