Where should we live in the US — with little kids and climate change?
January 3, 2020 3:28 PM   Subscribe

So! It's time for another "where to live" question! We can live anywhere in the US and are primarily concerned about the climate crisis, and how to best build resiliency for what's to come, without going full "prepper." We want to create the best possible life for our kids, so we're trying to plan 10, 20, even 30 years out (to the extent that's even possible). Small town? Farm? Big City? North of the whatever-paralell? Where should we build a life!

We'd specifically love ideas about small towns that might work!

— We can work from anywhere. We want to take advantage of lower home prices since we don't have to live in a major metropolitan area like SF or NY.
— We are deeply concerned about climate change.
— We would love a strong local community we can help be a big part of!
— We have two preschool aged children, and want to set them up for great education and a stable childhood.
— Ideally would be within a day's train travel to a major city like New York, Boston, Seattle, LA, etc. where we could strengthen our business work with connections, hiring, partnerships, etc.
— We want to switch to EVs, biking and other low emissions transit. Even if there's not much infastructure, we want to make it work.
— We probably will stop flying. Usable train system is a plus!
— Family ties in Pacific Northwest and Western Pennsylvania
— Currently in SoCal and we've kind of fallen in love with the weather here, but are starting to fear it's not a good long term choice because of the state's climate future.

So far, we've had our eyes on New England (the Upper Valley region of Vermont, mostly or Berkshires), the Pacific Northwest, and the area around Pittsburgh.

What good little towns and places should we be taking a look at?
posted by yearly to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
In terms of the climate, I'm interested in Portland, Maine and possibly Providence. My concern with the Pacific Northwest is increasing wildfires (and an increase in extreme heat in the summer).
posted by pinochiette at 3:49 PM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

One consideration: living in a cold climate like Vermont or Pittsburgh uses way more energy than living in a milder area, because of the demand for heating.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 3:52 PM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I think there's a case to be made that cities are better for low impact living. Suburbs are big contributors to climate change (all the driving!). And cities have communities.

Is Canada an option? Vancouver, BC is great. Expensive, but think about apartment living.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:53 PM on January 3, 2020 [5 favorites]

You want Portland
posted by Freedomboy at 4:03 PM on January 3, 2020

Not looking for suggestions on where to have a low carbon footprint, assume we'll take care of that ourselves. Looking for suggestions more on habitability.
posted by yearly at 4:05 PM on January 3, 2020

You seem to have unspoken two goals. The first is to give your own family a comfortable and safe life. The second is to minimize your own family's impact on the climate. Because of the way things are in the US, they are unfortunately kind of incompatible, and you need to do some thinking about which is more important to you.

If you want to reduce your own impact on the climate, which it sounds like you do, and you're stuck in the US, then you should live in a large, dense, amenity-rich city, not in a small town. This will allow you to get rid of your cars (EVs will not get us to our climate goals) and reduce the carbon-intensive economic activity required to support people who choose to live first world lifestyles in small American towns and suburban sprawl (even the cute towns with farmers' markets and Subaru drivers and a private liberal arts college).

Staying in southern California but getting yourself to the transit rich, significantly cooler west side of Los Angeles might be a good move. On your 30 year timescale though, the best thing your can do for the planet is move to New York City.

(I just saw your reply. Feel free to flag this post if you think it's off-topic. But Like I say, I don't think you can separate habitability and your own footprint so easily, even in an AskMe thought experiment, since one directly impacts your ability to control the other.)
posted by caek at 4:07 PM on January 3, 2020 [20 favorites]

Chicago has a lot of good qualities. However, you will need to contribute to Chicago to help keep it good. There are some problems that are mainly fiscal and political -- these are difficult in that they are people problems, but the effort is worth it. Just don't assume other people are going to take care of it, or that you have years after you move to start helping with them. The time for engagement and real work is pretty much now.

To be honest, I'm much more interested in helping others if they are interested in _being helped_ to have a smaller environmental impact :)
posted by amtho at 4:39 PM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Buffalo. Low home prices, strong community (that’s warm and welcoming to outsiders!), transit to NYC, proximity to another global city (Toronto), nice neighborhoods that are fairly walkable/bikeable, and not far from PA. The big problem would be the weather, but if you’re ok with Vermont or Pittsburgh, you’ll be ok with Buffalo.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:18 PM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Great Lakes region will have water when the rest of the world doesn’t.
posted by oceano at 5:36 PM on January 3, 2020 [14 favorites]

Yeah, something like Michigan or Ohio were the first places that came to my mind. You'll have water, protection from rising sea levels, no active fault lines or volcanoes. No fire ants or killer bees either I think. You will get some cold in the winter but nothing too bad. Buffalo would work too but the snow can get pretty bad there.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:46 PM on January 3, 2020

I had similar considerations and chose a small town less than three miles from a small city in upstate New York. The town itself is walkable (and on a bus line) and the city is an easy bike ride away. There is some local food infrastructure and, in the case of a long emergency, great regional ability to ramp that up. My yard is big enough for significant gardening, but I have more neighbors to build community with than I would in a rural area. We have plenty of water, no wildfires, not on a major fault line or a major storm zone, and are not too close to a rising coastline. The state government is liberal and tries to take care of people in poverty moreso than many states. It's easy to get to NYC, Boston, or Montreal, and the train station is five miles away.
posted by metasarah at 6:01 PM on January 3, 2020 [4 favorites]

caek got it right first time. Choosing to live otherwise almost always goes completely against your stated objective.
posted by turkeyphant at 7:15 PM on January 3, 2020

Vermont definitely seems like it could be a good choice. It's a great place to become part of a community and shouldn't be hit too hard by climate change. A few cautions, though:

-- Bike transportation is only feasible for about half the year.

-- You may hate the weather. I'm sure you realize the winters are cold and snowy but you may not realize how little sunshine there is. It can be hard on some people.

-- If you want the option of reasonably-priced state colleges for your kids, you might want to pick a different state. University of Vermont is a good school but not very affordable. It's actually cheaper for a Vermont resident to pay out-of-state tuition at a state university in New York than to pay in-state tuition at UVM. There are also some state colleges, but they're very small and unimpressive.

Ithaca, NY is a lovely place, but it has similar weather issues and lacks train access. You might also think about Corning or Albany (or smaller towns in those areas.) If you're considering a larger city, I think Columbus, Ohio is a rather nice one.
posted by Redstart at 8:37 PM on January 3, 2020

Have you considered Cleveland, Ohio? Local public transit ranges from "sadly inconvenient" to "good" depending on neighborhood, so you'd want to check that before you buy. It has an Amtrak station and is reasonably well served by interstate bus companies. The terrain is good for biking - not mind-numbingly flat, but rarely steep.

Home prices are *way* cheaper than on the coasts.

The Cleveland Orchestra is excellent! Arts in general are big there and if your kids are arty or sciencey there are lots of activities for them. And if you are arty or sciencey, there are lots of activities for you!

You didn't mention this aspect, but there is a serious history of redlining in Cleveland and many areas are still pretty much all-white or all-black; however, there are racially diverse neighborhoods too (and have been for a long time).

As others here have mentioned, being on the Great Lakes may turn out to be a good thing.

In some ways it's not unlike Pittsburgh (which I gather you've spent some time in) but the biking's way easier and there's a big lake.
posted by inexorably_forward at 9:44 PM on January 3, 2020

Milwaukee! Great Lakes region is supposed to weather climate change well. Affordable city, pretty good cultural options, and 2 hour drive from Chicago. Being by Lake Michigan is nice. I guess the winter is the downside and a constraint on biking, and public transit could be better though I've always heard the bus system is actually pretty good.

It is true that there are a lot of fires in the PNW. The Cascadia earthquake has a 1/3 chance of happening in the next 50 years as well and would destroy a lot of things, so there's that as well even though it's not climate change related.
posted by knownfossils at 12:53 AM on January 4, 2020

My partner and I went through the same process over the last 18 months or so in Australia. So can't help with specific locations, but strategies.

Broadly we looked at projected rainfall over the next decades and fire / natural hazard risk, small regional towns with local food production and public transport connections and proximity to people we knew and liked. the primary reason for us wavoiding large cities was budget and the fact that we work freelance. My partner is a futurist / artist and i have a permaculture design background and a masters in climate adaptation, which both helped inform our decisions.

Once we identified our region of south west Western Australia, we looked at both blocks of land and existing houses, but found a half acre block and are getting a 70m2 house built. (About 3 months after purchasing we found out that I was expecting a very surprise and very long wanted baby - due this March. Hence working with builders rather than DIY or relocating and retrofitting an existing building).

I'm happy to go into more detail about the block selection strategy _and_ all the (over) thinking I'm doing about how to be a good parent to a child who will inherit this mess. DM if needed.

Permaculture cofounder David Holmgren's Retrosuburbia book was an essential tool for this process. Lots of design, thinking and action patterns around community and personal resilience across built, biological and behavioural fields. Most importantly at the back of the book is a 60 point Real Estate checklist that was SUPER uuseful.

NB: we are moving back to Australia after decades spent in Europe so we were looking for a new place rather than staying put or moving within our existing community and bioregion. Retrosuburbia is also excellent for making where you already live more resilient to environmental and social change.
posted by pipstar at 1:34 AM on January 4, 2020 [8 favorites]

— We have two preschool aged children, and want to set them up for great education and a stable childhood.
— Family ties in Pacific Northwest and Western Pennsylvania

Live next door (literally, if possible) to your parents or to your partner's parents -- choose the area that offers the best (biggest, tightest, sanest) family network. It makes a huge difference in a lot of ways when someone you love and trust is just a walk or bike ride away for your kids. A strong family network helps you emphasize the positive things and mitigate the negative things about living in any area.

If that leaves other family alone in the other area, start working on getting them to move to your chosen area. (If not, eventually you will end up flying back and forth to them, worrying about them, never seeing them enough, and then they die. Meh.)
posted by pracowity at 1:41 AM on January 4, 2020 [7 favorites]

I live in the Upper Valley of Vermont, and I clicked through this question because I think it may work for you. If you have any specific questions, MeMail me. A few thoughts based on others comments:

Yes, you MAY use more heat in Vermont, but almost no residences have AC, which I believe is a heavier user of energy. We have solar panels and plan to switch to heat pumps to use the excess we generate and keep propane only for backup.

Vermont currently has a program that will give people who can work remotely 10k toward moving expenses etc.
posted by terrapin at 7:32 AM on January 4, 2020

Some economists at Cal and Stanford have been doing some work around this. Here’s their study looking at US regional economic growth in the context of climate change.

And here’s their look at global regional growth.
posted by notyou at 7:43 AM on January 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Portland, Oregon has the low emissions transit, the trains to get to major cities without needing an airplane, progressive values, a community feel and is close to your family. Seems like a no-brainer.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:04 AM on January 4, 2020

Portland, Oregon has the low emissions transit, the trains to get to major cities without needing an airplane, progressive values, a community feel and is close to your family. Seems like a no-brainer.

Except: We can work from anywhere. We want to take advantage of lower home prices since we don't have to live in a major metropolitan area like SF or NY.

If you compare Portland and Pittsburgh:
Portland is 49.5% more expensive than Pittsburgh.
Portland housing costs are 192.7% more expensive than Pittsburgh housing costs.
Which makes it not as no-brainer as you might think. If they are getting the same income (working from home? writing books or software or something?) no matter where they live, they will be able to save a lot more money (or retire earlier or whatever) living in a place like Pittsburgh.
posted by pracowity at 11:57 AM on January 4, 2020

Shaker Heights, Ohio. Good schools, tons of community outreach and cohesiveness, public transportation, beautiful old neighborhood with amazing architecture, proximity to stellar art museums and the Cleveland Orchestra, minutes to many parks and within 30 minutes of hiking and mountain biking in the Chagrin Valley, local produce in the summer, tons of community gardens and plenty of yard space for your own garden generally and most especially very affordable compared to the coasts.
posted by waving at 7:19 PM on January 4, 2020

We live in the Hudson Valley (Newburgh, but a lot of this applies to neighboring communities). There are cities here that can reduce some (though probably not all) of your driving needs, trains to NYC, and we're away from ocean coasts. Home prices are very affordable, especially considering proximity to NYC. Water might be an issue in the future - most of the Hudson is not good for drinking, and we are currently dealing with a PFAS crisis for our other water sources. There are issues here, but there is also a great and diverse community that is trying to deal with the variety of issues, and a lot of nice amenities even without access to the city.
posted by taltalim at 5:38 PM on January 5, 2020

I cast a very enthusiastic vote for Pittsburgh, especially if you have family there. I'm actually pretty shocked that sea level rise has not come up more in this thread.

Pittsburgh has access to abundant fresh water, it is a great city with a fascinating environmental history and lots of cultural resources, it's affordable, and it is far from coastlines which will become increasingly precarious places to live.

I live in Ohio, and cannot overstate how much living far inland with abundant water does for my peace of mind. You'll still need to be an active citizen in advocating for change - lots of heavy industry recognizes the benefits too of being inland with fresh water, and the Rust Belt has its share of water issues (just like everywhere else in the US though, to be honest).
posted by mostly vowels at 8:25 PM on January 7, 2020

Seconding all the Portland, OR, suggestions (even though the influx of residents is killing our souls). It's true that the home prices are ridiculous, but you can live in the suburbs outside a bit more feasibly, and there's light-rail access from some of those suburbs into Portland proper, as well as Amtrak access to Seattle and other major cities.

Wildfires and earthquake probability, yes. And our progressive values definitely do not equal diversity, so if you're banking on your kids being exposed to a lot of different cultures and ethnicities, you won't get a ton of that here. I think we're the whitest "big" city in the country. It's one of the things I miss most about living in New York City. But I was born and raised here, moved to NYC, and ultimately came back, so that's saying something.

It's beautiful out here, there's no shortage of ways to experience and appreciate the outdoors and the nature around us, and there's a great culture of Leave No Trace (aside from dipshit 15-year-olds throwing firecrackers into the forest). We have a bike-share program and a scooter program, lots of EV-charging locations around the state, and a great composting and recycling program. We're not perfect, but the Upper Left works harder than a lot of areas of the country on sustainability and protecting our surroundings.
posted by SweetAvenue at 10:39 AM on January 8, 2020

Yes, you MAY use more heat in Vermont, but almost no residences have AC, which I believe is a heavier user of energy.

There are plenty of variables, but one important factor is the relative temperature differential: Are you cooling from 85 degrees to 80 degrees, cooling from 100 to 68, heating from 20 to 80, heating from 65 to 70?

Here's an article that compares Minneapolis (coldest large city) to Miami (hottest large city), and concludes that that "climate control in Minneapolis is about 3.5 times as energy demanding as in Miami", which suggests "living in cold climates is more energy demanding than living in hot climates."

And a less technical review.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:53 AM on January 8, 2020

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