‘Managed Retreat’ from Climate Disasters Can Reinvent Cities So They’re Better for Everyone – and Avoid More Flooding, Heat and Fires

Yves here. Sadly many sound ideas never get implemented (or not much) because they require things that neoliberal-infested societies are bad at, like consensus and leadership. If the advanced economy “we” can’t muster sound responses to an urgent threat like Covid and muster popular support, how are they going to make the adjustments (as in sacrifices) needed to deal with rising sea levels?

By A.R. Siders, Assistant Professor, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware and Katharine Mach, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, University of Miami. Originally published at The Conversation

June’s record-breaking heat wave left more than 40 million Americans sweltering in temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Some places reached 120 F, and energy grids were struggling to keep people cool. More than half the Western U.S. is now in extreme or exceptional drought, wildfires are already menacing homes, and hurricane season is off to another busy start.

This is what climate change looks like, and communities need to be prepared.

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 is one part of an adaptation toolkit. Elena Hartley

We argue in a new special issue of the journal Science that managed retreat is an opportunity to preserve the essential while redesigning high-risk areas in ways that are better for everyone. This week, 600 climate experts, researchers, and practitioners are meeting at Columbia University to discuss how to do just that.

What Managed Retreat Can Look Like

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Oliver P. Smith famously said of a retreat he led during the Korean War: “Retreat! Hell! We’re just advancing in a different direction.” Like Gen. Smith’s maneuver, retreat from climate change-related hazards, at its core, is about choosing a new direction.

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.

Since high-risk areas are often home to low-income communities and Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, addressing climate risk in these areas may also require addressing a national legacy of racism, segregation and disinvestment that has put these communities at risk and left many with few choices to address floods, fires and other hazards.

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 lossor 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.

The losses involved in moving can be obvious, including cost, but there are losses to staying in place, too: physical risk of future hazards, increased emotional and financial stress, potential loss of community if some residents or businesses leave to find safer ground, pain from watching the environment change and lost opportunities to improve.

If people can articulate why it is important to remain in place, they can make better plans.

Maybe it is important to stay because a building is historic and people want to protect that history. That opens up creative conversations about the ways people have preserved risk-prone historic buildings and sites. And it invites others to help document that heritage and educate the community, perhaps though oral histories, video records or 3D models.

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.

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  1. Louis

    “Managed retreat” is a meaningless concept unless you tell the NIMBY’s to shove it–what good does it do to try to move people, particularly low-income, if they cannot afford anywhere else to live?

    1. juno mas

      Where I live it is the rich who are ignoring rising sea levels and increased erosion. Just this Summer four older homes built in the 1950’s and relatively distant from eroding beach cliffs have been replaced with expensive, expanded villas within feet of that eroding beach cliff. Money and brains are not synonymous.

      1. JBird4049

        To be fair, (and I don’t want to be) money is power, the power to get what you want. Some people forget that this power actually does have limits and that reality is ultimately far more powerful than any amount of money.

        1. ruralcounsel

          And that is why there will be no “cooperation.” Cooperation in this context is just the rich and powerful shoving around everyone else out of their way in order to escape their own foolish choices and decisions.

          NIMBY is right. You made your bed in big coastal cities, now drown in it. We out here in the boonies don’t want you as neighbors with your citified ways.

        2. Adam Eran

          What’s being described here is “Midas disease”–far more widespread than any pandemic. It’s mistaking money for actual wealth. Another name for it: Alfred North Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” It amounts to visiting a restaurant and devouring the paper menu.

          We all do it…often.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I bet those with more money do it more often.

            As the Wise Old Indian once said,

            ” When the last can of cat food is gone from the last shelf in the last Walmart, then the White Man will learn he can’t eat money.”

  2. The Rev Kev

    A retreat from a coastline where the sea levels are rising is one thing, but what about a retreat in a place like the south-west if a thousand-year drought develops at the same time the last of the aquifers is emptied out to water some thirsty trees? California alone has about forty million people living there. Where are those people to retreat to? In any case this will not be a ‘managed retreat’. Like the Marine Corps retreat in Korea mentioned, it will be more of a ‘fighting retreat.’

    1. Wukchumni

      …the 100th Meridian west is the new Mason-Dixon Line

      100 million on the left side will have to find new digs, its gonna get really messy when the pauperazzi show up back east, possibly including yours truly.

      1. jefemt

        Pauperazzi! I love that. Thanks. Smiles always appreciated

        Precariat Pauperazzi in the Lemming Conga Line, heading for the Adirondacks and the granitic shield of the upper St. Lawrence, state-side.
        The Canadians have politely said, “No- Sorry!?!” at the border to Murikunz…

        1. Travis Bickle

          What I’d like to find is some educated and thoughtful insight on how a megadrought in the SW would (will?) unfold, in terms of the cascading effects of initial scarcities that would be bound to compound and accelerate with an enormous impact on the remaining energy and water.

          The immediate article glances at the relatively straightforward scenario of how to adapt to coastal erosion, while the current drought I have yet to find analyzed in an integrated manner. Coastal communities will certainly adapt, perhaps a hundred yards at a time and at a hugely unfair cost as others have noted, but warming trends in the SW appear to be far more dangerous to pretty much all of the large population centers.

          1. Wukchumni

            This is a different kind of drought in that starting on the weekend we’ll be in the throes of our 3rd heatwave of length before July, practically unheard of heretofore in Cali.

            I mentioned the other day that it was 99 degrees @ 1,000 feet and 88 degrees @ 7,000 feet, which is so very wrong, in that the differential should be closer to 25 degrees cooler based on the usual lowering of the temp by close to 4 degrees per 1,000 feet of elevation gain in the summer. The effect is that of a convection oven and evaporation losses on exposed freshwater must be out of this world.

            90+% of the population of the state lives far away from where their water comes from, and really has no idea how dire the situation, which will only exacerbate things once that realization becomes apparent.

            In the meantime they’ll do more important stuff, such as buy & sell old homes between one another, oblivious to what’s around the corner.

            And almost all of them have ‘wealth’ tied up in real estate, and as they say you can’t take it with you if you gotta go because nothing comes out of the faucet.

        2. Christopher Horne

          Agreed. “The Water Knife” is Sci-Fi, but the scenarios are real.
          Also a really good, fast, exciting read!

        3. The Rev Kev

          There are some parts of Australia where it rains so seldom that when it does in some small country towns, that little kids start screaming in terror and running into the houses because they do not know what it is.

    2. sharonsj

      Just a reminder: the 2004 Pentagon paper on climate change said that mass migration was the greatest threat. I don’t recall it offering any solutions.

  3. doug

    There will be little managed retreat in the us of a. I have seen it not happen(retreat) when it should have too many times already. We constantly rebuild in the ‘wrong’ places. I don’t expect tomorrow to bring much change.
    This is a nice article and brings up good points and ideas for consideration. Many will be considered, a very small number will be implemented…

    1. Carolinian

      Have to agree that you’ll have to pry those beach houses away from rich people’s cold, arrogant hands. It’s not just the poor living in inappropriate places.

  4. jr

    When I read articles like this, I imagine myself in another political world where such ideas could take hold. A world of democracy and discourse. Where everyone is wearing togas.

    1. Alfred

      Those toga-wearers were discussing ideas. That’s what they loved to do, and apparently made a living at it. Unfortunately, mankind started actually doing things they were talking about even if they weren’t good ideas. I’d love it if all the bright-eyed idea people these days were shut in a room and just allowed to talk and not harm the Earth and inconvenience the rest of the World for the chance to make a billion.

  5. chuck roast

    I don’t know what we would do without the guiding light of our PMC geniuses. Back when I was a PMC genius in the 90’s it was all about “sustainability”. Well, we all know how that turned out. You could watch the developers all smirking on their way to the bank. More recently, the breathless, well-coifed environmental vanguard are happy to share their wonderful ideas about “resilience”. That’s still operational around here as the rich raise their colonials four feet to prevent cellar flooding from the rising ground water level. In the near future the rich will be tying up their inflatable dingies to their finely crafted front door railings. “Managed retreat” will be theme song, but it looks like “surrender” to me.

  6. Alfred

    This is all fine except for the fact that it is totally human-centric, as usual. I see nothing in this article about the impact it will have, positive neutral or negative, on the wildlife and ecosystem. Letting nature do what it does allows the ecosystem to adjust. Too many rich a-holes in Florida, and now the hedge fund guys are swooping in. They will probably flee when the world opens up again and the ocean comes in in earnest. This looks like it will benefit the rich, and only the rich will be able to afford it.

    1. Travis Bickle

      So, how are you guys in Arizona planning on handling the possibility of NO more rain, even as the remaining reservoirs go dry and heat records are shattered ever week? The silly little problems of the coastal rich are trivial compared to those facing real people in places like Phoenix and Tucson….or am I somehow wrong?

      What sort of clear-eyed and serious planning have any of these places done?

      1. Christopher Horne

        Ha, ha, ha! You have hit the nail on the head exactly as the premise
        of the Sci-Fi book “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Especially
        how the wealthy in the book handle the situation. Enjoy!

  7. Robin Kash

    Coastal dwellers will lose their beaches. Urban communities prone to flooding care spare themselves repeated grief by forbidding (re)construction in floodplain. Cedar Falls, IA, did just that following the flood of 2008. They forbade (re)construction in the 500 year floodplain. Cedar Rapids, some 50 miles downstream, whose downtown verges on the Cedar River, encouraged rebuilding in the floodplain. Leaders assumed that levees and other flood protection measure would enable them to manage future flooding and prevent a level of destruction like that suffered thirteen years ago. Many of use are not so sanguine.

  8. juno mas

    In coastal California essential infrastructure (sewage treatment) is placed at topographic low-points; adjacent to the ocean. Reconstructing new treatment plants on higher ground presents problems not easily resolved. Retreating from sea level rise will likely need to begin today!

    Even the “sustainable” effort to protect coastlines with additional sand and dune grass enhancement will be ineffective. Protecting a coastline from an occasional storm surge is not the same as protecting a beach area from permanent sea level rise—there will be no sand dune high enough!

    And the issues with visible rise in sea level ignores the saltwater intrusion into groundwater that will corrode/damage underground pipes and the like. (My town has 16″ diameter, steel, natural gas pipeline for the region that is buried 4′ below the surface of the back-dune along the coast for a mile that will need to be re-placed.)

    If retreat is the plan, then action must begin, now.

    1. Christopher Horne

      The (very) wealthy town of Montecito where Ophra and others have
      their grand estates face this very problem, There is very little natural water
      supply, and the deep wells are starting to be infiltrated with salt water.
      They had 2 solutions: 1) bring in a 16,000 gal water tanker when the
      garden got thirsty. 2) The nearby city of Santa Barbara had earlier in another
      drought built a de-sal plant. The solution: buy all the water meant for
      the good citizens of Santa Barbara from the plant.
      Conservation? Not so much!

  9. a fax machine

    It’s not so much that a “retreat” is needed, as it is a hard focus on whether or not cities should be built as a collection of people in a shared space or a collection of gated, single-family dwellings. In the former case a plan can be built around core roads and railroads, and the city itself raised as necessary like Sacramento did in the previous century. New utilities, railroads and street plans would accommodate this.

    In the latter case, homeowners will be charged what it really costs to sustain their lifestyle. Either they pay the extra taxes for levee construction, bridges and (gradual) economic isolation like all other gated communities do or they find themselves getting wiped out after a bad rain. The town of Foster City has already chosen the “pay” option, having a new levee destroy the views residents paid a premium for in the 1970s. Another coastal community, East Palo Alto, is still reliant on Highway 84 and adjacent train tracks for flood control – an increasingly untenable situation that will likely force the Reber Plan’s plan for the area (big dyke under the bridge) once the flooding harms Facebook. Or not, in which case the area gradually recedes back into the Bay, spewing the trash contained into the landfill it was built on killing everything.

    I beilive the real crisis will be in coastal freeways and railroads, which will be forced to adopt hard structures like viaducts and bridges like Interstate 80 outside Sacramento. Down south, Amtrak’s Surfliner is already experiencing this problem north of San Diego and the costs to fix it are around ~$10 billion if I recall correctly. And of course, north of SF is the Eel River Route which was washed out in 1994 and remains so, forcing dependence on highway trucking.

  10. Questa Nota

    Looking out the window on the final approach into or takeoff from SFO provides a good view of a low-elevation runway. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine planes landing on partially-submerged concrete, or arrivals staggered based on tidal levels. Will there need to be some dikes around that airport?

    1. a fax machine

      There’s already dykes around the adjacent parts of San Mateo and (now) Foster City. SM’s levees went up in the 1990s, it’s a big reason it began to gentrify because insurance premiums came down to a competitive level after it. San Mateo has also just spent around $20 million upgrading their sewage/runoff lines.

      It’s really a money question in regards to the airline industry. If UAL continues outsourcing jobs to Mexico then there won’t be nearly as much political support for a multibillion-dollar airport project. If airlines consolidate into larger planes or downsize into smaller planes, then why bother with SFO when OAK and Mineta are cheaper. If half of society is suddenly poor and the other half wants to fly charter only, SFO has no value. SFO needs a strong middle class to sustain itself, because that’s who it was built for in the previous century.

      And as with most things, the buck stops with the Federal government – if the Biden administration cuts off commercial airport funding OR a Republican Congress forces air transport privatization the current setup falls apart. In which case we go back to private airports and private airport terminals, as it was a century ago in the 1920s and 1930s. I keep harping on that, and I know it’s cliche, but if the government stops subsidizing certain things that’s what we regress to.

      The same for highways. 101 today exists because it was (essentially) a big levee vs the old 101/Bayshore Hwy which would flood seasonally like Sonoma Co’s Route 37 does. It’s why I-80 and the adjacent tracks are up on a viaduct between Davis and Sacramento. If the government stops subsidizing it, then CA would have to limit allowable tonnage and charge tolls… big boost for rail. This already plays out in the construction of SMART in the North Bay, as SMART is far more flood/fire resistant than the roads.

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