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Managing Retreat: The Challenges of Adapting Land Use to Climate Change

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Document pages: 28 pages

Abstract: Coastal cities of all sizes and levels of development face mounting governance challenges in response to climate science’s projections of continued ocean warming and sea-level rise. These challenges implicate a burgeoning set of responsibilities for protecting public health and safety. Addressing these responsibilities, in turn, implicates cities’ legal authority, political capacity — including the capacity and will to build acceptance of local governance responses — and ability to leverage funding for weather disaster reduction. In the face of elevated urban climate risks, the concept of resilience has gained considerable ground as both a governance response and an increasingly pervasive discourse. With its definitional and conceptual breadth, resilience offers cities a range of tools for adapting to climate-related risks. To date, most cities have emphasized coastal and building-and-infrastructural resilience as climate governance strategies. They have not embraced land-use alternatives, collectively referred to as “managed retreat,” that discourage, limit, or seek to reverse development of areas that are vulnerable to coastal inundation, and that opt for natural reuses of land, based on the costs and risks associated with rebuilding. Given the projections of increased and new risks posed by climate change, this article considers the role that managed retreat might have in climate governance policies. Recognizing the potentially substantial costs and practical barriers to implementing many aspects of managed retreat, especially in densely populated urban floodplains, the article argues that retreat options nonetheless should be included in the calculus of adaptive strategies that coastal cities consider. Public health, safety, environmental, equity, and economic concerns make retreat a highly salient consideration for any locality’s climate governance policy. The extent to which it is feasible for a locality to apply managed retreat strategies, even in part, as a component of climate resilience will depend on the local context, economy, population, built environment, and infrastructure, including the extent to which retreat would entail, on the one hand, curtailing development on currently undeveloped, vulnerable areas or, on the other, condemning or buying out presently occupied properties. To develop this analysis, Part II identifies key attributes of the discourse and practice of climate resilience, noting three central modalities of resilient climate governance: coastal resilience, resilient rebuilding, and managed retreat. Part III considers the approaches taken to climate governance by three coastal cities with recognized vulnerability to coastal inundation as suggestive of a general preference for coastal and structural- and infrastructural-resilience strategies over managed retreat. Part IV addresses cities’ contrastingly infrequent resort to managed retreat and considers in greater depth the implications of using managed retreat as a climate governance response. This section examines data detailing characteristics of housing and the demographic make-up of residents of the U.S. coastal areas that would be directly affected by implementing a retreat policy. Further, it considers factors that complicate the adoption of retreat as a strategy, including an ideology of urban growth and economic, logistical, and other practical obstacles to pursuing retreat as a form of climate governance. Part V considers New York’s limited application of retreat principles following the effects of Superstorm Sandy, a destructive and costly tropical cyclone that struck the northeastern U.S. in 2012. Examining New York’s experience in light of the factors that favor rebuilding and militate against an easy embrace of managed retreat, this section raises concern about the city’s ongoing up-zoning and planned development in floodplain areas. The article concludes with an inventory of considerations relevant to potential use of managed retreat by localities at any scale as part of the calculus for developing sound, responsible, and environmentally equitable climate governance responses.

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