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Mindful Uprooting: Environmental Considerations When Relocating

Oh, the places you'll go! When relocating during COVID-19 or otherwise, environmental factors are crucial to keep in mind.

Written by
Sofia Liszka

Travel plans are still in limbo for many amidst the continued spread of the coronavirus and evolving geographic restrictions. During this time, some have opted for road trips and more localized exploration to break up extended time at home. 

Without the routine changes of scenery that previously defined our schedules, the pandemic has prompted a migration of sorts: why not hit the road and plant roots in a new city? Environmental factors, like the wildland-urban interface and proximity to both natural disasters and outdoor recreation, complicate this potential solution to remote work and our new reality in a post-pandemic world. 

Human Forces on Relocation

National and global migration trends during COVID-19 are both intriguing and well-documented. In the United States, job hunters and others reevaluating living expenses have gravitated towards relocation hotspots in states like Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, Florida and Colorado. 

This emerging data comes alongside relocation shifts within families. In fact, a groundbreaking July 2020 study by the Pew Research Center found that over a fifth of U.S. adults have relocated or know someone who has moved during the pandemic. Two months after its publication, the entity updated its findings, stating that 52% of young adults between ages 18 and 29 are living with their parents during 2020. According to this second report, these levels are comparable to the Great Depression era.

Such shifts are influenced in part by employers and city governments, for relocation can be used as an incentive. Last month, NPR reported efforts underway in Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and Iowa to attract workers, grow and diversify neighborhoods, and boost social climates. Some cities in these states are offering thousands of dollars to prospective residents who relocate there for remote work. At the corporate level, relocation is a potential consequence of business expansion, during or sans pandemic times.

Framing Housing as an Investment

Relocating to a less populated, congested, or expensive area evokes new trade-offs for consumers. There is an inherent tension that accompanies a closer proximity to nature. Without a comprehensive regard for one’s surroundings, humans can overstep the implicit boundaries between development ventures and uninhabited terrain.  

For consumers that wish to stand for social and environmental good, housing can be framed as an investment. Amidst the ongoing movement to ‘green your finances,’ the purchases you make on products to fill a home’s spaces are important, too. 

With regards to homeownership, some maintain that “owning a property is the investment side of the equation, but living there is a form of consumption.” This categorization offers a market-based perspective; however, consumption for a home can be seen as investment in the sense that the structure and its contents are an accumulation of intentional purchases. It’s in your power to thoughtfully choose items that will endure your time in a home as best as possible. Some products may even travel with you to the next place you live.

The decision to build a home implicates construction into consumer decision-making. For buyers and renters of existing housing, there is also an opportunity to weigh environmental trade-offs, even if you aren’t picking the plot of land to build on or the materials your home is made from. When a home’s location has already been determined, that site still represents a choice to agree with or pass on. 

Defining the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI)

To elaborate on the importance of location, a vital development concept is that of the wildland-urban interface, or WUI. As put by the U.S. Fire Administration, the WUI is “the line, area, or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetation fuels.” The term has particular relevance with respect to wildfires, though this human-vegetation boundary can be found with the variety of natural hazards that we face.

  • Geophysical: earthquake, landslide, volcanic activity, sinkhole, tsunami
  • Hydrological: flood, avalanche 
  • Climatological: drought, wildfire, extreme heat or cold
  • Meteorological: tornado, hurricane, wind, thunderstorm, electrical storm, winter storm
  • Biological: epidemic, pandemic, animal and insect disease outbreak

Many states, with California as a prominent example, grapple with this uncertain dynamic between development and nature’s course. In the 2020 State of the Global Climate Report by the World Meteorological Organization, property damage, productivity loss, and loss of life are listed as effects of natural disasters that communities face. These effects occur throughout the globe regardless of a nation’s standard of living and place on the development spectrum.

Last month, Headwaters Economics in the state of Montana used the WUI to analyze the statewide increase in homes burned by wildfires. The team behind the study noted that this damage “reflects the social and economic toll of wildfires better than the number of acres burned.” Social and economic consequences apply to all natural hazards, so take the time to investigate the hazards most relevant to your relocation destination. Many cities and communities also have resources dedicated to localized preparation and adaptation strategies.

For further examples on how the WUI is mapped in the United States, check out The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Silvis Lab national interactive visualization tool and Colorado State University’s state map

Understand the Risks for Natural Disaster Occurrences

The lasting damage caused by exacerbating natural disasters is a major environmental consideration when electing to relocate. Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published its National Risk Index that contains, amongst other research, calculations of natural disaster risks for counties nationwide. FEMA’s vulnerability assessment is a comprehensive tool for relevant stakeholders. It includes implications for residents, developers, insurance agencies, and governments alike.

The National Risk Index contains a mapping tab with variables that users can overlay on the nationwide map: expected annual loss, social vulnerability, and community resilience. These factors relate environmental justice concepts to your location on a map. Whether it be hurricane season, annual wildfire season, or something else, the phenomena of natural disasters– scientific in their presence but social in terms of their effects– are worth learning about and discussing

To fuse natural disasters with a relocation decision, the potential financial impact of these events on you and your place of residence is clear. Insurance agencies help foot the bill for natural disasters. As reported by Reuters last month, insurance company Swiss Re estimated that there were $76 billion in insured losses from 2020 natural disasters, an amount 40% higher than 2019’s total of $54 billion. 

Conscious Moving is Important: Know Before You Go

The environment plays a bigger part in your future than you might realize, especially when the ups and downs of relocation– navigating a new neighborhood, house hunting, onboarding, and more– occupy your mind. 

Environmental factors, like the wildland-urban interface and natural disaster risks, affect human migration patterns and our ability to treat housing as an investment. A pandemic may bring the environmental considerations of relocation to light, but these considerations are persistent and can help guide decision-making. 

Wishing you safe and happy travels if you choose to relocate when the winds of change (during the pandemic or otherwise) blow your way!