Is “Managed Retreat” the coming new wave in rural development? 

“Go rural young man.”

In this blog space I generally write about the impact climate change is having (and will have) on production agriculture.  This week, however, I am taking a little different tack and putting some focus on another area of USDA activity—rural development.

This last week I came across an interesting article posted on the National Extension Climate Initiative website the Conversation that discussed the concept of “managed retreat” from climate change and what it could mean for rural communities throughout the country.

What’s “managed retreat” you ask?  Well, let me explain….

Managed retreat is the idea of people and businesses moving from areas that are in the cross-hairs of climate change–areas like coastal cities concerned about potentially rising sea levels or increased hurricane activity or communities potentially dealing with prolonged water shortages brought about by extreme droughts and increasing temperatures—into other communities further inland or in areas dealing with less immediate climate related stress.  There are challenges that come with this approach, including the rethinking of overall development strategies, infrastructure investment strategies (especially telecommunications and broadband infrastructure investment) and housing development, but it’s not too hard to see how this could result in a significant reinvestment and reinvigoration opportunity for small towns, especially those close enough to larger cities for easy access to more cultural and retail amenities.

Just imagine…businesses and individuals (especially those that can easily telecommute) leaving large coastal cities to relocate in small towns in the central part of the county.  The authors of the article even suggest the concept of a “new homestead act” designed to encourage relocation into the heartland in a manner similar to the way the original homestead act encouraged landless individuals from around the globe to come and settle in what would one day become the breadbasket of the world.  This could work in a fashion similar to efforts already underway in towns like Lincoln, Kansas where remote workers are being offered free land if they are willing to move to town and build a new home.

To be clear, all of this does not necessarily represent any stated policy of USDA or any other part of the Federal Government–this is all just for discussion and consideration—and there are downsides to this concept to be sure, but when several rural counties in the Southern Plains have experienced population loss of 20% or more and when the country’s major coastal cities may be looking about some catastrophic changes over the coming years, this is something at least worth thinking about.

If you’re interested in more about this concept, you can check out the full article here.

In the mid-19th century, Horace Greeley advised easterners looking for opportunity to “Go west young man” as part of the westward expansionist movement.  Maybe the new rallying cry to escape some of the climate change challenges our cities are facing is to “Go rural young people.”

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