Making Sense of Drivers and Barriers to Managed Retreat

By: Kara Runsten, CBI Climigration Associate

Miyuki Hino’s study, “Managed Retreat as a Response to Natural Hazard Risk,” published in Nature Climate Change, provides new insights to climigration research. In it, Hino and her coauthors study 27 instances of managed retreat and create a framework for understanding drivers and barriers to climigration in a range of contexts. They find that retreat has a high likelihood of occurring in what they term “Mutual Agreement” situations, where residents feel the risk of a hazard is unbearable and the benefits of retreat spread to the broader society. I had the opportunity to chat with Hino a few days ago both about her paper and its broader implications.

Managed Retreat is a Two-Party Negotiation

During the study, the researchers discovered that managed retreat is essentially a two-party negotiation between residents and an implementing body (e.g., a government entity). Mapping the cases based on the dynamics between the two parties produced a comprehensive picture that showed unique clusters representing different types of retreat (e.g., post-disaster voluntary relocation and isolated communities seeking relocation due to coastal erosion and flooding). This simple four-quadrant conceptual model represents a bird’s-eye view framework for understanding case-specific complexities. Key findings from each quadrant include:

  • Mutual Agreement: Retreat has a high likelihood of occurring because residents feel risk is unbearable and benefits of retreat accrue to broader society. Political will to implement retreat is high and the societal cost-benefit ratio justifies retreat. This dynamic corresponds to cases of post-disaster voluntary relocation.
  • Greater Good: Retreat has a moderate likelihood of occurring because benefits of retreat accrue to broader society, but residents feel the risk is bearable. Political will to implement retreat is high, and the societal cost-benefit ratio justifies relocation. This dynamic corresponds to cases of managed realignment and perhaps also some cases of mandatory resettlement.
  • Hunkered Down: Retreat has a low likelihood of occurring because residents feel the risk is bearable and benefits of retreat accrue only to residents. Political will to implement retreat is low and the societal cost-benefit ratio does not justify relocation. Although retreat is not usually initiated in these cases, some cases of managed resettlement may exhibit this dynamic.
  • Self-Reliance: Retreat has a moderate likelihood of occurring because residents feel the risk is unbearable, but benefits of retreat accrue only to residents. Political will to implement retreat is low and the societal cost-benefit ratio does not justify relocation. This dynamic corresponds to isolated communities seeking relocation.
Image from "Managed Retreat as a Response to Natural Hazard Risk" Nature Climate Change, March 2017

Image from "Managed Retreat as a Response to Natural Hazard Risk" Nature Climate Change, March 2017

Appropriate policy methods to instigate retreat differ based on the quadrant in which a particular case is located. For example, “Greater Good” cases, where the implementing party is more excited about retreat than residents, require the government agency to develop incentives to convince residents to move. Embedding the effort to retreat in economic and community development projects is one way to attempt to change residents’ perceptions about retreat. For example, after a flash flood required relocation, a community in Australia developed an economic growth plan and strategies for incentivizing new commercial activities in the destination town. The general discourse there implied that staying in place was equivalent to being stuck in the past—moving on was the future.

Retreat can be the right choice

Informed by her research, Hino’s advice to communities experiencing repeat damage over time from coastal storms would emphasize that retreat isn’t always a negative option; there are many social, economic, and environmental reasons that can make it the right choice for people and communities. For example, the U.S. Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (categorized as “Mutual Agreement” in the model) uses government funding to purchase disaster-stricken homes from property owners who would like to reduce risks to their safety and their wallets by moving away from the coast. The properties are transformed into open space, providing a natural barrier that reduces flood risk for the rest of the community.

Local government should Stay tuneD-in and transparent

Hino also stresses that local governments should take into account residents’ perceived risks about both natural hazards and retreat when they plan for the future. Factors like the transparency of the planning process and the proposed relocation site can affect those perceptions, helping or hindering efforts to retreat.

She also highlights that an important yet understudied topic in this field are the conditions under which community members farther away from the coast feel they benefit from investments in retreat. Getting the larger community on board might expand policy options beyond buyouts of individual coastal homes.

As for buyouts, Hino points out the surprising divide between those looking at climigration through the lens of buyouts versus community relocation versus retreat. While they are slightly different points on the spectrum, she thinks there is no reason we can’t apply lessons across types. By doing that, we might find innovative ways to look at retreat in the future.

 

Kara Runsten is a Master of City Planning candidate at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning focusing on climate change adaptation, environmental dispute resolution, and stakeholder engagement.

Kara Runsten is a Master of City Planning candidate at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning focusing on climate change adaptation, environmental dispute resolution, and stakeholder engagement.