Re-imagining the Shoreline: Opportunities for Managed Retreat

Illustration by Carime Quezada - Haznet

Understanding opportunities for managed retreat can aid in informing local governments and decision-
makers about their adaptation options.

Featured illustration by Carime Quezada, HazNet

By Alexandra Rutledge, Graduate Student, Department of Geography and Environmental Management, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo

British Columbia (BC) is recognized as a leader in climate action. Many BC municipalities have comprehensive mitigation and adaptation programs. In Metro Vancouver, municipalities recognize the new challenges posed by climate change and sea level rise, and are now tasked with preparing for the possibility of larger and more frequent floods. A variety of adaptation strategies exist to respond to sea level rise and coastal change. Managed retreat is one of the common coastal adaptation strategies presented alongside protect and accommodate (Nicholls et al, 2007).  Managed retreat involves relocating people and infrastructure from areas of high risk, to areas of lesser risk (Turbott & Stewart, 2008), and would lessen exposure to flood risk and loss.  However, managed retreat is not without controversy and barriers in Metro Vancouver; indeed, a combination of adaptation strategies may provide the best adaptive solution (Nicholls, 2011). Despite this, it is essential to investigate the spectrum of opportunities for managed retreat in the face of climate change and sea level rise.

Through secondary data collection and key informant interviews with regional and local actors, this research explores opportunities for managed retreat in Metro Vancouver.


The research used a qualitative approach of 27 semi-structured key informant interviews and secondary data collection. Interviews were conducted in Metro Vancouver from June through July, 2016. Interviewees included those at the forefront of advising and enacting flood adaptation, including civil servants, engineers, planners, politicians and academics. Secondary data was retrieved from government documents, technical reports and scholarly literature. This article presents initial findings.

Metro Vancouver Coastal Management

Presently, Metro Vancouver is protected from flooding by structural protect methods. The Stanley Park Seawall in Vancouver and Boundary Bay dike trail stretching across Delta and Surrey are well known examples in Metro Vancouver. Flood management in BC relies on structural adaptation (Day, 1999; Lyle & Day, 2003; Lyle & Mclean 2008). Dikes and seawalls in the Lower Mainland are designed based on the high water profiles from the 1894 flood event (Lyle & Mclean, 2008). Hence, these dikes built using historical flood data are unable to cope with both rapid floodplain development and the changing flood risk from climate change. A recent dike assessment in the Lower Mainland showed that 71% of assessed dikes are vulnerable to overtopping during a major Fraser River or coastal flood, and only 4% meet current provincial dike height standards (Fraser Basin Council, 2016).

Responsibility for flood management in BC rests primarily with municipalities, which frequently bear the costs of implementing flood-related policy. This includes building and funding flood infrastructure, guiding floodplain zoning and conducting studies to inform decisions regarding flood risk and sea level rise (Arlington Group Planning + Architecture Inc, 2014). The Province recommended municipalities plan for 1m sea level rise by 2100 (Ausenco Sandwell, 2011). Often local governments have little resources to dedicate to structural protection, let alone a socially and politically sensitive strategy of managed retreat. Respondents indicated that strong barriers to managed retreat are the high value of land and assets, financial limitations, political sensitivities, social costs and complexity. Regardless, outlining the range of opportunities that exist for managed retreat can help inform municipal adaptation decision-making.

Opportunities for Managed Retreat

A number of tools exist to assist long-term sea level rise adaptation strategies such as managed retreat. Table 1 compiles a non-exhaustive list of tools derived from respondent suggestions and literature to inform managed retreat planning. This information aims to empower and not to direct. Broadly, these include planning, land-use, market and spending tools with the intent to guide development away from hazardous areas. Importantly, fruitful adaptation depends on engagement with the community from the start, thereby allowing a transparent process. This is central for managed retreat (Agyeman et al, 2009).

Opportunities exist within municipalities’ Official Community Plans (OCPs), which guide land-use and policy decisions. OCPs can pinpoint areas of restricted use because of hazards, such as flooding. Further, bylaws such as setbacks, building codes and other adaptive measures must be consistent with the plan. Designating a “sea level rise planning area” in OCPs and zoning bylaws to plan for areas affected by future sea level rise can assist managed retreat.

Many respondents highlighted the promise of asset management. Infrastructure asset management could require buildings to account for future climate change impacts (Carlson, 2012). As infrastructure in a vulnerable sea level rise zone comes to the end of a life cycle, it may be removed to reduce risks of inundation.

Education can enhance the understanding of risks associated with living near the coast or in floodplains, and can increase the awareness of benefits associated with managed retreat, such as rehabilitation of coastal habitats.

Managed retreat can be used as an opportunity to provide mitigation and adaptation co-benefits when relocating to a safer location. For example, adding rain-gardens and solar panels in new homes can make areas more desirable and resilient (Siders, 2013).

Respondents noted that beyond tools, crucial actions needed to enhance opportunities for retreat were regulatory clarity, inter-jurisdictional coordination, improved information, integration of retreat policies with ecological enhancement and trust and good governance.


Presently, many barriers hinder the application of managed retreat. As noted by many respondents, it may take a significant disaster to truly consider managed retreat. But for now, retreat is contentious and considered an extreme adaptation strategy. Coastal adaptation is moving forward in Metro Vancouver. However, if municipalities are to move beyond the status quo of protect adaptation strategies, municipalities must be provided with funding, regulatory clarity, improved education and collaboration from all levels of government. While not a comprehensive list, the opportunities and tools presented here are meant to encourage local governments to strive for adaptive solutions that can work under many climate scenarios. With the rapidly progressing adaptation landscape in Metro Vancouver, understanding opportunities for managed retreat can aid in informing local governments and decision-makers with their adaptation options as climate change impacts unfold.


Alexandra Rutledge is a second year Master’s student at the University of Waterloo in the Faculty of Environment and currently working with the Climate Change and Innovation Bureau at Health Canada. Future aspirations include working in adaptation and urban resilience planning for communities in Canada.



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