Part of the Global Green Havens exhibit, brought to you by
the Smithsonian Museum of Modern America.
It’s 2057 and no life has been untouched by the realities of a warming globe. But mere decades ago, at the dawn of the 21st century, Americans were only just waking to this truth. Rising seas, powerful storms, and raging fires were destroying their cities, rendering homes uninhabitable, and dismantling livelihoods. Residents affected by such loss began to ask, “Where will we go?” In an increasingly isolationist world, many responded, “Not here.”
But Leeside opened its doors. And after years of implementing innovative policies benefiting both the environment and the city’s residents, the United Nations inaugurated Leeside as the United States’ first Green Haven in 2035. Now, the city is recognized as a model of successful adaptation—physical, economic, and social—to a world in which cities and their communities are transformed by the millions seeking shelter from the storm.
“The first step to building a better future is to imagine it. Leeside will open its doors and fill its empty homes with fellow Americans displaced by climate change, and those in search of a safe, enriching future.”Jordan EnsoLeeside mayor, 2020-2029
In the early 2000s, Leeside residents believed their city’s greatness lay in the past. The former manufacturing center was a classic Great Lakes Rust Belt town; it grew rapidly in the early 1900s, and union jobs kept residents comfortably in the middle class. But globalization wasn’t kind to the thrumming steel plants and automobile factories supporting the city. As local industry moved overseas, people sought opportunities elsewhere. By the early 21st century, aging infrastructure and limited employment prospects meant that a third of Leeside residents lived below the poverty line. Nearly 10% of properties sat vacant.
That’s when Jordan Enso arrived. He moved to Leeside in 2017, leaving Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria forced his business offline for months. Elected mayor in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Enso recognized that Leeside’s location along the Great Lakes made the city more climate-proof than most. Its historic economic contraction and population desertion meant it had cheap real estate, leaving ample space for new residents and opportunities. Enso saw Leeside’s potential as a permanent home for Americans displaced by climate change, and imagined that, as mayor, he could leverage that to return the area to its former economic strength. He won on a platform promising to realize that future.
Enso’s tenure began with a wealth of ambition, but few funds. He assembled the city’s first scientific advisory group, implemented cost-efficient policies intended to mitigate the effects of climate change, and made low-regret decisions to invest in vulnerability mapping, and early warning systems for heat waves and flooding. Under Enso’s leadership the city adopted human-first policies, such as increased affordable housing and more funding for public education. He established bilingual Spanish-English programs, and started to transition the city center away from cars.
“Leeside wants to be the city of the future. Will anyone show up?" read the headline of a New York Times story in 2025. Though Leeside and Enso were gaining the attention of politicians, urban planners, and academics, critics argued the city wasn’t doing enough to appeal to those displaced by climate change.
In response, city council founded the Leeside Rejuvenation Committee. Part marketing agency, part nudge unit, the group worked to attract residents. It encouraged the city council to refer to Leeside as a ‘receiver,’ a term already adopted by some international cities seeing increased climate migration, and advocated for other US cities to use similar language. In 2026, the group’s first external campaign appealed to climate pioneers: those with the means to relocate for opportunities, the desire to take advantage of the post-pandemic ‘office exodus,’ and the drive to join an exciting movement.
The campaign worked. People were tempted by the prospect of cheap real estate and the opportunity to be a part of history. The city offered tax incentives for companies that chose Leeside as their headquarters; called for urban regeneration proposals to revive abandoned brownfield sites; and established Cities of the Future, a sustainability and urban planning conference that would, years later, grow to attract thousands of global attendees annually. Leeside gained significant national attention when, hoping to entice remote workers, it offered free high-speed fiber-optic internet to its entire population.
By 2028, other US cities had adopted the moniker of ‘receiver.’ Buffalo, New York; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Orlando, Florida promoted their status as havens for those escaping fires, floods, and financial instability. That year, a presidential campaign promise of high-speed rail in the northeastern US, which would more easily link Leeside to urban centers like New York, sealed the deal for many would-be climate pioneers.
By 2029, Leeside’s population had grown from 255,000 to 270,000. Most newcomers flooded into the historic community of Fiddler’s Green, a leafy neighborhood a short walk from the city center. They increased the tax base, established local businesses, and found ways to creatively utilize some of the city’s many abandoned buildings.
The influx of residents drove up house prices. In Fiddler’s Green, the cost of home ownership was higher than the city had seen in half a century, and longtime residents quickly found themselves priced out. Some left for the flood-prone lowlands on the edge of the city; the population in the poorly-connected area doubled in five years. Others sold their family homes to condo developers.
“Since they started all this haven business, normal people can’t live in our neighborhood anymore.”Shenice WalkerLeeside resident
Enso, who was by now the city’s longest-serving mayor, feared the economic segregation of Leeside’s residents. His final acts as mayor attempted to address this gentrification; in particular, he introduced an ordinance offering subsidies on low- and middle-income housing development, and increased support for public legal services and an ombudsperson.
While Leeside was struggling to fund its early receiver innovations, the United Nations was taking the first steps to establish an international framework for climate migration.
As early as 2007, international organizations and scientists published reports warning the world to prepare for the significant movement of people from at-risk communities into cities. But by 2030—after years of increasingly alarming studies from climate experts, the world's failure to avoid passing the Paris Agreement warming threshold of 1.5ºC, and the beginnings of a climate refugee crisis in countries such as Kiribati, Vietnam, and Bangladesh—there was still little international planning to tackle mass migration both within and across borders.
The UN approved the Green Haven Initiative (UNGHI) in 2031. Administered jointly by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, its Environment Programme, and the International Organization for Migration, UNGHI was designed to support cities preparing to receive climate migrants. Participating locations were provided access to infrastructure grants, support for urban planning and public awareness campaigns, and emergency assistance.
“Sometimes it’s smarter not to stay and fight. Retreat means survival.”Nadia BitarUN Secretary General, 2031
In 2035, following a lengthy application process, Leeside became the first Green Haven in North America. Like other cities that obtained this status—Mongla, Bangladesh and El Alto, Bolivia—it had to meet certain eligibility criteria. Green Havens must either be at relatively low risk of climate-related disruptions such as flooding, wildfires, storms, and extreme heat, or have invested in effective mitigation measures. They must also have sustainable access to water.
The introduction of a Green Haven on US soil was controversial. On behalf of 10 Republican-led states, the governor of Pennsylvania wrote a WeChat News op-ed condemning the move. However, Democratic president Angela Ponte, three years into her first term and behind on piloting her own FEMA-coordinated Receiver program, praised Leeside’s designation. Today, there are 19 urban centers around the world participating in the Green Haven Initiative.
When Leeside became an official Green Haven, its city council was eager for the extra funding. More and more migrants were arriving—and unlike the early climate pioneers, many of them did not come by choice.
The national conversation had started to reflect the urgency felt by coastal communities. The 2032 presidential race became known as the ‘climate election.’ In 2033, the new administration implemented initiatives to encourage Americans to move away from at-risk areas. It consolidated funding into the voluntary Safe Buyback program, encouraging owners to leave flood- and fire-prone zones by purchasing their land and houses. Participants were given credits to buy homes in any safe zone in the country, including Leeside.
Federal programs like Safe Buyback brought over 20,000 newcomers into Leeside between 2035 and 2050, increasing the city’s population to 290,000. The city established a fellowship program for new citizens in association with the University of Leeside to encourage career development in renewable energy engineering and urban agriculture. Not all arrivals came from within the US, but most did, including from Charleston, South Carolina, and Chicago, Illinois. Former residents of the Marshall Islands made up the largest group from outside US borders.
Predictions made as early as 2010 suggested 13 million people in the US would leave homes at risk of sea level rise by 2100. Worried that a rapid increase in migrants would put the city’s services and infrastructure under strain, the Leeside City Council invested in the development of a digital twin. Popular in the world’s major urban centers, detailed city replicas fed by real-time data were commonly used to test the impact of policies on social patterns and the built environment before they were implemented.
Leeside’s councilmembers used the tool to determine infrastructure upgrades, plan public transit improvements, and design for population growth. A replica of the tool, below, simulates how councillors used digital twins of their wards to work out how to house, employ, and maximize well-being for their residents and potential newcomers.
Over two decades, migrants arrived with neatly organized moving vans, tossed-together cars, and the packs on their backs. They came on trains with meager suitcases, after hours-long bus rides. Many were distraught at having to leave their homes and communities—land held by the family for generations, the houses they grew up in, the graves of their loved ones. Others left behind stubborn family members. As they arrived in Leeside, they were just some of millions in flux around the country.
“The ‘Us All’ series was one of the most successful adaptations of the nationwide “Moving Forward” campaign, which re-imagined the American Dream in the face of swelling internal migration.”Alison MarlHistorian, PennState
September 2051 resulted in tragedy greater than superstorms Katrina (2005) and Joyce (2036) combined. Three category five hurricanes—Nicholas, Odette, and Rose—made landfall in the Florida panhandle. Further up the coast, the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia was destroyed. More than 4,000 people died, and 1 million were forced to leave their homes. The media talked about a flood of “American refugees,” dubbing the event “Cruel September.”
The Green Belt Resettlement Program, created just three years before and funded through the US Internal Migration Program, jointly managed by HUD and FEMA, was put to the test. Participating cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland, and Leeside, received additional federal funding and infrastructure subsidies in exchange for taking in refugees from the storms.
Even so, the deluge of newcomers strained Leeside’s infrastructure, which was stretched to accommodate its close to 300,000 residents. The Resettlement Program was slow to authorize funding. The city council requested access to the UN’s Green Haven resilience fund, and voted to rapidly repurpose vacant commercial spaces, offer migrants residence in vacant apartments and foreclosed houses, and start construction on temporary dwellings. They used the fund to provide low-income arrivals a stipend for food and clothes, and to replace some of their possessions.
The increase in arrivals triggered tensions. Xenophobic groups like Moms for Opportunity (MO) seeded fears that the surge of newcomers meant increased crime and lost opportunities for locals. Over the week of May 13, 2052, several hundred Leesiders staged protests in front of City Hall. They chanted “Florida’s not my problem!” and held placards that said “haven for who?” and “put a cap on climigrants.”
Locals who opposed the bigotry also showed up. They felt the federal government wasn’t doing enough to help incoming migrants, and they draped a large banner across the steps of Leeside city hall that read: “The rent in utopia is too damn high!” Similar protests flared up across receiver cities in the former Rust Belt. Hostilities peaked in Buffalo, and police intervened in a violent clash, killing Michael Morales, a 20-year-old protestor who had recently migrated from Santa Barbara, California.
In Leeside, the unrest subsided when Mayor Gabriella de León, just a year into her first term, gave a speech asking residents to find peace, remember their compassion, and return to the welcoming mandate of the city.
“So when they arrive, let’s not meet them with anger. Let’s not meet them with distrust. Let’s show them what Leeside can be at its best.”Gabriella de LeónMayor of Leeside, 2052–present
In response to the demonstrations, Mayor de León bolstered migrant-friendly policies. City council established the Migrant Advisory Committee, with members appointed from newcomer communities by the mayor’s office. To give the Cruel September victims more permanent accommodations, the city developed the Migrant Revitalization program.
At the same time, the federal administration tried to ease tensions between new arrivals and longtime residents in other receivers. The First Gentleman’s national “Moving Forward” campaign appealed to citizens to welcome migrants in their communities. Receiver cities around the country were given funding to produce their own messaging, and Leeside created the now-iconic “Us All” campaign.
Now, five years after the devastation of Cruel September and the unrest that followed, Leeside continues to navigate the challenges of being a modern receiver community. Sections of the city experience periodic flooding, liberal and conservative ideals clash occasionally in the cafes, and the sewage system is in need of an overhaul. But as a model Green Haven, Leeside’s citizens are safe from the most traumatic impacts of climate change, and there is no fear their homes will be destroyed. While the city’s modern history has been at some times controversial, and at others overly idealized, it has always been focused on tomorrow. Today, many Leesiders will tell you their city’s greatness no longer lies in its industrial past, but in its innovative present, and resilient future.
Created by: Amanda Shendruk
Editorial: Tim McDonnell, Alex Ossola, Katie Palmer, Cassie Werber, David Yanofsky
Design & product: Bárbara Abbês, Emily Diamond, Noah Emrich, James Shakespeare
Special thanks to: KPFui
Mayor’s speech recorded by: Anne Quito
Illustration: Matt Chinworth
Video credit: Jaime Byrd/Shutterstock.com