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Planned retreat in Global South megacities: disentangling policy, practice, and environmental justice

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The retreat of urban populations as an adaptation strategy has the potential to protect people, businesses, and infrastructure from the severe impacts of climate change. However, it can also lead to the unjust dislocation of the urban poor whose contributions to climate change are negligible but whose exposure to climatic risk is high. These groups of people also have little say in the decision-making about whether to retreat, when and how, thus raising concerns about equity and justice. In this paper, I examine the policy and practice of managed retreat and its environmental justice dimensions in Manila (Philippines) and Lagos (Nigeria) from 2010 to 2018. Expert interviews, focus group discussions, and policy documents were collected and analyzed for both cities. Findings reveal a complex picture of contradictions. In Lagos, retreat was stated in climate change policy but in practice only the urban poor were forcibly removed from waterfront areas and in their place new urban development projects are being constructed. In Manila, retreat was not mentioned in policy but evidence indicates informal settlers and national government offices were the target of planned retreat. Unlike Lagos, the urban poor in Manila were offered a mortgaged pathway to homeownership outside the city. However, the lack of livelihood opportunities in relocation sites engendered a cycle of retreat and return. This study further discusses how climatic uncertainties, property values, government distrust, utopian imaginaries, and environmental injustices served as barriers to managed retreat in both cities. The paper concludes with a call for an environmentally and socially just approach to retreat. It argues that the rights of the urban poor to the city must be taken into consideration even under complex climatic and socio-ecological disruptions.

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  1. The words retreat, relocation, and resettlement are used interchangeably in this paper.

  2. I define a successful retreat as a permanent relocation that benefits humans and the environment and is achieved through negotiation and compromise among multiple stakeholders. A successful retreat would have winners and losers, but the decision to retreat is ultimately attained through multi-level agreement, meaningful participation of all stakeholders, and generous compensation for those who may lose as a result of retreat.


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The author would like to thank Michael Egge, PhD Student at Portland State University, for creating the integrated Lagos and Manila map.


Funding for this research was provided by the Portland State University (faculty enhancement grant).

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Correspondence to Idowu Ajibade.

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Ajibade, I. Planned retreat in Global South megacities: disentangling policy, practice, and environmental justice. Climatic Change 157, 299–317 (2019).

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