Managed retreat in New Zealand

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Research for the National Science Challenge Resilience to Nature’s Challenges is investigating how managed retreat is applied in New Zealand planning documents.

Figure 2: The status of managed retreat projects in New Zealand. (Base map adapted from Korakys (2017) by Christina Hanna.)
Figure 1: The managed retreat policy umbrella. (Image: Christina Hanna.)

DESIGNING WITH NATURE is a significant principle for moving to longer-term natural hazard resilience and sustainability in New Zealand.

Managed retreat is the strategic, coordinated relocation of people and assets away from natural hazard risk. It works with nature rather than against it to avoid and reduce natural hazard risk.

How well are we planning for managed retreat?

Managed retreat is expected to become more mainstream in New Zealand. This research project investigated current planning directions for managed retreat and found some examples of good practice that set a clear direction to decision makers and plan users.

Several key issues were also found including:

  • inconsistencies in terminology
  • limited policy direction
  • a coastal hazard focus
  • a generally uncoordinated approach to enabling managed retreat in local planning instruments.

Planning documents analysed

The first of its kind in New Zealand, this research involved textual analysis of operative and proposed regional policy statements, regional plans, regional coastal plans and district plans.

A total of 150 documents from 17 regional councils and 67 territorial authorities were collected, reviewed and analysed for their managed retreat provisions.

Analysis of other planning instruments including long-term plans, infrastructure strategies, asset management plans, local management strategies, spatial plans and resilience plans was also conducted.

Terminology inconsistent and ill defined

Consistency within and between plans increases certainty and familiarity, resulting in a better experience for users. To understand the terminology used in planning instruments, quantitative content analysis was carried out.

Key terms used in managed retreat policy found were:

  • relocate/relocatable
  • abandon
  • managed retreat/retreat/planned retreat
  • withdrawal
  • setback
  • exit strategy
  • realign
  • soft-engineering.

In nearly every case, however, these were not defined or explained, meaning there is a general lack of interpretive support for stakeholders.

Overall, it was found that only approximately half of local Resource Management Act (RMA) documents (including operative and proposed plans) refer to managed retreat terms. For non-RMA instruments, just 39 documents were found to reference the key terms.

Six different retreat approaches

Not only are there numerous managed retreat terms, but there are diverse approaches for its enablement. Within the analysis of resource management plans, five key approaches and one distinctive category emerged (see Figure 1). These included:

  • policy considering, promoting or prioritising managed retreat as an option for natural hazard mitigation
  • the regulation of:
    • new development in hazard zones, with the requirement that it be relocatable
    • redevelopment to avoid further investment in hazard zones and encourage managed retreat over time
  • policy and regulation controlling hard protection structures, including the requirement to consider alternatives such as managed retreat
  • strategic infrastructure provisions giving direction to avoid or withdraw investment in hazardous zones – present, although rare
  • regional rebuilding regulations following natural hazard damage
  • a distinctive category capturing ad hoc methods, such as the use of structure plans to facilitate adaptive management of coastal erosion.

Across these six categories, the level of policy direction was relatively limited and weak, with managed retreat most commonly an option to be considered rather than promoted or required.

Figure 1: The managed retreat policy umbrella. (Image: Christina Hanna.)

Limited guidance on implementation

As well as terminology and interpretation inconsistencies, implementation support was also lacking, particularly in the important category 2 part of RMA plans (such as district plans). These plans regulate the building of new structures and redevelopment of existing structures in natural hazard zones to avoid or limit further investment in risky areas.

While some plans provided a high degree of guidance on what is a relocatable building, when relocation must occur and how it shall be provided for, safeguarded and monitored, many did not.

For non-RMA documents, the level of direction was similarly limited, with most plans considering managed retreat as an option and only nine promoting or facilitating it.

The research also found managed retreat is most commonly applied to mitigate or avoid the risks of coastal hazards when it could be applied to a range of other hazards.

Infrastructure overlooked

A further significant finding was the lack of attention towards infrastructure retreat across resource management plans, long-term plans and asset management plans despite the significance of this in locking in development.

Overall, very few strategic infrastructure provisions were found.

Mapping managed retreat projects

Several other council documents referring to projects involving managed retreat were found. These examples provide insight to the wider picture of managed retreat in New Zealand.

Analysis of this documentation clearly showed that large amounts of time and resources are required for most projects to obtain evidence, scope options and engage with the community before committing to an adaptation strategy or regulation.

The projects also recognise alternative forms of managed retreat implementation to the approaches found in planning instruments. These reveal processes occurring outside or in parallel with planning frameworks, such as land acquisition schemes and integrated, long-term community strategies.

To represent the status of managed retreat, Figure 2 outlines where it is being scoped or facilitated by way of a strategy or project, combined with known cases of managed retreat implementation since 2000. This helps highlight circumstances where practical application has been applied in the past or is currently advancing.

Figure 2: The status of managed retreat projects in New Zealand. (Base map adapted from Korakys (2017) by Christina Hanna.)

Barriers to managed retreat

The research has identified some barriers to enabling managed retreat, including inconsistent terminology, weak implementation support, a narrow focus on coastal hazards and limited and uneven direction across the nation.

While these barriers are acknowledged, this research does not judge whether managed retreat should be facilitated or required, as that requires detailed assessment and local engagement.

Survey open to public

A survey, open to the public, will help determine perceptions towards managed retreat. Anonymous responses are welcome – see

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More articles about these topics

Articles are correct at the time of publication but may have since become outdated.

Figure 2: The status of managed retreat projects in New Zealand. (Base map adapted from Korakys (2017) by Christina Hanna.)
Figure 1: The managed retreat policy umbrella. (Image: Christina Hanna.)