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Adaptation option

Retreat from high-risk areas

This measure refers to the retreat or relocation of settlements, infrastructure and productive activities from the original location due to high exposure to risks such as flood, sea-level rise and storm surges. It is considered in particular in coastal areas. In southwestern France, a shoreline road in the municipalities of Sète et de Marseillan (Languedoc-Roussillon region) was moved inland as it was threatened by erosion of the beach. This allowed the reconstruction of a larger beach and dune system, which together should provide greater protection against erosion. The work was completed in 2012.

Another approach is to provide compensation or support for private owners whose homes are threatened. An example is seen in the UK, where erosion is threatening cliff-top settlements in East Anglia and Norfolk counties on the eastern coast of England. In Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK authorities decided not to take action against cliff erosion. Instead, under the North Norfolk Pathfinder project, ten owners of cliff-top homes at risk received compensation to relocate inland. The project also relocated a caravan site and a parking lot and redeveloped access routes to the beach under the cliffs.

Where threatened shoreline buildings are unauthorised, a common situation in several southern European Member States, their removal can be part of the response. For example, the municipality of Almada, Portugal, south of Lisbon, has planned to the removal of unauthorised homes built along the beach and exposed to Atlantic storm surges, with the resettlement of owners in a historical village and restoration of beach and dune characteristics to provide protection.

In a long-term perspective, spatial planning and building permissions can incorporate provisions for managed retreat. One approach is the use of ‘setback’ requirements. The ICZM Protocol to the Barcelona Convention for the Protection Of The Mediterranean Sea calls on Parties to establish a zone where construction is not allowed. This zone should be set taking into account ‘climate change and natural risks’ (Art. 8).  In the US, the California Coastal Act and its implementing rules call local governments to establish requirements that new buildings be located a minimum distance from the shoreline. In a dynamic approach, these types of requirements could be linked to erosion rates or sea-level rise, thus steadily moving the no-construction zone further inland. Where governments intervene in insurance markets (see financial instruments), they could include provisions that requiring relocation when properties are damaged in extreme events: thus, insurance payments would be used to build structures in areas with lower risks.

Additional Details
Reference information

Adaptation Details



IPCC categories

Institutional: Government policies and programmes, Social: Behavioural

Stakeholder participation

A policy for the retreat of settlements from the areas at higher risk is likely to be controversial, and stakeholders will need to be consulted – in particular residents and property owners affected.

Success and Limiting Factors

Success factors:

  • In areas with low population densities, the costs of retreat (including compensation and infrastructure costs) could be significantly less than other grey or green measures to protect assets where they are.
  • The retreat of settlements and infrastructure can be combined with the recreation of natural features, such as vegetation buffers, wetlands, dunes, that can provide landscape and biodiversity benefits as well as protection against erosion, debris flows and floods.
  • Retreat policies are likely to be more successful and receive stronger public support if they are designed in a long-term perspective.

Retreat strategies can be controversial and may result in strong opposition, in particular from homeowners affected. In the Happisburgh (UK) example, some homeowners felt that compensation was not adequate. Some local opponents were unhappy with what they saw as a change in government policies to protect against erosion.

Costs and Benefits

The costs will depend on the specific site and the settlements and infrastructure concerned. These costs will need to be compared to those for alternative actions, and the value of the settlements of infrastructure that would be lost. Costs could be significantly lower if residents and owners have a clear, long-term perspective: this will allow them to at least partially amortise costs of homes and other structures that may be lost.

The relocation of infrastructure may affect Natura 2000 sites or other natural areas. This would require an appropriate assessment under the Habitats Directive. The construction of the new infrastructure may require assessment under the EIA Directive. Policies for retreat may need to take into account national property legislation. As noted above, the Mediterranean ICZM Protocol calls for a ‘setback’ strip along the coast where construction is prohibited.

Implementation Time

Will depend on the specific situation, but in general setting up retreat policies could involve a long process to ensure adequate stakeholder consultation and acceptance.

Life Time

Will depend on the situation, but this measure overall represents a long-term approach to adaptation.

Reference information

Fact sheet provided by the OURCOAST II Project

Published in Climate-ADAPT Jun 07 2016   -   Last Modified in Climate-ADAPT Nov 02 2022

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