Where Will We Go When the Water Comes?

Lessons for Cities Seeking a Managed Retreat From Flood Risk

Many of our greatest cities are already losing the battle against climate-driven flooding. In response, cities are turning to a managed retreat by using precious public funds to buyout waterfront properties in an attempt to relocate communities to safer land. Turning the tide will take a careful, coordinated and informed response.

Relocating people and property away from coastlines and rivers — once considered prime areas for commercial and residential development — is the first step to guaranteeing protection. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has recognized their potential and administered over 40,000 buyouts between 1989 and 2017.[1] Similarly, the Canadian federal government recently announced it was developing a program to fund relocation out of high-risk flood areas.[2]

“Relocating people and property away from coastlines and rivers — once considered prime areas for commercial and residential development — is the first step to guaranteeing protection.”

These needed buyouts are highly controversial. They shift property tax revenue from development in areas worth millions, create opposition from residents unwilling to move from areas often occupied for generations and can exacerbate social inequity by unfairly targeting lower income residents.

Avoiding these pitfalls while optimizing risk reduction is largely contingent on the design of buyout programs. Unfortunately, such programs are all too often ad hoc and disorganized as they are quickly deployed in the aftermath of flooding and fail to incorporate lessons from previous experience.

How can cities design buyout programs to protect their communities while mitigating these political risks? Partners for Action, an applied flood research network at the University of Waterloo, has identified five important lessons local policymakers should factor into their decision-making.

  • 1. Get ahead of the problem

    Most buyout programs are ad hoc and disorganized as they are quickly deployed in the aftermath of flooding rather than being designed well in advance.[3] More time allows cities to promote buyouts and engage with residents on the design of the program such as identifying areas where entire communities can move together preserve social cohesion and avoid disruption. Louisiana for instance is targeting low-risk areas likely to have economic growth as ‘receiving communities’ for those willing to re-locate.[4] Programs initiated in the immediate aftermath also tend to create delays before compensation reaches those seeking to re-settle leaving them paying a mortgage on a condemned property.[5]

  • 2. Balance voluntary and mandatory buy-outs

    Cities need to consider the trade-offs between voluntary and mandatory programs.
    Voluntary programs are more flexible and better suited to areas where an incremental approach could help overcome potential opposition and risk is less immediate. Mandatory programs face more resistance but are justified in areas with significant risk where in the event of a flood existing or new development creates financial burdens for the rest of the community.

  • 3. Fair compensation

    Compensation should be sufficient to ensure property owners can enjoy the same quality of life as before relocation. Often property in desired areas for relocation is more expensive than high risk zones justifying higher levels of compensation as a means of preserving social equity. Compensation should also reflect pre-flood values to encourage uptake. Some programs such as New York State’s include incentives such as 5 to 15 per cent increases above pre-flood value to encourage settlement in lower risk areas.[6]

  • 4. Make clear rules for eligibility

    Cities should establish transparent and clear requirements for eligibility based on consultation with residents. Most programs use a cost-benefit analysis to determine eligibility (e.g. if damage exceeds 50 per cent of the property’s value). This can create a backlash if programs unfairly target lower income residents since damage is more likely to exceed thresholds on properties worth less, and these neighbourhoods tend to be located in high risk areas. Other programs use geographical boundaries (e.g. properties located in the 1-in-50 flood zone) to determine eligibility. Ambiguity around these boundaries creates confusion among residents that can undermine confidence in the program if they are seen to be arbitrary.

  • 5. Demand support from the feds

    Cities interested in buyout programs should collaborate in encouraging upper-tier governments to  develop funding mechanisms and guidelines that can support local programs. Local governments are typically responsible for applying for grants to support buyouts or self-financing. Funding from upper tier governments can reduce the trade-offs between buyouts and property tax revenue and guidelines can create a “level-playing field” reducing the potential for developers to seek other locations with less stringent rules.

These five factors are by no means comprehensive but they can help assist cities manage the trade-offs involved in protecting their communities from flood risk. Those that fail to heed this advice will struggle to sustain their populations as they seek shelter in the cities that took steps to remove people and property from exposure to climate change.


1. Robert Freudenberg et al., Buy-in for Buyouts the Case for Managed Retreat from Flood Zones (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2016), http://public.eblib.com/choice/PublicFullRecord.aspx?p=5742340.

2. Morgan Lowrie and Mia Rabson, “Liberals Promise National Flood Insurance, Disaster EI Benefits,” National Post, September 25, 2019, https://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/canada-news-pmn/liberals-promise-national-flood-insurance-disaster-ei-benefits.

3. Sherri Brokopp Binder and Alex Greer, “The Devil Is in the Details: Linking Home Buyout Policy, Practice, and Experience After Hurricane Sandy,” Politics and Governance 4, no. 4 (December 28, 2016): 97–106, https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v4i4.738.

4. Christopher Flavelle and Mira Rojanasakul, “Louisiana Unveils Ambitious Plan to Help People Get Out of the Way of Climate Change,” Bloomberg, May 15, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2019-louisiana-strategic-plan/.

5. Linda Poon, “As Flooding Worsens, Home Buyouts Move at a Snail’s Pace,” September 17, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/environment/2019/09/flooded-home-buyout-fema-disaster-recovery-flood-insurance/598075/.

6. Jason Contant, “Best Incentives to Get Homeowners to Move out of Floodplains,” Canadian Underwriter, April 29, 2019, https://www.canadianunderwriter.ca/insurance/one-way-to-get-clients-to-move-out-of-floodplains-1004162525/.

Jason Thistlethwaite & Anna Ziolecki

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Jason Thistlethwaite

Associate Professor, School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, University of Waterloo
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Jason Thistlethwaite is an Associate Professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED) at the University of Waterloo, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Associate Director for Partners for Action (P4A). His research evaluates climate change risk management strategies designed to reduce economic vulnerability. His current research program involves building 3D visualizations of flood risk, mapping and measuring social-vulnerability, and developing transformational change strategy to inform governments about effective risk management. Jason has published widely on issues including private environmental governance, the role of insurance in climate change adaptation, and policy tools for urban flood risk management. 

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Anna Ziolecki

Adjunct Professor and Director of Partners for Action, University of Waterloo
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Anna Ziolecki is Adjunct Professor and Director of Partners for Action at the University of Waterloo, an applied research network of collaborators, from academia, government, the private sector and non-government organizations, who are committed to advancing flood resiliency in a changing climate. Anna has conducted interdisciplinary research on many contemporary policy issues, including on property buyouts, municipal storm water management programs, and related government economic incentive programs.