Australia’s Cataclysmic Floods Raise Spectre of Communities’ Permanent Retreat: Financial Times

Cataclysmic floods prompt managed retreat

Catastrophic flooding in Australia is the collision of two things: record-breaking rains (a year’s worth of London’s typical rainfall arriving in 24 hours) hitting “many, many years of insufficient decisions about where and how we’ve placed ourselves on the landscape.” With people and assets in harm’s way, insurance firms are withdrawing, leaving cities “uninsurable.” The FT article suggests communities may have to physically withdraw as well.

The prospect of managed retreat gets our attention, but it’s worth remembering it’s a strategy humans have used for eons when confronted by climate fluctuation and/or changes in resource base (in North America, think Chacoans backing away carefully from a centralized urban hub during a multidecadal drought). Collapse, disruption, disappearance, and loss dominate the managed retreat narrative—cognates of ‘retreat’ with a shared root in a military- or conflict-inflected lexicon. But managed retreat need not be seen as existential: a dire uprooting, a complete evacuation, or total abandonment. The vocabulary of constructive engagement--examination, flexibility, adjustment, mending, reconfiguring--may have more to offer.

With closer reading of rain's behavior on the built environment, for example, managed retreat for these communities might mean smart zoning (see CodeNEXT in Austin, for example) that shapes new development and accelerates modification of existing sites. It might mean consolidating assets, elevating structures, redefining edges-—hard barriers and/or soft absorptive buffers—-or some combination. Managed retreat gets our attention, but strategic, surgical tweaks--better decisions about “where and how we’ve placed ourselves in the landscape”—-might do the trick.

Without a doubt managed retreat, total or partial, places a disproportionate burden on the backs of already-suffering communities to pay for consequences of actions outside their realm of influence or control. But if reframed as an act of resistance, repositioning, and renewal, managed retreat can be seen as an intentional backing-away--not from places, but from business-as-usual, in favor of fresh configurations.

Semantic? Maybe, but with tangible potential outcomes---habitability, and insurability, of durable communities.