Putting Community First in Climate Adaptation Strategies

May 10, 2024

With rising sea levels and an increasing number of extreme weather events affecting the US, conversation amongst policymakers has turned to managed retreat from repetitive loss communities. However, the perception of the term “managed retreat” has become increasingly negative. The term implies loss or defeat. And also the process of managed retreat has historically been coordinated by local, state, and federal governments, which hasn’t always worked well for relocated people. There’s a history of forced relocation in the US, particularly around disadvantaged communities. This history ranges from the forced removal of Native American tribes from ancestral lands to the displacement of Black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, as urban renewal projects in cities across the country destroyed predominantly Black neighborhoods.

So, how can state and local governments work with communities to avoid these scenarios? How do we get from the typical top-down organizing model to community-led strategies on a process as huge as relocation? A new report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) examines this very idea, particularly in Gulf Coast communities. The report, “Community-Driven Relocation: Recommendations for the U.S. Gulf Coast Region and Beyond,” is the product of discussions that started in 2021 to analyze challenges, opportunities, and needs associated with “managed retreat.”

Researchers have increasingly underscored the advantages of community-based initiatives over government-imposed decrees, emphasizing their potential benefits. Both University of New Orleans anthropologist Roberto Barrios and UC Santa Barbara sociologist Summer Gray have stressed in their work the inclusion of taking into account ideas of place and emotion in relocation strategies. Community-first strategies also appear in the literature on organizing community resilience centers and emergency management.

However, to develop a strategy, it is essential to understand the people first. According to the authors of the NASEM report, this means understanding the historical contexts in affected communities. The researchers considered various factors that influence the health and well-being of the population in the Gulf region. These factors include the historical impacts of colonization and enslavement, environmental changes, economic development policies, and the region’s relationship with the petrochemical industry.

To understand what relocation means for people, there is a necessary cycle of communication, knowledge-sharing, and engagement with community leaders, groups, and policymakers. This cycle can be administered through a participatory planning process, transparency, and shared decision-making. A community-driven process involves making the community the center of the plan, with the government providing policy and material support to the community.

After establishing this model, significant relocation planning is necessary for the originating and receiving communities. An unplanned relocation can tax resources and residents in receiving communities. One famous example is after Katrina in 2005, evacuees from New Orleans who were crossing the Crescent City Connection Bridge into Gretna, LA, were halted by law enforcement officials. The officials had made a decision based on “public safety” to prevent the influx of survivors into the community, with one deputy going as far as to fire his weapon in the air to scare people off. City officials defended the controversial decision, claiming they were not prepared to handle the amount of people displaced by the storm.

To avert this type of crisis, the NASEM report suggests more collaboration among residents and government agencies across federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Preparing for relocation can mean investing more government money into projects such as improving infrastructure, building more affordable housing, and bolstering public services in receiving communities while disinvesting in maladaptation in originating communities, such as banning future housing projects.

The necessity for relocation strategies for vulnerable communities is pressing. Traditional top-down relocation strategies have frequently overlooked the needs and concerns of impacted communities. These tactics have perpetuated historical injustices and worsened social inequalities. To navigate this complex landscape, community-driven relocation emerges as a promising pathway forward. NASEM’s report highlights how crucial it is to put communities at the heart of relocation plans. By prioritizing community voices, historical context, and inter-community and government collaboration, community-driven relocation can pave the way for a more just and sustainable adaptation strategy in the face of climate change-induced displacement.

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