Sometimes small adaptations can help reduce the heat or minimize the damage. But when the risks get too high, one strategy that has to be considered is managed retreat – the purposeful movement of people, buildings and other infrastructure away from highly hazardous places.
Managed retreat is controversial, particularly in the United States, but it isn’t just about moving – it’s about adapting to change and building communities that are safer, addressing long-overlooked needs and incorporating new technologies and thoughtful design for living and working in today’s world.
Managed retreat could involve turning streets into canals in coastal cities. It could mean purchasing and demolishing flood-prone properties to create open spaces for stormwater parks that absorb heavy rains or retention ponds and pumping stations.
In some cases, managed retreat may involve building denser, more affordable housing that’s designed to stay cool, while leaving open spaces for recreation or agriculture that can also reduce heat and absorb stormwater when needed.
Managing retreat well is challenging. It affects numerous people – the residents who relocate, their neighbors who remain, and the communities where they move – and each may be affected differently. Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, relocated its flood-prone business district in the late 1970s and used the opportunity to heat the new buildings with solar energy, earning the nickname “Solar Village.” The move reinvigorated the local economy, yet while the project is hailed as a success, some residents still miss the old town. For managed retreat to be a viable strategy, relocation plans must not only help people move to safer ground but also meet their needs. This may involve a wide range of social issues, including cultural practices, affordable housing, building codes, land use, jobs, transportation and utilities.
At its simplest, managed retreat can be a lifeline for families who are tired of the emotional and financial stress of rebuilding after floods or fires, but who cannot afford to sell their home at a loss or don’t want to sell and put another family at risk.
Talking about managed retreat
Even if an individual or community decides not to retreat, thinking critically and talking openly about managed retreat can help people understand why remaining in place is important, and what risks they are willing to face in order to stay.
Maybe it is important for owners to stay because the land has been in the family for generations. That could kick-start conversations with the next generation about their goals for the land, which may include preservation but may also include changes.
Maybe a deep, emotional attachment to a community or home could make a person want to stay. Conversations could focus on moving nearby – to a new house that’s safer but still part of the community – or physically relocating the house to a safer place. It could also mean finding strategies, like life estates, that allow people to stay in their home as long as they want, but that would prevent a new family from moving in and putting their kids at risk.
If staying seems important because the local economy depends on the beach, that could start a conversation about why moving back from the beach can be the best way to save the beach and its ecosystem, to prevent walls from narrowing it and to maintain public access without homes on stilts hovering over the tide.
Thinking carefully about what parts of our lives and communities should stay the same opens space to think creatively about what parts should or could change.
A.R. Siders has received funding on related projects from The Nature Conservancy. She consults with state and local governments on planning for climate change.
Katharine Mach has received funding relevant to climate resilience through the Miami Foundation. She has consulted for local governments on planning for climate change and served in several advisory roles.