Uncovering JAPA

Five-Part Framework to Guide Climate Relocation Plans

As land along the lower Mississippi River in southern Louisiana erodes, sinking beneath rising seas, many households and at least one whole community are proactively planning to relocate to more secure locations.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, authorities in hard-hit Sri Lanka arbitrarily created a 100– to 500–meter limited-development buffer zone to mitigate future damage from tsunamis. The destruction wrought by an earthquake in 2010 in Chile led to an ill-conceived government redevelopment plan that gentrified the downtown of Talca and displaced many original residents there.

Disasters Prompt Varied Community Relocations

These examples of disaster-induced relocation illustrate its many manifestations, in terms of considerations such as geography, type and timeframe of the disaster, institutional context, and social and economic conditions. What has been lacking, write Balakrishnan Balachandran, Robert B. Olshansky, and Laurie A. Johnson in their review essay "Planning for Disaster-Induced Relocation of Communities" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 3), is a synthesis of the many examples of relocation that combines lessons from the manifold disciplines working on the topic.

For the paper, the authors analyzed 53 cases of disaster-induced relocation, as well as more than 500 related reports. Their resulting five-part framework, they write, should be used "as a complement to existing guidelines, helping practicing planners to understand the dynamics of community relocation and devise appropriate strategies for evaluating, planning, and implementing relocation."

Figure 1. A schematic represents the relationships among the five elements of the authors' conceptual framework.

Figure 1. A schematic represents the relationships among the five elements of the author's conceptual framework.

Framework Outlines Key Considerations for Community Relocation

After a brief overview of the existing streams of literature on climate– and disaster-induced relocation, the authors lay out the five interconnected elements of their conceptual framework that planners should take into account as they undertake this type of work:

  1. Natural science — encompasses the rational or scientific basis for relocation, ranging from assured land loss, making relocation inevitable, to cases in which there is no scientific justification for relocation; it is rather justified on cultural or political grounds.
  2. Risk decision — refers to who makes the decision to relocate and how suggesting questions of community engagement and responses to government plans. The authors write that individual households and communities will exhibit a range of responses — from compliance to resistance to authorities' favored rational-technical approach — and usually favor onsite reconstruction.
  3. Relationship to place — captures the strong attachments that communities have to specific places, especially based on history, identity, lifestyle, and livelihood. These links may constrain relocations, as in the case of Princeville, North Carolina, the first Black town to be incorporated in the United States. Despite frequent floods, residents there felt the town's history and culture "far outweighed the risk of flooding" and opted to stay.
  4. Relocation process — includes many of the administrative and technocratic aspects of relocation. The authors focus on the critical role of property rights, which can be complicated by a lack of formal documentation or titles in many regions around the world. But "relocation projects can force the issue of informal ownership," they write, advancing either dispossession or equity.
  5. Context matters: Historical, social, and political settings — are a cross-cutting category that influences all of the others. Relocations, the authors write, reflect dominant plans, goals, and policy, and national-cultural contexts, meaning they are often about consolidating political power, advancing policy agendas, or catalyzing economic ends.

Last, the authors present some themes that emerge from their discussion of the five components of their framework and their 18 cited case studies, showing how they are interconnected.

Complexity of Community Relocation Challenges Planners

The relocation process, which will surely grow in frequency and urgency in the coming decades as the consequences of climate change take shape, "is a uniquely complex high-stakes process." Virtually every individual and community has an intimate, axiomatic relationship to their home, and those links will not, and should not, be easily disrupted. Additionally, the inherently unique, place-based nature of human settlements complicates synthesis across examples. Indeed, despite the article's effort toward synthesis (and the authors' combined deep, decadeslong experience in on-the-ground relocations), the problem remains an enormous one.

As the authors were revising the review essay, the Platform on Disaster Displacement released a report compiling 308 cases of planned relocation, another impressive effort toward synthesis. That there are so many examples, and more coming, indicates how difficult it is for planners to grasp the bigger picture: the inevitability of hordes of climate refugees, rampant displacement, changing global population patterns, and an altogether strikingly different world.

While the article may not offer easy solutions, its neat taxonomy of the issues implicated by such a wide-ranging and inherently unique process as relocation can help planners thoughtfully approach the problem.

Top image: James D'Ambrosio/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

About the author
Akiva Blander is a master's in urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

July 21, 2022

By Akiva Blander