Managed Retreat Toolkit

About This Toolkit


The first comprehensive online resource on managed retreat, the Managed Retreat Toolkit combines legal and policy tools, best and emerging practices, and case studies to support peer-learning and decisionmaking around managed retreat and climate adaptation. Collectively, this toolkit is designed to help policymakers: 

  • Identify and assess a range of legal and policy tools available to facilitate managed retreat in vulnerable coastal areas experiencing sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss;
  • Implement best and emerging practices by highlighting the most innovative managed retreat practices that are being deployed at the state and local levels around the country; and
  • Overcome legal and policy barriers to implementation by providing decisionmaking frameworks for navigating these barriers and evaluating tradeoffs facing people, communities, and the environment.

A town on a piece of land with the ocean on one side and a bay on the other. The land is very narrow and includes development and a sandbar.

Credit: Integration and Application Network, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The primary audiences for the toolkit are state, territorial, and local policymakers in U.S. coastal jurisdictions. Despite this emphasis on the coastal sector, some of the management practices and case studies are drawn from riverine or non-coastal states and communities because of the transferable lessons they can provide others. For example, hazard mitigation buyouts in the U.S. have historically and predominantly occurred in inland riverine areas, but coastal decisionmakers can learn from these buyout programs to avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Of course, many of these tools can also be applied in inland communities at increasing risk of other types of flooding, such as from heavy precipitation events.

The case studies included in this toolkit were selected to reflect the interdisciplinary and complex nature of retreat decisions and underscore the need for comprehensive solutions and fair and equitable decisionmaking processes to address these challenging considerations. By highlighting how various legal and policy tools are being implemented across a range of jurisdictions — from urban, suburban, and rural to both riverine and coastal — these case studies are intended to provide transferable lessons and potential management practices for coastal state and local policymakers. The case studies also highlight the policy tradeoffs and procedural considerations necessitated by managed retreat decisions. Each jurisdiction is confronting different challenges and opportunities and has different, perhaps even competing, objectives for retreat. In addition, stakeholders are attempting to balance multiple considerations, including: fostering community engagement and equity; preparing “receiving communities” or areas where people may voluntarily choose to relocate; protecting coastal ecosystems and the environment; and assessing public and private funding options and availability. 

While the toolkit presents an analysis of managed retreat laws, policies, and case studies from across several U.S. jurisdictions, it is not a 50-state survey. Applications of the legal and policy frameworks and recommended best and emerging practice tips vary state-by-state and on a case-by-case basis, and are provided for educational and informational purposes only to support climate adaptation processes and decisions on the ground. When considering or implementing any managed retreat strategy, government officials and staff should consult their own legal counsel with respect to any questions or concerns that are specific to their jurisdiction and should engage local community members to tailor the program in a way that works for all. 


Organization and Content

The toolkit contains eight sections that present different legal and policy tools state and local coastal governments can evaluate to potentially implement broader managed retreat strategies. These eight sections fall into two categories:

  • The toolkit contains five “tools” sections that identify the legal approaches that jurisdictions can consider adapting to meet local context and needs around managed retreat. These include planning, infrastructure relocation and disinvestment, acquisition, regulatory, and market-based tools. State and local decisionmakers can apply each tool individually or advance a potential suite of tools collectively as a part of comprehensive managed retreat strategies. 
  • The toolkit contains two “crosscutting” sections on legal and policy considerations, respectively. These sections do a deeper-dive look into legal and policy questions and issues that are raised across all or most tools. 

For the five tools section, each tool includes a definition of the tool; how it can be used in a coastal managed retreat context; the legal and policy considerations or tradeoffs associated with that specific tool; and “practice tips” that provide best or emerging practice recommendations for implementing that tool. 

State and local decisionmakers will need to evaluate the tradeoffs among different managed retreat tools and options. The policy considerations presented for each tool include: 

  • Administrative: How easily a tool can be implemented considering technical and political feasibility, its fiscal and administrative capacity, and its administrative complexity.
  • Economic: How well a tool maximizes long-term economic benefits (both public and private) and minimizes economic costs, including the costs to implement (build and maintain) it; how well a tool minimizes the loss of taxable land; and how well the tool minimizes economic disruption.
  • Environmental: How well a tool minimizes impacts on — and maximizes benefits to — natural resources, ecosystems, and physical environmental qualities and conditions.
  • Social/Equity: How well a tool maximizes protection for people, public safety and welfare, and minimizes loss of life and property; minimizes social disruption and the disruption of public services; how it minimizes impacts to cultural and historical resources; how it maximizes protection of low-income, resource-disadvantaged, historically marginalized, and frontline communities; and how a tool equitably distributes economic costs and benefits between private individuals and the general public.

Taken together, these considerations will assist states and communities with weighing the potential costs and benefits of potential tools and policy options based on how they value or prioritize different tradeoffs.See footnote 1

Given the interrelated nature of topics around managed retreat, users can navigate this online toolkit in multiple ways to suit their needs. Reading all or many of the sections and case studies provides a more comprehensive picture of the legal and policy landscape and potential tool options available to coastal states and communities. Alternatively, toolkit users can read any single standalone section to gain an introduction to a particular approach and the relevant legal or policy issues. In addition, where there are notable connections to other sections that may benefit toolkit users, the authors of the toolkit have made explicit cross-references. 


The Process to Develop the Toolkit and Maintain it as a Living Resource

GCC engaged over 75 participants at its Roundtable on Managed Retreat in March 2020 in Washington, D.C.The development of this toolkit was informed by policymakers, practitioners, and community members who have led or participated in the work presented in this report.See footnote 2 Between 2018 and 2020, Georgetown Climate Center’s (GCC) outreach efforts related to the development of the Managed Retreat Toolkit engaged more than 1,000 people at more than 20 events, and more than 500 participants who participated in workshops hosted or co-hosted by GCC. Managed retreat is a field that is growing and evolving rapidly, and GCC intends to update the Managed Retreat Toolkit regularly to incorporate user feedback and new information, insights, and case studies.

Photo credit: Georgetown Climate Center


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