Katherine Lieberknecht: Home is where your heart is: climate change, buyout programs, and land reuse

Katherine Lieberknecht, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning  in the School of Architecture, led the Thursday, September 9 meeting of the Fellows Seminar.  Lieberknecht’s work focuses on environmental planning centered in equity. The project she presented to the Fellows examines the practice of property buyouts of climate-impacted residential areas.

Typically initiated by local governments, buyout programs pay residents of areas subject to climate events of increased intensity and frequency to relocate. The process usually focuses on the purchase of the land; residents have little or no say in how the buyouts are carried out or what happens to the land after they leave. To frame the conversation, Lieberknecht offered examples of buyout processes, including three located in Texas: the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood in Houston, and two sites in the Austin area, the Williamson Creek and Onion Creek neighborhoods.

Kashmere Gardens is a historically Black community wedged in between two railroad lines, developed under racist land use and zoning policies that allowed inadequate infrastructure and increased exposure to pollution. Affected by proximity to multiple brownfields (former industrial or commercial sites with a high probability of being contaminated), the community underwent a 25-year buyout process in which they had little input.

The Austin area neighborhoods were constructed based on faulty flood plain maps drawn up in the 1970s; homes should not have been built in the areas the neighborhoods occupied. The decision to offer buyouts came after repeated catastrophic flooding. Buyout plans for the Austin neighborhoods made an effort to incorporate the perspectives and views of people who accepted buyouts and those who stayed. However, decision-making remained siloed, and largely out of the hands of residents.

Lieberknecht’s project asks whether climate buyouts can be structured differently. Many times, buyouts occur after traumatic community events, such as catastrophic floods that include loss of life and extensive property damage and loss. Is there a way to consider the emotional ties people feel to community and land? Can the perspectives of former residents be taken into account when the land is repurposed? Is it even possible to include emotion and trauma in planning processes?  She asked the Fellows to use their own disciplinary lenses to critique what is from a planning perspective uncomplicated, but very complex from a human perspective.

Buyouts often occur in neighborhoods that, like Kashmere Gardens, are already marginal, doubly victimizing the residents. Fellows noted resonances with the relocations of Indigenous peoples. Coastal Indigenous communities in Alaska and Louisiana have been among the first to participate in “just processes” as part of climate-related relocation. Intended for groups that wish to move as a unit, this takes into consideration non-real estate values that go along with homes, such as attachment to bioregion and emotional and spiritual ties to land and people. Efforts to keep community together make an already slow process even slower.

The Louisiana communities received federal money to relocate through FEMA, but have yet to find a suitable location. The climate-related change affecting the Alaskan villages is erosion, which FEMA does not recognize as a disaster, disqualifying them for federal funds. Even relocations designed with social justice in mind can repeat painful histories. The coastal communities in Louisiana are all descendants of tribes forced to move during the Trail of Tears; the Alaskan communities were traditionally migratory groups forced into settlements.

Fellows considered the various ways the processes Lieberknecht described are named: climate retreat, migration, displacement, relocation, destruction, buy-out, resettlement, rehoming, eviction, “climigration.” She acknowledged the difficulty in finding adequate terms. Each word carries different connotations. For example, “climate retreat” invokes the notion of military or tactical defeat, and can provoke shame. The term “community” can also be contested. Who and what defines “the community” when planners and others seek input?

Struggles with language often point to the structural violence that shapes the impacts of climate change on neighborhoods, and language itself can do further violence. Lieberknecht currently works in Dove Springs, one of the neighborhoods affected by multiple Onion Creek floods. Her Dove Springs community partners don’t like the word “resilience.” To them, it implies individual responsibility for helping themselves and avoids assigning the city a role. They prefer “response” and “responsibility,” which gives them agency and the city to responsibility.

Accounting for affect—love of place and love of community—as a public policy and planning issue provides a way to address issues of belonging and disempowerment. “Retreat” can also imply moving towards something, a contemplative state before undertaking an action. Are there ways of looking at climate retreat as the possibility for rethinking larger questions around expertise and consultation? Can these conversations about dispossession shift from simply managing or mitigating harm to opportunities for challenging the status quo of property relations and perhaps discussing reparations?

Lieberknecht recognizes buyouts as an opportunity to rewrite the ways we conceptualize private property. Planners in the United States work within a system designed to uphold individual rights. Rethinking buyouts requires engaging with the complexity and legacy of private property in the United States, wrestling with how property was allocated and value capped because of segregation. She pointed to Austin’s 1928 master plan, which forcibly segregated the city along the east/west divide. In parts of Texas and many other states, no one holds clear title to land. This disproportionately affects communities of color.

Fellows asked how to undertake community-centered design without forcing people to repeat the traumas of dispossession and loss. How is damage documented and who has access to that information? Lieberknecht observed that sharing “your story” is like a tax residents must pay in order to receive city assistance. Perhaps there are ways to shift how stories are shared: a listening process in which everyone is listening to one another, rather than the planners listening and community members sharing stories.

Uncertainty about the fate of places that they valued also contributes to the distress of displaced residents. Onion Creek residents had no input into the city’s plans for their former homes post-buyout. The city combined the purchased land with land it already held to create Onion Creek Metropolitan Park. Remnants of its former use appear in photographs Lieberknecht shared with the Fellows: bits of sidewalk, lampposts, and glimpses of homes belonging to the few residents who refused the buyouts. Its indeterminacy called to mind what Marc Augé (2009) describes as “non-places,” interstitial spaces that offer no opportunity for connection with either other people or land.

Transitional justice surfaced as a possible path to more just resolutions. Originally conceived as means to address large-scale human rights abuses, it offers several options that can be adapted to a smaller scale. Compensation is one form of indemnification, but there are other options: truth reports, memorials, public recognition of people and places ravaged by environmental disasters. Lieberknecht agreed that this framework was helpful. New forms of engagement and amplified understandings of value hold promise for more equitable outcomes as more communities face the realities of climate-based relocation.

Onion Creek Metropolitan Park, 2019 City of Austin photo

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