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.

How and When to Talk About Managed Retreat

There is no “one size fits all” approach to determining when and how communities should first discuss managed retreat as a potential climate adaptation strategy. This section briefly presents overarching communications considerations for state and local policymakers and communities as they begin discussions about managed retreat.

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

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 3 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 4

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.

Authors and Acknowledgements

Authors and Project Management and Oversight

This toolkit was written by lead author Katie Spidalieri, Senior Associate, and co-author Annie Bennett, Senior Associate, Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown University Law Center. Between 2018 and 2020, Katie Spidalieri also served as the project manager facilitating the development of multiple elements of the Managed Retreat Toolkit, including: legal and policy research and writing; partner outreach and engagement through one-on-one interviews and group workshops; and external review processes.  

Additional written contributions and editorial and project oversight were provided by Vicki Arroyo, Executive Director, Georgetown Climate Center and Professor from Practice, Georgetown University Law Center; Lisa Anne Hamilton, Adaptation Program Director, Georgetown Climate Center; and Jessica Grannis, formerly Adaptation Program Director, Georgetown Climate Center, now Coastal Resilience Director at National Audubon Society and Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center. Additional writing and research support were provided by Tiffany Ganthier, Institute Associate, and Katherine McCormick, Institute Associate, Georgetown Climate Center; and Jennifer Li, Staff Attorney, Harrison Institute for Public Law at Georgetown University Law Center. 

Significant research and writing contributions for the case studies and Adaptation Clearinghouse entries included in the toolkit were provided by law students Isabelle Smith (LL.M.), Ju-Ching Huang (S.J.D. candidate), and Blake Hyde (J.D. candidate), Research Assistants, Georgetown Climate Center.



The authors would like to thank the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for its generous support and guidance, and without whom the Managed Retreat Toolkit would not have been possible. 

We are also grateful for additional support from the Georgetown Environment Initiative that enabled us to bring together diverse, interdisciplinary stakeholder expertise and Georgetown University faculty to inform the development of the Managed Retreat Toolkit, including Professors Uwe Brandes, J. Peter Byrne, Beth Ferris, and Sheila Foster and participants at our March 2019 Roundtable on Managed Retreat in Washington, D.C. In addition, Professors Uwe Brandes and J. Peter Byrne contributed their invaluable expertise in constitutional, property, land-use and zoning law and urban planning to help us edit and review multiple sections of the toolkit. 

We also appreciate the diligent work of the following individuals who helped us finalize and publish the toolkit: Peter Rafle, Communications Director, Caren Fitzgerald, Communications Associate, and Kelly Cruce, Consultant, Georgetown Climate Center; and Brent Futrell, Director of Design, Office of Communications at Georgetown University Law Center.

We would also like to specially thank and acknowledge the following individuals for taking the time to speak with us, attend our various workshops held across the country, review drafts, and provide insights that were invaluable in helping to inform the development of the Managed Retreat Toolkit and case studies for the Adaptation Clearinghouse: John Ryan-Henry and Bradley Watson, Coastal States Organization; Erik Meyers, The Conservation Fund; Matt Whitbeck, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Justine Nihipali, Hawaii Office of Planning Coastal Zone Management Program; Mitchell Austin, City of Punta Gorda, Florida; Kelsey Moldenke, Quinault Indian Nation; Charles Warsinske, Quinault Indian Nation; Deborah Helaine Morris, formerly New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, New York; Lauren E. Wang, New York City Mayor’s Office of Resiliency, New York; Matthew D. Viggiano, formerly New York City Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, New York; Andrew Meyer, San Diego Audubon, California; Tim Trautman, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, North Carolina; Pam Kearfott, City of Austin Watershed Protection Department, Texas; James Wade, Harris County Flood Control District, Texas; Fawn McGee, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; Frances Ianacone, formerly New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; Thomas Snow, Jr., New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Dave Tobias, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, New York; Stacy Curry, Office of Emergency Management, Woodbridge Township, New Jersey; Sandy Urgo, The Land Conservancy of New Jersey; Joel Gerwein, California State Coastal Conservancy; Jay Diener, Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance, Hampton, New Hampshire; Kirsten Howard, New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services Coastal Program; Mathew Sanders, Louisiana Office of Community Development; Liz Williams Russell, Foundation for Louisiana; Joseph (Joe) Tirone, Jr., Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee, Staten Island, New York City, New York; Megan Webb, King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, Washington State; Carri Hulet, Consensus Building Institute; Kristin Marcell, formerly New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Thomas Ruppert, Florida Sea Grant; Jason Jurjevich, Portland State University, Oregon; M. Brandon Love, City of Lumberton, North Carolina; Jason Hellendrung, Tetra Tech; Marcos Marrero, Planning and Economic Development, City of Holyoke, Massachusetts; Andrew Smith, formerly Conservation and Sustainability, City of Holyoke, Massachusetts; Charles R. Venator-Santiago, Department of Political Science and El Instituto, University of Connecticut; Carlos Vargas-Ramos, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, The City University of New York; Gavin Smith, Department of Landscape Architecture, North Carolina State University College of Design; Michael J. Paolisso, Christy Miller Hesed, and Elizabeth Van Dolah, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland; Annie Vest, Meshek & Associates, LLC; Katherine Stein, Sustainability and Resiliency Officer, Town of Surfside, Florida; Shelby Clark, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection; Christine A. Goebel, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality; Robert W. Scarborough, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Coastal Program; James Pappas, Delaware Department of Transportation; David J. L. Blatt and David Kozak, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; Michael Ng, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission; Emily A. Vainieri, Maryland Office of the Attorney General; Barbara Neale, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control; Kelly Leo and Jackie Specht, The Nature Conservancy Maryland–Washington, D.C.; and various staff from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, California Coastal Commission, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Commission.  

No statements or opinions contained within this toolkit or affiliated case studies or entries in Georgetown Climate Center’s Adaptation Clearinghouse should be attributed to any individual or organization included in the above Acknowledgements.  

For comments or questions about the Managed Retreat Toolkit please, contact Katie Spidalieri at or