What is “managed retreat”?

Managed retreat is the process of moving people and infrastructure away from places that are too exposed to environmental hazards. People often use the term in the context of climate change and sea level rise, but managed retreat can also happen in areas prone to wildfires, earthquakes or other natural disasters.

In the United States, managed retreat usually involves the government buying the homes of people who live in risky places and want to move. After a buyout, the government will remove or demolish empty homes to prevent others from moving in and facing the same risks. Sometimes the areas people have retreated from will become restored natural habitats like wetlands, which help buffer nearby towns and cities from storms and floods. 

Managed retreat is often seen as an option of last resort. But retreat isn’t necessarily worse than other ways of adapting to climate change, like building sea walls. “None of these adaptation options are going to be the right answer everywhere,” said A. R. Siders, a professor at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, who specializes in adaptation to climate change. “It’s about figuring out which one best fits this particular context.”

Managed retreat is already happening in Hawaii, New York, Louisiana and other coastal regions, not just with people’s homes, but with roads and other infrastructure. And increasingly, entire communities are banding together to advocate for their collective managed retreat. But not everyone who wants to move can. Most funding for managed retreat in the United States depends on officials declaring a disaster, explained Liz Koslov, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. For years, Indigenous villages in Alaska have asked for help moving their communities in response to gradual coastal erosion, but haven’t gotten funding. On the other hand, after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, many residents of Staten Island were able to sell their homes to the government and move. (But even there, demand exceeded the actual number of buyouts). 

Delger Erdenesanaa

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