Thought Leadership

To Retreat or Not Retreat? That is Not Even a Question.

Carri Hulet

Wrestling with complex questions around sea level rise, community engagement, and adaptation

RetreatIn December 2015, CBI hosted Community Transformation at the Water’s Edge, a workshop designed to wrestle with an important question:

In the face of rising sea levels and increasingly volatile storms, why is the option to retreat from the water so difficult to explore?

In CBI’s work helping communities develop climate adaptation strategies and plans, we have found that people in cities and towns, both large and small, seem unable or unwilling to discuss managed retreat from the water’s edge. It is clear from the recently produced adaptation plans for New York City and Norfolk, Virginia, for example, that “retreat is not an option.” The phrase sounds powerful and defiant, but is it achievable? Anyone who has seen a map or graphic showing even the most conservative estimates of sea level rise knows that many places that are currently land will eventually be under water. No one wants to talk about leaving their homes, businesses, and neighborhoods, but at some point, if we are to have well informed discussions we need to tackle the elephant in the room.

The Community Transformation at the Water’s Edge workshop launched a long-term CBI initiative to explore why and how local communities might openly and productively talk about retreat among their set of adaptation options.

Going into the Meeting, We had a Few Hypotheses about Why People Avoid this Topic:

  1. Deep emotions There are serious emotional and psychological considerations for real people living in affected communities, including loss of home, family, memory, connection, and community, to name a few. Our public discussions rarely provide a safe and productive environment that would allow such difficult topics to surface.
  2. Data uncertainty It is extremely challenging for people at the local level to obtain, let alone sort out which data and information are relevant, or how to use the data in a practical sense (i.e. choosing an appropriate timescale, weighing the costs and benefits in context of uncertain risk, etc.).
  3. Financing questions There are extremely few tools or institutions to assist property owners and municipalities with the necessary and complex task of funding and financing managed retreat.
  4. Social justice and human rights issues The impacts of severe weather and sea level rise are unevenly distributed. Communities with fewer resources to adapt are hit harder.

 To address this complexity, we invited a diverse group of 30 thinkers and doers on climate action to meet together for a one-day workshop in Boston. The participants included residents of coastal communities; a grief and loss counselor; local, state, and federal government representatives; climate scientists; planners; artists; adaptation finance administrators; policy mediators; and others. Our intention was to bring together a group that went beyond the “usual suspects” of policy experts and government officials in order to explore new ways of talking and thinking about climate change adaptation and the possibility of managed retreat.

We designed the workshop to tap into the creativity and emotional connection necessary to open new doors on this question. We knew that presentations and discussions would not do the job, so we experimented with non-standard modes of engagement. For example, we asked participants to draw rather than write their reflections on the case studies they read in preparation for the workshop. As the group discussed these images we learned more about each others’ perspectives and experiences than we would have through regular discussion. We also set up a camera in the room and encouraged participants to share their emerging ideas on video in an off-the-cuff manner.

The workshop offered a broad range of views on the challenges associated with discussing retreat, as well as some possible approaches to tackling them. For example, the group explored the parallels between end-of-life planning and planning for the end, relocation, or transformation of a community. The group noted that a whole industry has developed around end-of-life planning because industry techniques and approaches are helping people take on tough, but necessary conversations about an inevitability we all face.

The highlight of the day came when actress and playwright Anu Yadav performed three short excerpts from a one-woman play she wrote after spending a few years working closely with a community of Baltimore public housing residents facing relocation. As Anu embodied different characters, from residents to the director of public housing, workshop participants were able to step into the shoes of those individuals, making immediate connections between the personal experience of those involved in a story of displacement in Baltimore and that of people facing the displacing effects of rising seas, stronger storm surges and increased flooding.

Next Steps

CBI has formed an ongoing work group of interested workshop participants to meet via teleconference every two months to dig deeper into some of the topics we could only touch on at the workshop. These topics include:

  • Practical solution generation – solutions, ideas, programs, strategies, tools and resources communities are currently using.
  • Language – what terms should be used when dealing with retreat? “Escape?” “Transform?” “Relocate?” Etc.
  • Leading community conversations – facilitating community-based, public conversations about retreat and risk management
  • Arts – how can arts and performance help people engage with the topic of retreat?
  • Real world challenges – discussion of challenges, needs, and problems in order to collectively problem-solve.
  • Leadership – fostering and finding community leaders.

As we continue to engage this question, we expect to craft our efforts around these three key areas of focus that emerged from the day, with the cross-cutting theme of social justice and equity woven throughout all three:

  • Improve existing tools and institutions that fund and otherwise support retreat
  • Design processes that engage real people in real ways (hearts, minds, and hands)
  • Build social capital so communities are better equipped to make collective decisions

You can read a full summary of the workshop here. We welcome ideas, suggestions, and hard questions from our network of colleagues and clients. For more information, please contact Carri Hulet at chulet@cbuilding.org