Managed Retreat Toolkit

Social/Equity: Community Engagement and Equity


Source: New York City Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development.

While managed retreat tools and strategies will vary based on local context, one crosscutting element is critical: these decisions must be community-based, -driven, and -supported. It will be important for state and local governments everywhere to design and implement equitable community engagement and adaptation approaches. This will be particularly relevant for the development of laws and policies affecting frontline communities in both coastal and “receiving” areas. Frontline communities include people who are both more exposed to climate risks (because of the places where they live and the projected changes expected to occur in those places) and have fewer resources or safety nets to respond to and recover from those risks (e.g., individuals who may lack financial resources).See footnote 1 Frontline communities living and working on the coast are being disproportionately impacted by sea-level rise, flooding, erosion, and other coastal hazards like extreme storms.See footnote 2 While some people a part of frontline communities may choose to live on the coast or in floodplains for economic, historical, cultural, or personal reasons (e.g., fishermen, watermen, shrimpers, and those working in the shipping and port industries), others have been forced to live or resettle there due to systemically racist and discriminatory government policies and decisions.See footnote 3 Those living on the coast — even if initially forced or displaced — have built lives there and have ties to these places that will make it difficult to move away from their homes and property, despite present and future climate threats.

A man stands on his porch, talking to a group of people walking by in Edgemere, NYSource: New York City Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development.

Additionally, people living and working in higher ground “receiving” areas will also be affected by managed retreat. In many places, “climate gentrification” is an emerging trend whereby traditionally low-income and communities of color are now being displaced from inland or higher elevation neighborhoods that are generally less vulnerable to climate impacts including sea-level rise and flooding. Black and other people of color who were historically shut out from more desirable areas within different regions because of economic limitations and discriminatory redlining policies now face displacement due to climate change.See footnote 4 Redlining, a practice — where banks restricted mortgage lending to black people in specified, and typically undesirable areas — reinforced racial segregation in residential housing and education and contributed to social and economic disparities in access to jobs and essential services that remain today.See footnote 5 In some instances, these policies ultimately forced communities of color to find housing in undesirable areas, for example, at the extreme reaches of the coast in Louisiana and further inland in South Florida.See footnote 6 While the official policies were discontinued in the 1960s, the effects of redlining, which include a lack of neighborhood investment that reinforced social and economic disparities, remain for many black communities and other low-income communities of color.See footnote 7 Climate gentrification now threatens to disproportionately displace the same communities of color that were subject to segregation and redlining policies. Specifically, many of the individuals and communities of color that contributed to the neighborhoods, businesses, and cultural hallmarks and traditions that emerged despite the burden of housing discrimination now face housing vulnerability and potential evictions as real estate values and rents increase in areas that are being valued for their resiliency. For cities like Miami, as sea levels rise, developers and homeowners are looking to higher ground in the Liberty City, Little Haiti, and West Coconut Grove neighborhoods to shift development away from the coast.See footnote 8 Prevented from living on the coast, people in these Miami communities are being displaced from their homes and businesses in areas that are considered receiving or less climate vulnerable locations where new development is intensifying.See footnote 9

Managed retreat should be viewed comprehensively and implemented in ways that can help alleviate or mitigate some of the physical climate and coastal hazard impacts and present inequities facing communities. Moreover, if retreat is “managed” in a proactive, pre-disaster context, it can also help minimize the economic, environmental, and social costs of sudden displacements and more haphazard post-disaster or “unmanaged” responses.See footnote 10 Managed retreat may even create new opportunities for policymakers to better support people who choose to move from riskier coastal areas to safer receiving communities. This section provides some case studies and practice tips compiled from current and emerging examples where community engagement and equitable considerations were or are successfully being integrated into decisionmaking processes around managed retreat. 


Community Engagement and Equity in a Managed Retreat Context

State and local governments can start engaging communities by equitably fostering discussions about managed retreat at the outset of climate adaptation and resilience discussions. While managed retreat will not always be the best or a preferred adaptation strategy in every location, governments should encourage proactive discussions about it to avoid precluding the consideration and potential implementation of viable and less costly or disruptive adaptation alternatives. As climate change intensifies and sea levels continue to rise, short-term and short-sighted decisionmaking could exacerbate the physical, fiscal, and economic risks already facing many communities and governments. Before convening these discussions, however, governments must work with communities to build trust where it may not already exist. Additionally, governments should work with community members and community-based organizations — especially in economically- and resource-disadvantaged communities — to identify and provide them with tools and information (e.g., data, mapping, and metrics) that are prompting decisionmakers to take action and include the community as a partner in the process. The work to build local capacity and educate residents should be viewed as a sustained goal — and not a one-off project — so that people can actively participate in and contribute to legal and policymaking processes over the long term. Specifically, state and local governments need to engage people in both vulnerable coastal areas and receiving communities throughout the entirety of these processes from the early planning stages to legal, policy, and project implementation. Further, governments have to design and structure these processes in authentic and meaningful ways beyond merely “checking a box.” Notably, policymakers must recognize and be open to actively listen to the history, needs, and values of community members themselves and evaluate these processes to ensure that all sides feel heard and empowered. This will require that governments — and public-private partnerships — dedicate the funding and staffing resources necessary to support and sustain them. 

Liz Williams Russell gives a presentation to a convening of adaptation professionals about community engagement, especially how it pertains to LA SAFESource: Georgetown Climate Center.

While there are resources available on community engagement and equitable adaptation,See footnote 11 there is a general recognition among state and local policymakers and community-based and grassroots organizations that more tools, resources, and innovation are needed to support more effective dialogues on this specific subject. This is underscored by the unique and encompassing challenges associated with managed retreat that include legitimate and deeply felt concerns about leaving one’s home, the loss of a sense of place, severing cultural and historical ties, and fears and mistrust of the government and its encroachment on private property rights, among others. Some organizations, like the Climigration Network run by the nonprofit Consensus Building Institute,See footnote 12 are actively working in this space to help support community-led processes around managed retreat by providing funding for small projects on the ground;See footnote 13 however, much more support and engagement are needed given the scale of the challenge. Regardless, it is necessary to highlight that all examples, takeaways, and lessons learned will have to be adapted to the local context, including the relevant legal and policy considerations.


From Community Engagement to the Equitable Implementation of Managed Retreat Strategies

A woman leads a small discussion group of adults in a classroom, talking about resiliency strategies in Edgemere, NYSource: New York City Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development.

While the focus of this section is on incorporating equity into community engagement, it is crucial to note the connection between these processes and the implementation of managed retreat strategies on the ground. For those who choose to move away from the coast, state and local governments must build on community engagement efforts to craft managed retreat laws and policies that do not exacerbate historical and systemic discrimination and inequalities. While this will be important for the consideration and implementation of all legal and policy tools, it will be especially magnified in the context of buyouts and other acquisition tools, like land swaps, where people decide to physically relocate away from their homes.See footnote 14 Notably, studies have shown that many buyout programs have disproportionate impacts on low-income communities and communities of color and that people participating in buyouts will not always be made whole.See footnote 15 Here, policymakers need to be mindful of supporting equitable transitions that help people move somewhere safer (e.g., outside of vulnerable floodplains) where they can, at a minimum, attain comparable housing, infrastructure, and services. State and local governments can play important roles in facilitating transitions for residents that can help minimize some of the economic, social, and psychological impacts of buyouts. For example, the New Jersey Blue Acres Buyout Program and City of Austin, Texas provide buyout participants with individual case workers to guide them through the process and navigate questions about how to find new, comparable homes or rental units. One municipality participating in the New Jersey Blue Acres Program, Woodbridge Township, worked with Catholic Charities to help people find rental housing in buyouts post-Hurricane Sandy.

In addition to helping to facilitate more equitable transitions, governments must address the implications of managed retreat on anticipated receiving communities. By prioritizing the need to assess and mitigate the impacts of managed retreat on a receiving community, governments can ease transitions for people moving into these areas, and also alleviate the potential resource burdens on those already living there.  By factoring the needs of the receiving communities into decisionmaking, governments will be able to proactively invest in affordable housing, infrastructure, and critical services. These investments should support and sustain relocated residents, while simultaneously reflecting — and not displacing — the needs, priorities, and historic and cultural character of current residents and neighborhoods. This is a tall order, especially in resource-strapped and already densely populated communities.

Given the crosscutting purpose of this section, in-depth recommendations for how state and local policymakers can equitably design and implement each tool are provided in individual tool sections of this toolkit. 


Practice Tips

Meaningful community engagement can be safeguarded through carefully designed processes. State and local governments can consider applying the following practice tips to actualize and center community engagement processes in equity: 

  • Consider managed retreat at the start of climate adaptation discussions: Managed retreat considerations should be brought to the table at the outset of climate adaptation planning processes. While the term “managed retreat” may be a sensitive or jarring term subject to local, cultural, or historical scrutiny, policymakers should not put off the discussion of managed retreat until after disasters occur. The terminology (i.e., what to call managed retreat) challenge should not serve as a deterrent or an outright barrier to working with communities to save lives, properties, and the environment. Before convening these discussions, however, governments must work with communities to build trust where it does not already exist. To ensure more productive dialogues and build or grow trust, state and local governments should partner with local nonprofits or community-based or grassroots organizations with established ties and relationships in their communities. For instance, in Hampton, New Hampshire, the local conservation nonprofit Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance is leading an ongoing discussion at the local level about climate adaptation and managed retreat. As a part of this process, the Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance has been successful in bringing state and local agency staff, elected officials, and local stakeholders and residents to the decisionmaking table.
  • Develop informed and transparent processes: To build trust and authentic partnerships with communities, policymakers or organizers should, if possible, have first-hand knowledge of the local context in the places in which they are working. Managed retreat requires expert inputs in addition to a true understanding of local communities. It is also important to keep affected residents and stakeholders apprised of policy and project updates. Governments should aim to keep community members informed at appropriate junctures, even when policy or project updates may not be favorable. As with the Quinault Indian Nation, governments can use various mediums and types of materials to update people, like through newsletters and regular reports to legislative bodies (e.g., city council).
  • Allocate sufficient funds and resources to support community engagement processes: Effective and sustained community engagement requires funding and staff support. State or local governments should develop these processes with sufficient resources in mind. To implement LA SAFE’s comprehensive community engagement and planning model, the State of Louisiana received $40 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, in addition to other state and nongovernmental funds. In the absence of comparable funding opportunities, this level of funding and the scale of this model will be difficult to replicate in many jurisdictions; however, governments should seek opportunities to leverage public-private partnerships and other federal and external sources of funding and in-kind support (e.g., volunteer time, meeting facilities, food) to fulfill priority community engagement needs. 
  • Design phased process to facilitate more equitable transitions: Due to the complexities of managed retreat, it is unlikely that comprehensive strategies will be solely implemented through short-term, standalone efforts. Instead, governments must contemplate phasing managed retreat actions over a long-term time horizon. Managed retreat is more than just physically helping people move out of harm’s way. State and local governments must also consider the social and cultural implications of managed retreat and design multi-stage planning processes. Among other benefits, phased processes can help communities gradually transition away from vulnerable coastal areas and allow residents to have more time to process the grief associated with leaving their homes. Additionally, phased processes can provide governments with more time to engage and learn from residents about the climate impacts they are experiencing and provide more time to prepare for and make investments in receiving areas. 
  • Design transformative or visioning processes for managed retreat: Visioning processes can create a platform to help communities plan for retreat and receiving communities to sketch their future development blueprint according to the changing landscape. Plans, among other tools aimed at promoting long-term, “bigger picture” thinking, can potentially support the design of receiving communities. While this will not entirely mitigate the significant emotional trauma or sense of loss people may experience from leaving their homes, it may help create a sense of hope where they can contribute to shaping their futures. One example of this type of process comes from Edgemere, a neighborhood in Queens, New York, that suffered damage after Hurricane Sandy. The City of New York used questionnaires and held workshops, open houses, and small group meetings to build a community-led vision of how Edgemere could become more resilient through the potential implementation of different projects over both the short and long term. Thoughtful processes can also help people preserve and carry forward elements from their previous communities to their new ones while maintaining some sense of continuity. In 2017, the Town of Princeville, North Carolina engaged experts and communities in a long-term, comprehensive planning process to annex a 53-acre parcel of land located outside of the town’s 100-year floodplain to develop a safer, higher ground area where residents, structures, and infrastructure can be relocated. Princeville provides an example for other municipalities for how to balance the preservation of original townships while addressing vulnerabilities to flooding and increasing the resiliency of core community assets and services.
  • Set a clear timeframe and achievable meeting goals: Community engagement processes around managed retreat will involve working among several and diverse stakeholders over longer time periods (i.e., multiple months or years). Accordingly, it will be crucial for governments to design and execute efficient processes that set clear timeframes, goals, objectives, and expectations to bring community members along and maximize their participation and contributions. Notably, governments and communities may disagree on these points, so there may be a need for upfront dialogue, iteration, and flexibility on both sides. LA SAFE provides one model that governments can consider when handling larger-scale managed retreat efforts. LA SAFE organizers set a realistic nine-month time frame to hold community meetings and divided that time into five rounds of meetings. Moreover, each meeting was structured around a clear and achievable goal to focus participants. 
  • Build local capacity: To conduct a truly community-driven process, community members themselves must have the capacity to guide and participate in these conversations. The government should also lean on existing community knowledge and leadership and provide the option of training local community leaders to facilitate and lead the discussions on community adaptation issues if needed. Governments can create training programs and offer stipends for community facilitators who are willing to dedicate time to enhance and build upon the existing skills needed to coordinate these discussions. For instance, to support LA SAFE, the nonprofit Foundation for Louisiana trained local facilitators through its LEAD the Coast program. 
  • Design various types of interactive activities to facilitate increased and more meaningful engagement: To encourage community participation, state and local governments should design various types of activities, such as small group meetings, brainstorming workshops, virtual meeting options, surveys, and questionnaires, that can help get people out of their comfort zone and build deeper relationships. Governments should not confine themselves to rigid public hearing formats; instead, they should apply different approaches across the various stages of decisionmaking processes to achieve different objectives. For example, as the State of Hawaii assessed the potential feasibility of managed retreat in the state, the lead agency held various meetings and symposiums inviting community members to join. Through this process, community members became more familiar with the concept of managed retreat and gave valuable input that informed the government’s work. In Punta Gorda, Florida, the city developed its Climate Adaptation Plan with direct public participation from residents through games, individual interviews, and pre- and post-workshops surveys. Creative conservation projects can also foster enhanced community engagement opportunities. To cultivate stewards at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, federal and state land managers and environmental nonprofits have invited residents to replant marsh grasses vulnerable to sea-level rise and take tours of restoration sites. 
  • Provide support services and resources to facilitate increased participation: Governments should provide necessary support services and resources so that residents can participate in meetings and feel valued for their time spent. Examples of support services and resources include: providing childcare, translating meeting materials in different languages, and making these materials available via multiple in-person and online platforms. For example, in some cases, residents cannot leave their children at home to join community meetings; therefore, offering childcare can be essential to enable diverse perspectives and inclusive attendance and participation. LA SAFE organizers provided childcare so that more residents could join meetings. Governments should also provide translated materials for non-English speaking residents, as the LA SAFE organizers did for Vietnamese and Cambodian residents. Other types of support services can include providing meals and stipends for meeting participants. Furthermore, to allow residents to learn about managed retreat tools and options, governments should also consider opportunities to create and distribute online resources to reach wider audiences. In Harris County, Texas, the regional Flood Control District bought-out more than 3,000 properties located in vulnerable floodplains and, in the process, established a user-friendly website providing detailed information about the voluntary buyout process. The website also includes testimonials from previous program participants, infographics, and easy-to-follow videos.
  • Build public-private partnerships: Community-based and grassroots organizations have valuable hands-on experiences working and building trust with their communities. Governments should evaluate opportunities for partnering with these entities to promote the consideration of managed retreat policies. Two types of partnerships can be instructive here. First, partnerships can be structured to let community-based or grassroots organizations take the lead. For instance, in Hampton, New Hampshire, the Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance initiated climate adaptation workshops and dialogues through the development of a state-local partnership. Second, state and local governments can invite nongovernmental entities to participate in these processes. In Woodbridge Township, New Jersey, the township partnered with The Land Conservancy of New Jersey to educate residents flooded during Hurricane Sandy about the benefits and tradeoffs of participating in the New Jersey Blue Acres Buyout Program. As a result, nearly 200 residents accepted a buyout offer. 
  • Evaluate and adapt community engagement processes: Governments and communities should work together to design community engagement processes with active evaluation steps and feedback loops to manage and adapt to them, as needed. This will be particularly important to assess and ensure that community members feel heard, community expectations are met, and procedural and substantive goals and objectives are achieved. Moreover, given the ongoing peer-learning among communities considering managed retreat nationally, evaluation processes and results can better inform and improve future efforts. 

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