Managed Retreat Toolkit

How and When to Talk About Managed Retreat


People gather at a public information session. There are tables with posters and people engaging. In the foreground, a man examines a paper of information while a woman waits to answer his questions.Source: Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE).

The first questions decisionmakers often ask are: “How should we refer to ‘managed retreat?’ What do we call it? and When should we first talk about it?” There is no universally accepted name or definition for “managed retreat,” let alone a consensus about when communities should first discuss it as a climate adaptation strategy.See footnote 1 The idea of retreat can spark challenges that may thwart community dialogues even before they begin, especially given the highly charged political and social dynamics that often surround any discussion of asking people or a whole community to consider moving to a new location due to impending threats. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to managed retreat. Moreover, managed retreat will not always be the best or most preferred option to adapt to coastal threats and hazards. However, policymakers and communities should have open and honest discussions about managed retreat at the outset of climate adaptation planning and decisionmaking processes to ensure that everyone affected can adequately consider all options. The answer to the question of when to begin is, ideally, policymakers and communities should bring managed retreat considerations to the table at the same time that more traditional protection and accommodation strategies are presented. 

In addition, state and local policymakers should work together with community members to select a  decisionmaking framework that is respectful of cultural and historical sensitivities and local context to promote effective and informative discussions. Some alternative names for “managed retreat” include variations of the terms “planned, strategic, and adaptive” and “relocation, resettlement, and realignment.” 

Some communities are thinking more creatively to focus less on the name of the activity and more about capturing an accurate description of the adaptation response itself. For example, Hampton, New Hampshire is structuring dialogues with its community members around protection (“keep water out”), accommodation (“live with water”), and managed retreat or relocation (“get out of the water’s way”). One scholar, Liz Koslov, similarly suggests that “[w]hen a shoreline retreats due to erosion or sea level rise, one option is to manage that retreat instead of attempting to prevent it. In this context, managing retreat means removing hard coastal defenses to create space for the coastline to move, for water to come in, and for intertidal habitats such as wetlands and salt marshes to flourish.”See footnote 2

At a minimum, the term should not act as a barrier to these discussions or be counterproductive, offensive, or inappropriate. At best, the right term will resonate with local residents to support robust and thoughtful discussions around the future of their communities and the potential opportunities and challenges of managed retreat, even if it is not selected or applied as an adaptation strategy. Ultimately, the focus of these discussions should be on the risks communities are facing and the range of adaptation responses communities may consider in order to protect their families and the environment. By acting with intention and communicating openly and honestly, policymakers can reduce the likelihood that debates over terminology will derail these important conversations.


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