How To Plan For The End Of A Town

Resist. Rebuild. Reinforce. But what about retreat?

How To Plan For The End Of A Town
[Photo: Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash]

A few decades ago, the idea of “managed retreat,” or the planned abandonment of an area, town, or city in the face of natural hazards, would have seemed quixotic. But it’s an increasingly real possibility for communities all over the world, faced with extreme weather, flooding, and other natural disasters. 


And it’s rarely simple. In a new study published in Nature Climate Change, Stanford PhD candidate Miyuki Hino analyzes 27 relocations caused by natural hazards. These communities are located around the world, from the Netherlands and Indonesia to the United States and Kiribati–a small island nation that’s buying land on Fiji to relocate its population before it’s submerged.

Kiribati. [Photo: John Hodjkinson/iStock]
Managed retreat is different from the way most of us talk about resilience today, in terms of strengthening and defending communities. Instead, it focuses on when to let go and let the water in.

Studying how these mass moves are designed and carried out is important in the coming decades as climate change worsens, and Hino notes that there’s isn’t much research out there yet. “Even if you are a planner thinking that this might be a good idea, you don’t feel like you have a place to go learn about what this might look like,” she tells Co.Design. That’s because we’re just beginning to see the kind of dramatic flooding that climate change will bring, in part. But her study gives us a glimpse at the way cities and citizens are grappling with this nascent form of planning already.

Hino’s past experience includes the role of “adaptation consultant,” working with areas in Louisiana and on the East Coast on how to make tough decisions about the future–whether in terms of urban planning, transit design, or infrastructure. “What I found was basically that climate change puts us in a lot of uncomfortable situations,” she says. “We are dealing with a very new kind of uncertainty.”

Oakwood Beach, Staten Island. [Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]
Around the country–and world–many communities are grappling with changes that can’t be held at bay with small, incremental plans that focus on strengthening infrastructure. Instead, these towns are facing major, permanent decisions that are much more difficult and expensive to enact.

That might mean abandoning whole neighborhoods in the face of new hazards, as was the case when New York State bought out and demolished many homes on Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach after Hurricane Sandy. It might mean a community that wants desperately to move out of harm’s way, but can’t afford to, as is the case with Shishmaref, Alaska, a small, sea rise-stricken community that’s struggling to find the resources to relocate. But either way, “It’s new, it’s uncomfortable, we can’t undo it,” says Hino. “It has personal, political, and emotional consequences; it can be expensive.”


Shishmaref, Alaska. [Photo: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve Flickr]
In her study, Hino develops a matrix for understanding how and when managed retreat is carried out. One of the key metrics is whether residents initiate the move themselves. This can be a crucial, emotional issue: Your hometown, and home, is a major part of your identity. Leaving your house to be taken by the ocean, even if it’s the best decision, can be heart-wrenching. For instance, residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, which will be relocated entirely over the next six years, cite the loss of their heritage and history as a huge blow to their culture. 

Public perception is also key. One neighbor might view moving as not being able to defend his community. Another might see the fact that she has the financial resources to move as a good thing. “So the framing is incredibly important, not only for political messaging reasons, but for whether people see it as a loss or as a move to opportunity,” Hino says. When one small coastal town in the U.K. was confronted with a plan to move its coastline inland, “people thought we were giving up,” as one local told Think Progress. “People wanted to know why we couldn’t just build a bigger seawall or make it out of concrete. After so many years of fighting this fight, no one wanted to hear that we just weren’t going to fight anymore.”

While countries like the U.K. and the Netherlands already have centralized agencies to tackle these thorny issues, Hino notes that the U.S. has no “comprehensive governance framework” that can guide communities through the difficult process of letting go of battling the water and retreating, instead. That may be, in part, because states and local agencies tend to control land use management. But there are benefits to centralized planning. It “allows people to take a much bigger picture view of what’s happening,” she says. “And I think when you look at a larger view, it becomes clear that not every place is going to be able to build a seawall.”

This macro-scale thinking doesn’t come easily to people. We’re not good at understanding large numbers or long time frames, whether it’s how quickly the seas will rise, or in how many decades. So research like Hino’s, which gives cities, planners, and people a vocabulary to talk about relocating rather than resisting, is crucial.

Rebuilding is optimistic. But retreating, in the coming years, will be more realistic.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.