SGA partners with Lincoln Institute on climate-informed zoning project

Norfolk, VA skyline. Image by Andrew Cooper, photographer for the City of Norfolk.

In partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Smart Growth America (SGA) is eager to begin a new research project that will analyze the fiscal impacts of climate-informed zoning policy in Norfolk, Virginia, a community already experiencing the damaging impacts of climate change, including flooding.  Alongside a comprehensive scan of peer cities’ climate-informed  zoning approaches, SGA will consider how those approaches and land use policy can affect housing affordability, fiscal budgets, and equitable development objectives as well as highlight best practices to help coastal communities better prepare for future flooding and other climate change hazards.

The impacts of climate change present an urgent threat to coastal communities

According to NOAA’s 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report, sea levels across the United States could rise by up to a foot in the next three decades. Damaging flooding could occur ten times more frequently than it does currently in coastal areas, putting people and property at risk and presenting urgent health and economic development consequences.

Zoning, a community’s legally enforceable regulations that prescribe how land is used, offers an important tool to redirect development out of harm’s way and to better prepare future development for climate impacts. Many cities including San Francisco, New York City, and Boston have already turned to land use as a mechanism to protect residents and businesses from the future impacts of climate change, including flooding, extreme heat and wildfires. However, using climate projections to inform zoning is not yet standard practice, despite the reality that new development is likely to be in place for decades.

Norfolk, a city shaped by water

The coastal city of Norfolk, Virginia is one of the first cities nationally to formally incorporate flood resilience and adaptation measures into their zoning regulations. Norfolk’s shoreline is inextricably linked to the community’s culture, civic life, and sense of identity, but the city’s coastal location also presents risk: Norfolk is among the most vulnerable communities to sea level rise in the U.S., and regularly experiences extreme floodingthat has damaged homes and local businesses.

“We know that zoning and other climate adaptation measures can have a significant impact on property values and municipal budgets, but this study will provide one of the most in-depth looks at these dynamics in a specific place to date. We hope the findings will help Norfolk and other cities enact effective and equitable policies to deal with sea level rise and other climate change impacts.” — Amy Cotter

Recognizing the importance of mitigating these future impacts, the City of Norfolk devised land use policies that address flood vulnerability and preparedness.  The two plans—one short-term plan called plaNorfolk 2030 and the other long-range plan called Vision 2100—are visionary examples of how a community can modify its zoning regulations to adopt a more climate conscious and sustainable land use practice. However, quantitative research does not yet exist on how these new policies have impacted property values, municipal finances, and gentrification or displacement. As low-income households are disproportionately impacted by climate change, it is critical that policymakers understand how regulatory changes can create ripple effects related to housing access and determine measures that can be put in place to both protect future housing stock and affordability.

Exploring the connections between climate-informed zoning and housing dynamics

Smart Growth America (SGA) is excited to announce a collaborative project with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to analyze the fiscal impacts of Norfolk’s climate-informed zoning. With support from the City of Norfolk, SGA staff will complete an economic impact assessment of residential property values and a comprehensive policy scan of peer cities who have incorporated resilience into their city plans and land use policies. This work will both shed light on best practices in incorporating climate projections into zoning and land use policy, and help other cities at risk of flooding understand how climate-informed policy may impact housing affordability and other equitable development considerations.

“We look forward to assisting Smart Growth America in taking a closer look into the economic impacts of these initiatives and considering policy next steps based on the findings. We note that we already have a strong working relationship with SGA because of the City’s participation in SGA’s National Opportunity Zones Academy in 2020 and 2021.”– Kyle Spencer, City of Norfolk’s Deputy Chief Resilience Officer

To complete this project, SGA’s economic development and land use and development staff will analyze historic and recent trends in property values in different zoned areas of the city, and will use a quantitative methodology to determine whether climate-informed  zoning in Norfolk has influenced home values and other fiscal assets. Coinciding with the quantitative analysis, SGA staff will also offer recommendations, considerations, and next steps so policymakers in other cities can adopt climate-informed zoning in their own city plans.

Of the lessons learned in the Norfolk economic study and national policy scan, SGA will highlight best practices and approaches that will lead to more sustainable and equitable outcomes. Given that low income communities and communities of color are more vulnerable to flooding and other climate change impacts, this study will familiarize planners and interested community members with climate-conscious zoning and the tools and mechanisms to incorporate these strategies into their own communities  with a focus on equity and affordability. The final report will be publicly available for communities across the country to reference and help guide their own city’s policy for more climate-informed zoning.

If you’re interested in keeping up with the project, subscribe to the Smart Growth America mailing list.


To nominate a project or practitioner for the research team’s consideration, email [email protected].

Climate Change