Managed Retreat Toolkit

Managed retreat, or the voluntary movement and transition of people and ecosystems away from vulnerable coastal areas, is increasingly becoming part of the conversation as coastal states and communities face difficult questions on how best to protect people, development, infrastructure, and coastal ecosystems from sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss. Georgetown Climate Center’s new 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. 


The impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent and severe, as sea levels rise and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events increase. Climate change impacts are forcing state and local policymakers to address the risks facing many coastal communities. In addition to undertaking measures aimed at protection (building flood risk reduction structures e.g., levees, hard shoreline armoring devices) and accommodation (building structures to better withstand future flood risk e.g., elevating or flood-proofing structures), coastal governments and communities are increasingly evaluating managed retreat as a potential component of their comprehensive adaptation strategies. 

Three women sit and stand around a table with a map of a coastal area of Louisiana, talking and gesturing to the map.

Source: Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE). 

The aim of managed retreat is to proactively move people, structures, and infrastructure out of harm’s way before disasters or other threats occur to avoid damage, maximize benefits, and minimize costs for communities and ecosystems. For example, policymakers may reduce risks of flooding by conserving wetlands and protecting habitat migration corridors and minimize the social, psychological, and economic costs of relocation by making investments in safer, affordable housing within existing communities.

Under the best of circumstances, managed retreat is the coordinated process of voluntarily and equitably relocating people, structures, and infrastructure away from vulnerable coastal areas in response to episodic or chronic threats in order to facilitate the transition of individual people, communities, and ecosystems (both species and habitats) inland. In practice, however, managed retreat is an inherently complex and challenging subject and adaptation option for state and local governments. This is especially true given the political, economic, and policy imperative to design strategies that maximize benefits and minimize costs for people, communities, and the environment. Beyond the formidable planning, legal, and financial considerations involved, decisionmakers must also ensure that the people most affected are included in designing and implementing these processes and that the outcomes are equitable for the communities involved. If communities with vulnerable coastal areas fail to establish the enabling conditions for a gradual relocation strategy, increasing development pressures and reactive responses to sea-level rise and coastal storms will degrade communities and result in the gradual loss of important coastal ecosystems and protection as shorelines erode or are armored. 

To navigate these challenges, and implement proactive resilience measures like managed retreat, state and local governments need tools that help them evaluate risks and develop legally viable approaches. Georgetown Climate Center’s Managed Retreat Toolkit (toolkit) includes a range of legal and policy tools that state and local governments can consider using to facilitate managed retreat in vulnerable coastal areas experiencing sea-level rise, flooding, and land loss. These include tools related to planning, infrastructure relocation and disinvestment, acquisition, and regulation, as well as market-based tools. The aim of the toolkit is to assist state and local coastal policymakers in advancing discussions within their communities about laws and policies related to managed retreat. Equipped with an understanding of the issues at play and the lessons from other communities’ experiences, decisionmakers will be better prepared to engage coastal communities in conversations regarding different adaptation strategies to respond to coastal threats and to support potential future on-the-ground actions.


A flooded park in Charlotte after Hurricane florence. The water is so high that benches and paths are submerged. Streetlights and trees stick out of the water.Flooding in Charlotte, North Carolina after Hurricane Florence in 2018.
Credit: ArcGIS Storymaps.

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