Isabel Nerenberg

Project title: Learning About the Health and Wellbeing Impacts of Coastal Planned Relocation in the US and Japan

Degree: MS (Thesis) | Program: Environmental Health (EH) | Project type: Thesis/Dissertation
Completed in: 2023 | Faculty advisor: Nicole Errett


Purpose of the Study:

The effects of climate change (e.g., storm surge from extreme weather events, sea level rise) and other coastal hazards (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, land subsidence) are posing existential threats to coastal communities, resulting in a push for community-level changes. Some of these communities are considering “planned relocation,” “managed retreat,” or “uphill expansion.” For instance, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami prompted many communities to relocate inland, while in the Pacific Northwest, some communities on the Pacific Coast are in the process of relocating due to coastal erosion, sea level rise and anticipated tsunamis. Despite these experiences around the Pacific Rim, comparative studies of hazard-adaptive relocation are rare, especially when relocation is collectively planned rather than individually enabled, e.g., through buyouts which have been demonstrated to exacerbate social inequality and vulnerability. This study identifies information that researchers, practitioners and relocating community members need to know about the health and wellbeing impacts of planned relocation, in order to evaluate planned relocation as a disaster risk reduction strategy.

Design and Methods:

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 15 planned relocation scholars in the United States and Japan, with perspectives represented from urban planning, public health and disaster science, and architecture. Interviews were audio-recorded and professionally transcribed. A combined inductive and deductive approach was used to code and thematically analyze the data. Results:Participants stated that there is a poor understanding of the impacts of planned relocation due to a lack of data availability. From the participants’ perspectives, relocation has the potential to impact quality of life in both positive and negative ways, including career, cultural, housing and environmental displacement. Participants indicated that planned relocation has interconnected impacts on the individual, social, built and natural environments. Individual agency in the relocation process is mediated by individual and social characteristics and is central to the impacts of relocation on environmental conditions. Social connectivity and anchor institutions are necessary for a positive community relocation experience. Multidisciplinary relocation approaches, which prioritize input from practitioners, researchers and community members, can positively affect relocation outcomes, allowing for physical safety, community needs and environmental protection to be considered in relocation planning and implementation.


More information on individual, social, built and natural environmental impacts of planned relocation, as well as supports necessary to enhance partnerships, were found to be necessary for successful future relocation strategies, including the need for co-production and agency throughout the relocation process. Future research should explore long-term impacts of planned relocation on individuals and communities in the context of physical, social and environmental wellbeing, and evaluate the impacts of external support and equitable use of resources to minimize risk.