Panel 2 – Organized retreat: Fundamental considerations in relocation

Conveners: Alex Greer (State University of New York at Albany) and Sherri Brokopp Binder (BrokoppBinder Research & Consulting)

Abstract: Organized retreat from hazardous areas presents an opportunity for government agencies to permanently eliminate hazard exposure in an equitable, mutually beneficial way. It allows for the relocation of residents most susceptible to flooding or other repetitive hazards to safer ground and facilitates the conversion of high-risk land to open space. If implemented well, organized retreat efforts can reduce community susceptibility to future flood events through the creation of retention ponds or wetlands while also offering the opportunity to develop community amenities like public parks and walking trails.

While this may seem like a straightforward method of reducing disaster exposure and losses, , however, the relocation of residents out of hazardous areas has historically been plagued with challenges for affected households, communities, and governments. Households and communities affected by relocation efforts have been found to experience a suite of losses, including the disruption of social networks, negative health impacts, and economic losses. Governments and practitioners also face several common challenges in implementing these programs, including attrition and the long-term maintenance of acquired properties.

As extreme weather events become more frequent, sea levels rise affects more households, and land subsidence increases, more communities and governments will consider organized retreat as a potential solution to these challenges. Although these projects have the potential to benefit hazard-prone communities, past programs have shown that they can also have considerable negative impacts. To ensure that future projects benefit communities where major or repeated disasters, chronic flooding, and other climate-related impacts threaten people and property, it is increasingly important that we develop models that are informed by research and practice, reliably reduce hazard vulnerability, and deliver timely, cost-effective, and equitable assistance to homeowners, communities, and governments.

This session will begin to address these issues, bringing together an international group of scholars to discuss their research. Scholars from multiple disciplinary approaches will address lessons learned from relocation efforts, strategies for community engagement, explorations of how place attachment and social capital influence relocation decision-making, and post-acquisition land use, among other topics.

Long Abstract: As extreme weather events become more frequent, sea levels rise affects more households, and land subsidence increases, more individuals and communities will consider organized retreat as a strategy to reduce disaster exposure and losses. Retreat efforts have the potential to benefit hazard-prone communities, though past relocation programs have shown that they can also have negative impacts. To ensure that future efforts benefit communities, it is increasingly important that we develop models for organized retreat and relocation that are informed by research and practice, reliably reduce hazard vulnerability, and deliver timely, cost-effective, and equitable assistance to homeowners, communities, and local governments.

Organized retreat presents an opportunity for governments to permanently eliminate hazard exposure in an equitable, mutually beneficial way. Governments can relocate businesses and residents susceptible to repetitive hazards to safer ground while converting the high-risk land to open space. The development of green infrastructure on this newly-created open space can reduce community susceptibility to future hazard events through the creation of retention ponds or wetlands that can house community amenities like public parks and walking trails (Harter, 2007; Zavar, 2015). These opportunities however, generate questions regarding the long-term management of open space, the inclusion of affected communities in the development of open space, and how various land uses best serve a community, (Zavar 2016).

Relocations have historically been associated with a suite of negative consequences for affected households and communities. They disrupt social networks, redraw neighborhood boundaries, and are associated with several social and economic costs, including losses in homeownership, access to healthcare, employment, income, and physical and mental health (c.f., Binder & Greer, 2016; Blaze & Shwalb, 2009; Hori & Schafer, 2009; Mortensen, Wilson, & Ho, 2009; Sanders, Bowie, & Bowie, 2003; Weber & Peek, 2012). These risks may be exacerbated for individuals and households who relocate permanently (Badri, Asgary, Eftekhari, & Levy, 2006; Milne, 1977; Yzermans et al., 2005), for those who relocate outside their original community (Hori & Schafer, 2009; Kessler et al., 2008), and for those who experience ecological stress (e.g. food shortages, overcrowding) during the relocation process (Riad & Norris, 1996).

Beyond the impacts to households and communities, organized retreat is often plagued with a number of implementation and governance challenges. While these challenges vary by location and other contextual factors, several common themes have been identified that require greater attention from the academic community. For example, the success of relocation projects often hinges on homeowners willingly selling their homes and relocating to other locales after a disaster. These decisions are complicated, however, by relocation programs that typically take a year or more to implement. Homeowners who are unable or unwilling to put their lives on hold for that length of time may choose to reinvest in their damaged housing while awaiting aid to relocate. This results in program attrition and ultimately compromises the mitigative potential of the project. Equity is another common concern, particularly in the case of repeated disasters or climate-induced relocations. Government agencies lack a consistent set of criteria for deciding which communities are or are not selected for relocation, which can leave relocated communities feeling slighted and surrounding communities feeling abandoned and exposed.

As the impacts of climate change render some landscapes inhospitable for human occupation, this session explores these and other key issues associated with organized retreat by bringing together a group of scholars from diverse international contexts and disciplines to discuss their research findings. Of note, we will invite scholars to address lessons learned from relocation efforts, strategies for community engagement, explorations of how place attachment and social capital influence relocation decision-making, and post-acquisition land use, among others.