Go Midwest, Young Man

10 minute read

Jake Via, a 39-year-old who has lived everywhere from Brazil and Seattle to Sun Valley, Idaho, and Austin, Texas, calls Milwaukee “the greatest city on earth.” And he’s serious.

When Via and his wife Anabel planned to relocate from Salt Lake City in 2021, they made an extensive list of cities, and they are grateful that they ended up in Milwaukee instead of other cities they considered like Charlotte, Pittsburgh, or Phoenix, where his parents live.

One reason is that Via says his “climate anxiety” has been growing while he’s lived in the American West, in cities running out of water and whose air is frequently polluted by wildfire smoke or smog. When an earthquake struck Salt Lake City in March of 2020, Via and his wife, who grew up in Mexico City, decided they’d had enough, and embarked on a search for a place to settle where they wouldn’t have to worry about water or earthquakes or fires. Milwaukee ranked highly because it’s relatively immune to natural disasters, has access to a huge body of freshwater—Lake Michigan—has affordable houses for sale, and is diverse, which was important to the mixed-race couple.

Now that they've moved, Via loves not having to worry about running out of water, not having to water his lawn because of Milwaukee's frequent rains, and being able to keep his window open for a good chunk of the year because he doesn't need air conditioning.

Via knows most people still aren’t considering the climate when they move—states beset with blistering heat and hurricanes like Arizona and Florida are still gaining population, fast. But “I can’t wrap my head around not considering factors like, is there going to be water to drink in 30 years,” he says. “Or what’s going to be the average outdoor temperature? Or is the local government making the changes needed to protect the things needed for human life?”

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A solution to declining populations

For decades, the Midwest has been a region left behind as manufacturing and other jobs dried up. Milwaukee County’s population has shrunk 12.3% in the last 50 years. Illinois has lost more than 2 million people since 2009. And while sunbelt states like Florida and Texas grew between 2020 and 2022, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio all lost population, according to the Council of State Governments.

But some Midwestern leaders see their resilience to climate change as one means of reversing this decline. They’re putting their immunity from severe weather front and center, investing in making their cities more sustainable, and not shying away from the idea they can attract new residents like Via who are concerned about the climate.

“As the climate continues to change and people make decisions about where they will move as individuals or where they will relocate or start businesses, folks will consider—do we want do it in a place that’s more likely to see intense hurricanes and storms year over year, a place that has earthquakes constantly, a place where it is unbearable to go outside for weeks or months?” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson says. “Or do they want to do it in a place that’s more insulated from these things, like Milwaukee.”

Similarly, the Citizens’ Research Council, a public policy group in Michigan, recently published a report suggesting that climate migrants were one potential solution to the state’s declining population. Though Michigan has not historically prioritized its environment, the group argues, instead of putting industry first, focusing on natural resources could attract new residents and investments.

Luring people to the Midwest will be a tall order—the region has been losing population for decades for reasons that are not changing overnight, including cold winters, lack of good jobs, and, in some states, high taxes. Leaders selling their locations as a safe place from climate change may not sway many people who are just looking for a warm and affordable place to live; 86% of the 50 zip codes that have seen the largest increase in new residents since 2020 were in Texas, Florida, and Arizona.

Still, just about every list of the “best cities for climate change” include many Midwestern cities; Architectural Digest has Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio, in its top 10; Policygenius, an insurance platform, has Milwaukee, Columbus, and Minneapolis on its list. The top 10 list put together by Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Tulane University, almost exclusively consists of Midwest and Rust Belt cities, including Detroit, Duluth, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Buffalo, and Rochester in New York. Those aren’t the only cities that will benefit, Keenan says; many other places are benefiting from a change in preferences “but in general, people will be moving north and east.”

Of course, climate change is not the only reason people pick where to live—people also seek job opportunities and more affordable housing. Today, many young people are also looking for places that are affordable and that have embraced the kind of urban planning that makes it easy to walk or bike around town, says Keenan. Minneapolis, for instance, has transit-oriented development and mixed-income housing. East Lansing, Mich., has urban density, which is more climate-friendly than places where you have to get in your car to go anywhere. “A lot of these things were done in the name of sustainability and better urban planning and mitigating carbon footprint, but they’ve also been financially successful” in that they attracted new businesses and residents, he says.

A priority for business

But climate change is an increasingly important consideration for businesses, according to the Site Selectors Guild, an association for consultants who help companies choose where to locate. Though factors like workforce availability and risk management are currently high among reasons that companies choose a certain place to locate, site selectors surveyed said that climate change, environment and sustainability would be the top motivator by 2032, according to the State of Site Selection 2022.  

Midwestern cities and states that have long seen nothing but people leaving are seizing on the opportunity to try and attract new residents and businesses. “Businesses in the Milwaukee region face a low risk of natural disasters, decreasing the risk to people and buildings,” brags Choose Milwaukee, a website trying to attract businesses to the region sponsored by a regional economic development group. Buffalo will be “a climate refuge,” Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said in his 2019 State of the City address; the city has since appointed a climate action manager to lessen the city’s carbon footprint and prepare it for climate change. Michigan’s economic development website makes no secret that the state is “Ranked No. 1 Best for Climate Change” 

Milwaukee has portrayed itself as free from natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, including on a PowerPoint it shows businesses considering relocating there, says Jim Paetsch, executive director of Milwaukee 7, the economic development group. It used to be that people would laugh when they saw the slide and ask why he didn’t include locusts or other Biblical plagues. “Nobody laughs anymore,” he says.

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Indeed, the first GOP debate was held in Milwaukee, and the party also chose the city for its nominating convention in 2024—Mayor Johnson says the city reminded the GOP that having a convention in Florida in the summer would be extremely hot and sticky, a strategy that appears to have worked. The 2020 Democratic National Convention was also held in Milwaukee.

The signs these campaigns are working are currently more anecdotal than anything else. Johnson, the Milwaukee mayor, says he often hears from local real estate agents that many of their clientele have relocated from the west or places more prone to natural disasters. Intel chose the Columbus, Ohio region in January 2022 to invest $20 billion on at least two leading-edge chip facilities to onshore production; the company will become the area’s largest water user. The number of data centers—the huge buildings housing servers and help keep the Internet running—has been growing more quickly in the Midwest because of the relatively low cost of real estate, availability of power, and low level of risk from natural disasters, says John Dinsdale, chief analyst at Synergy Research Group.

Population-wise, all that can really be said is that population losses are slowing in some Midwestern cities, including Milwaukee and Toledo, Ohio; some Midwestern cities, including Duluth, Minn., and Columbus, added population between July 2021 and 2022, according to data compiled by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “The pandemic had a huge impact on migration patterns and the 2021-2022 data provide a hint of where and how revival will occur,” he says.

Weather and affordability played a big role in Dianne Minardi and Dan Constable’s decision to move to Milwaukee from Atlanta. The couple, who both work remotely in higher education, had lived in Las Cruces, N.M., where it got so hot they would have to wake up at 6 am to walk their dog, and where there was always a fear of running out of water. When they moved to Atlanta, they thought they might stay there, but they quickly realized that they were nearly priced out of the market. Minardi also didn’t love the humidity and heat. “I just wanted to move somewhere where I can afford to live and the temperature is not going to force me to move again in my lifetime,” she says.

Since they are both from Ohio, they looked into the Midwest and wanted a walkable city where they could have a lot of space to garden. A friend told them about Milwaukee and they bought a house over FaceTime, never having visited the city. They moved in January 2023 and love their house and neighborhood, a few short blocks from Lake Michigan, as well as the food scene and general friendliness of the city. Minardi says she’s glad they bought when they did. “My biggest concern was that everyone would move here and it would get too expensive for us to,” she says.

Investing in green initiatives

For many Midwestern leaders, the hint of some reversal of population decline is enough to suggest that they need to invest more in sustainability, walkability, and the type of projects that will attract new residents. Milwaukee’s Mayor Johnson, for instance, wants to build a protected bike lane network across the city. Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has unveiled plans to make Michigan generate all of its electricity from solar, wind, and other carbon-free sources by 2035.  

“I don’t think we can just say, as a state, ‘The south is going to boil and we can just rest and people will come here,’” Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. “We have to get the rest of our ducks in a row, so to speak, try to be better at trying to attract more companies.”

Indeed, for Via and some other Midwestern migrants, the fact that some Midwestern local governments appear invested in preparing for climate change is appealing. Milwaukee is trying to remove highways and make its downtown more walkable, he says, while places like Salt Lake City and Phoenix seem to be ignoring the challenges that lay ahead. “I was tired of living in places that made sense when there was 100,000 people living there but that no longer made sense when there were millions of people—and nobody talking about it or doing anything about it.”

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