Theses Master's

Managed Retreat in New York City: An Avenue for Climate Justice?

McNamara, David

Physical and social vulnerability to flood risks are not naturally occurring, but instead are socially, economically, and politically constructed through time. Many of the tools proposed in climate change adaptation discussions focus on physical alterations to the built environment, leaving out considerations of social policy. Several contradictions thus arise when considering policies like managed retreat, basement dwelling regulations, coastal zoning and others that aim to protect residents from coastal and inland flooding, in a political economy of housing insecurity, rent burden, wealth stratification, and the retreat of the state from public investments.

On the one hand, the arguments to retreat from areas that will increasingly experience acute disasters from coastal storms and cloud bursts and chronic challenges like increasing tidal flood and eventual permanent inundation must be urgently considered; on the other hand, the tools available to retreat and the political economy in which this retreat would take place would likely exacerbate the underlying social factors of risk.

This raises concerns about the potential for climate change adaptation and resilience strategies to exacerbate structural inequities to climate risks in places like New York City. This research uses a mixed methods approach to trace the historical development in physically vulnerable parts of New York City and the connections between deliberate policy decisions and market mechanisms to the geographies of risk experienced in those vulnerable areas and to present day challenges experienced by different communities in the face of worsening storms and floods. In doing so, this research argues that policies focused on physical changes to the built environment will worsen inequities in flood risk, even if those physical changes prioritize environmental justice communities. This research will conclude by arguing for the urgency of guaranteeing housing and a livable income as a basic human right as a first step to increasing the housing and financial mobility required to start to address both physical and social geographies of risk.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Sarmiento, Hugo
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
July 27, 2022