Managed Retreats, Maybe So, But, Not Where We Build

The impacts of natural hazards -- as destructive as they'd been -- have not seemed to alter land values and property development. Is a change coming?

John McManus July 19th, 2021

You say Whac-a-mole, I say whack-a-mole.

Whether it's the supply chain, the pandemic and its effects, social upheaval, political turbulence, or environmental hazard and disaster, the slew of big challenges to health, peace-of-mind, business-as-usual, a need for normalcy, etc. keep popping up.

Stress tests of fitness and resiliency are no longer just tests, or drills, or dry-runs, or scenarios, either.

They're the real thing– super storms, wildfires, drought, social unrest, cyber attacks, power outages, system failure – and, to a mind-numbing degree, these crises heap on top of one another, a stack of dire straits it's almost impossible to give fair attention to working out.

Real estate investment, at both an individual household and a community level, hasn't quite gotten its head around.

The risk, the threat, the existential implications of climate-related hazard – and its impact on residential real estate and community development – remain largely in separate universes. People and their investments in where they live and want to live reflect a history and disposition of defiance and denial when it comes to ceding to the forces nature has manifest with increasing fury and frequency.

2020, without a doubt, was a year of record-breaking and unexpected catastrophic events. In addition to reeling from the health and economic shock of a global pandemic, the U.S. was hit with one natural disaster after the next, marking the sixth straight year with more than 10 weather and climate events surpassing $1 billion in economic losses1. Our front-line workers, critical infrastructure and first responders were put to the test by hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes and wildfires as the world was simultaneously urged to stay home and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

CoreLogic's brief recap of its "2020 Climate Change Catastrophe Report," has probably altered nary a whit of plans, intentions, and investments in property, despite media headlines that blare an imminent reckoning.

Here New York Times contributors Katharine J. Mach and A.R. Siders, two respected environmental scientists, draft a more accessible version of a paper they published in the Journal of Science in an essay entitled, "Is Your Town Threatened by Floods or Fires? Consider a ‘Managed Retreat.’"

Coastal communities may find themselves forced to put themselves first in line to consider the strategies Mach and Siders map out, if only because not doing so may only add up to more pain, loss, and hardship.

We are under no illusions about the challenges involved. Managed retreat can reduce threats from climate change, yet it poses risks of its own. It can disrupt the cultural heritage of established communities. It can perpetuate social and economic inequalities. And it can cause financial, professional and psychological disruption.
But these issues also present an opportunity, a chance not to salvage and maintain the status quo at all costs but to deliberately build a better future. Managed retreat could help change how funding is allocated between wealthy versus low-income communities, for example, or between urban hubs versus remote coastlines. Numerous enduring injustices have led to the settlement of marginalized communities in areas of increasing flood and storm hazards and left them without adequate protections. Addressing such persistent inequities should be a goal of all efforts at climate adaptation.
Managed retreat should no longer be a last-ditch effort to flee climate problems. It should be a thoughtfully deployed tool for addressing a wide range of human problems.

Importantly, the two scientists frame the essential challenge of managed community in light not of sugarcoating the negatives and difficulties the strategy implies, but also of recognizing new and fresh opportunity to right some wrongs in some of the practices, systems, and balances as they currently exist.

This way, what stands today as hardly imaginable, and almost impossible to conceive of doing, can also cause people to rise to challenges they never might have believed they were capable of to improve their lot in this game of Whac-a-mole.

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John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.


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