Welcome to Leeside, the US’s First Climate Haven

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Quartz

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 1 Sep 2020

Credit: Amanda Shendruk, Tim McDonnell, Alex Ossola, Katie Palmer, Cassie Werber, David Yanofsky

Project description:

Welcome to Leeside is the collaborative centerpiece of Welcome to Green Haven, a Quartz special project about climate migration. We invented a futuristic city that receives climate migrants—and created a fictional digital museum exhibition to describe the experience and showcase the city’s history from the present until 2057.

Though neither the city of Leeside nor its characters are real, the policies its government implements and pressures the city faces are based on today’s research and early thinking about what a future climate haven will face. We are including supplemental links to other components of the project to show the connection.

Impact reached:

Leeside was the story most read by Quartz members the week it was published—a testament to the intrigue of the project. The piece also made waves beyond the confines of Quartz: 

  • Vox loved the piece and proposed working together with our Amanda Shendruk to create an audio version of the project in Podcast form. Says Amanda: “I worked with the team at Today, Explained. They used much of the material from Leeside, and also included some of their own ideas. They kind of built off the world I created, which was really neat.”
  • Amanda also was asked to moderate a panel at a climate migration conference called Higher Ground, hosted by New Cities.
  • She also was interviewed by a researcher from the Futures Research Centre at University of Turku in Finland, which wants to include the piece in its masters program course. The researcher praised Leeside as an “example of how to tell a story about a scenario in a convincing way.”

Techniques/technologies used:

We created a number of artifacts featured in the exhibit—posters, maps, videos, and an audio recording of a speech from Leeside’s mayor—to spotlight the emotions and travails of the city’s residents, politicians, and activists. We employed a variety of tools and technologies to do this.

  • We used CSS/HTML/Javascript to build the website for the museum exhibit.
  • We used CSS/HTML/Javascript to create the map of incoming migrants in different areas in the US, based on data from Dilkina et a. (2020)
  • We used Adobe Illustrator for much of the illustrations and visuals
  • We worked with the research arm of KPF (called KPFui) to build the digital twin. It was built using their own interactive city planning tool called Scout, and then we built out the interface using javascript.
  • We used Garageband to record the audio of the Leeside mayor’s speech
  • And we used iMovie to edit the video for the conservative PAC ad

What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part of this project was creating something that was fake but felt real, and spoke to real issues. We are journalists, and we wanted to be able to credibly call the final product “journalism.” How do you do that, though, when even the medium you are using (in this case, a digital museum exhibit) is entirely fictional, and based on an imaginary town?

We created a piece of what we call “speculative journalism,” ensuring that everything in the piece that could be was grounded in interviews, research, and recommendations from experts. The names of the hurricanes are based on the names that would be in use that year in the future; the location of the town is based on the advice from researchers we talked with who think there’s a lot of opportunity for this kind of thing in America’s Rust Belt. Our desire for “accuracy in the imaginary” includes the interactive “digital twin” piece of the museum exhibit. The architectural agency we teamed with based their map of the city (the density, the grid, the types of houses and lots, etc.) on similar cities in the same region (such as Buffalo and Rochester, New York).

What can others learn from this project?

Our speculative journalism blends fiction and nonfiction in a unique and critical way. We took care to make clear to readers what is real and not real, but all of the information is rooted in the traditional, fact-based journalism that makes up the larger project. We hope it sets an example for other journalists interested in prospective storytelling. We also hope it is a compelling example of the kind of environmental journalism that resonates with readers. It has narrative (several narratives, actually), and interactivity, and it’s solutions-oriented, all of which were intentional to make sure readers confront climate change and engage with the implications of it, rather than scroll by another headline about it. Lastly, while many of today’s journalists already understand the power of collaboration, this is another example of it—we orchestrated contributions from all around our newsroom to bring the project to life.

Project links: