Understanding the Impacts of Managed Retreat and Resettlement on Informal Communities

Monique A. Lorenzo Pérez
The Ohio State University

Santina Contreras
University of Southern California

Publication Date: 2022


Planned retreat and relocation are approaches that are frequently discussed in hazard mitigation planning as useful for improving the safety of communities living in hazardous environments. However, in environments with highly vulnerable areas, relocation processes may inadvertently cause additional risks, such as exposure to different hazard risks in the new area. This research explores this issue and other impacts of relocation and resettlement initiatives by assessing the specific case of informal communities in Puerto Rico. Through the use of interviews with planners and focus groups with community members, this project aims to contribute to the implementation of hazard mitigation efforts in vulnerable communities.


Informal communities—settlements that are established outside of traditional legal boundaries of land tenure, permitting, code enforcement, and/or construction practices—in Puerto Rico face widespread issues, including inadequate infrastructure, unsafe living conditions, and frequent exposure to environmental hazards. Relocation and resettlement activities, which center on moving informal communities away from high-risk areas, are often presented as necessary approaches for addressing the hazard-related issues these communities face. Despite the frequent use of these sorts of mitigation efforts, however, there is a lack of evidence to support the their long-term effectiveness in reducing communities’ broader risk exposure. Furthermore, it is unclear if such practices prioritize the use of participatory decision-making and other types of community engagement in the relocation process. For these reasons, it is important to understand whether managed retreat and resettlement could inadvertently expose informal communities to additional risks.

Informal settlements have been frequently studied in the academic literature. Much of the work in this area has centered on addressing questions of inequality, environmental justice, poverty, and upgrading (Algoed & Hernández-Torrales, 20191; Mukhija, 20012; Turner, 19693; Ward, 20044). Recent studies that are focused specifically on informal communities in Puerto Rico have looked at vulnerability from an environmental justice and climate change perspective (Algoed & Hernández-Torrales, 2019; Hinojosa & Meléndez, 20185; Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña, 2017; Yarina et al., 20196). In Puerto Rico, informal settlements (known locally as arrabales or barriadas) are defined by the local government as a "self-managed method of construction completed without the use of an architect or engineer, proper permits, and often not in conformance with land use codes" which in many cases occur "without proper title to the land" (Government of Puerto Rico Central Office of Recovery Reconstruction and Resiliency, 20187). In this study, an informal community refers to a neighborhood-scale community where housing and other basic infrastructure, such as roads, were built informally by their own residents.

There is a long history of local governments in places such as Puerto Rico working to relocate informal communities to make way for new developments (Fuller Marvel, 20088; Icken Safa, 19809; Safa, 197410; Yarina et al., 2019). As part of these efforts, community resettlement is often presented as a positive method to address displacement issues (Nalau & Handmer, 201811) since it can improve safety and living conditions while maintaining community social networks (Nelson & Ehrenfeucht, 201612). This is because, compared with other relocation efforts (such as buyouts), moving relatively small communities that have close social ties, can in fact lessen adverse social and psychological impacts associated with relocation (Nelson & Ehrenfeucht, 2016). Other research, however, suggests that the way in which new settlements are planned can actually increase exposure to hazard risks of a community, suggesting that factors beyond relocation must be taken into account (Nalau & Handmer, 2018).

In the context of hazards, including those exacerbated by climate change, relocation activities frequently focus on the planned resettlement of communities away from highly hazardous areas. These retreat or managed retreat activities often function as adaptation approaches dealing with the broader impacts of climate change and hazards on development patterns (Hino et al., 201713; Yarina et al., 2019). Despite this work, there has been little focus on addressing questions of whether or not new hazard risks or increased vulnerability are linked to resettled areas, especially for relocation efforts involving informal communities.


Research Design

This research project focuses on planned relocation and resettlement processes in informal communities in Puerto Rico. Data was collected in two phases: (1) interviews with planners and decision makers (N = 15); and (2) focus groups with local community representatives and leaders (N = 9).

The first phase of the study focused on understanding the planning strategies and decision-making involved in resettling informal communities in Puerto Rico. Data collection for this phase took place from June to August of 2020 and centered on conducting remote (phone-based) semi-structured interviews with planners and decision-makers based in Puerto Rico. The sample for the first phase included planners, public officials, architects, and other relevant experts involved or familiar with (a) relocation and resettlement practices for informal communities in Puerto Rico, (b) the general context of such informal communities, (c) the risks and hazards associated with informal communities in Puerto Rico or (d) a combination of the criteria mentioned above. Subjects were initially identified using publicly available listings. Additional respondents were identified through snowball sampling. In total, 15 interviews took place in Phase 1.

The second phase of the study focused on conducting three remote focus groups with community leaders and residents of informal communities. Focus group participants fell into one of two categories: residents of informal communities who had already been relocated or resettled or residents currently living in an informal community that experiencing different hazard risks. The objective of this phase of the research was to understand community perspectives and experiences related to relocation and resettlement practices in the face of environmental hazard risks in Puerto Rico. Focus groups with informal community members and leaders based in Puerto Rico were held virtually via Zoom video conferencing from January to June of 2021. A total of three focus groups were held, with an average of three participants per session (nine participants total). Purposive sampling and snowball sampling approaches were used for phase two. Community members and leaders were recruited virtually. Announcements of the opportunity to participate in a focus group were shared through social media and online messaging platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and WhatsApp. Once participants expressed interest in the project, follow-up communications took place by email, phone, and/or text message.

The initial development of this study centered on conducting in-person interviews and focus groups in Puerto Rico. However, because of public health concerns and travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was necessary to alter the methodological approach. Specifically, the sampling and recruitment strategies were revised due to the fact that in-person interactions and community visits were not feasible in 2020 or 2021. For this reason, the data collection efforts used in this study shifted to conducting interviews over the phone and hosting focus groups virtually using the Zoom web-conferencing platform.

Human subjects approval was received by The Ohio State Universities (OSU) Office of Responsible Research Practices, Internal Review Board (IRB) before the study was initiated. All data collection and analysis procedures were carried out in alignment with the approved study protocols. Before the start of the interviews and focus groups, the researcher explained the research protocol and read the informed consent sheet to all participants. Individual verbal consent (from all participants) was received before beginning the interview process. All interviews and focus groups were audio-recorded, with detailed notes written during and following the interview.


Data analysis focused on using qualitative content analysis methods (Yin, 201114). Transcripts from interviews, interview notes, and observations of focus groups were coded using qualitative analysis software (ATLAS.ti). Coding was conducted by both authors. Initial rounds of coding analyzed themes established in the literature, including mitigation, managed retreat, relocation, resettlement, and community participation. These codes were then supplemented with additional codes that emerged from the data itself (Strauss & Corbin, 201515). This resulted in the creation of a total of 82 individual codes, which captured the specific activities, dynamics, processes, and issues relevant in each area. For example, the individual codes within the community participation area included community-led efforts, exclusion of communities, community perspectives, and other codes reflecting the experiences of the research participants. Once the coding scheme was established, similar codes were grouped to identify broader patterns and relationships. The authors then met to review findings from these coding groups and determined the final themes based on agreed-upon patterns and connections in the data.

Key Findings

Preliminary study findings highlight several key factors impacting the relocation of informal communities in Puerto Rico. The five main themes discussed are (a) the motivations and reasoning behind relocation and resettlement, (b) the rationale behind selecting safe locations, (c) the impacts of past experiences on new planned relocation projects, (d) perspectives on what an ideal relocation project would look like, and (e) identifying risks in the new location.

Reasons to Relocate

Planning officials and decision makers shared their perspectives on the factors that frequently motivate the initiation of relocation and resettlement initiatives in informal communities. As might be expected, participants noted that relocation efforts were often prompted by decision-makers to address the high risk for environmental hazards in a certain place. This often included a focus on the existence of risk as well as its potential magnitude or intensity. This was exemplified by one respondent (a planner), who described informal communities before relocation as being in "imminent danger." This language illustrates that, for many planners, the severity and immediacy of hazard risks often play a fundamental part in prompting relocation initiatives in informal communities.

The other key factor that was found to motivate relocation efforts was related to the limitations associated with mitigating in place. We found that relocation was often presented as an appropriate approach when all other mitigation strategies were considered fully exhausted. For instance, a planner explained:

I think that before taking that decision [relocating], you have to have already ruled out the possibility of mitigating the hazard in the same place the community already is. I mean, I would say that… that it should be the last option, right?"

Similarly, another planner stated:

The relocation is the last strategy we try to use. Unless [the community is located] in areas where consecutive damages have been experienced. We try to protect the human life, that is the most important part, in the case of flooding. Using engineering.

In conclusion, relocation is not only seen as the last option, but other engineering approaches tend to be considered first, as in the case of flooding hazards, for instance.

Determining Safe Locations

Moving communities to safer locations and potentially better housing was often discussed as an important component of relocation and resettlement practices in Puerto Rico. Many participants explained that the goal of relocation programs was to move communities out of dangerous or risky locations into places that are much safer than the original location. As one participant explained, "We're getting people out of their current dangerous area." Similarly, another respondent said:

The [new housing locations] are usually located in areas such as suburban developments. They are given Section 8 rental options or the chance to live in public housing. In theory, they should be safer in the face of natural hazards.

Therefore, the assumption is that the new location will be safer and presumably less exposed to hazard risks.

We also found that there were many assumptions and difficulties involved in the idea of a "safe" new location. First, land availability often delays or complicates relocation and resettlement activities and can complicate the selection of safe new locations. A planner explained the land availability problem the following way "Puerto Rico is a land defined by the ocean. And so it is not limitless land; finding land for resettlement is as I say, the major problem."

Second, aside from land availability being a constraint, hazard threats could also invalidate land from being considered for occupation. In some cases, the planned relocation process might not occur because mitigation strategies intended to reduce the exposure of the new location to known risks were not carried out. One participant explained,

The plan was not implemented because, as a result, there was no land that was not in a flood zone in which to build housing, etc. So, the plan was left on hold until there was a canalization of the Río Grande de Arecibo. Then that canalization would take some of the lands out of the flood zones, and then that land would be used for the plan, but that project was never built. It was left pending.

Furthermore, impacts associated with climate change, such as hurricane intensification, not only aggravate existing hazards, (Bhatia et al., 201816; Castro-Rivera & Lopez-Marrero, 201917), but it further complicate the access to safer and low-risk land. This is why it is important to consider the complexities associated with the decision-making process in deciding to relocate communities, as well as the selection process of the alternative location.

Previous Relocation Initiatives and Community Perspectives

In many cases, as other research suggests (Mukhija, 2001), the places where informal communities are currently located present potentially lucrative opportunities for new high-end development. According to the planners interviewed in the first phase of this study, reducing risk exposure and improving living conditions are often presented as reasons for relocation, however, community members discussed a high awareness of the role of development interests in the relocation process. As a result, community resistance to resettling elsewhere was often tied to a fear of being forced to move because of previous experiences associated with development-induced displacement.

Community participants shared that the ambiguous reasoning used by local governments to relocate communities have had negative impacts on how the broader communities felt about planned relocation. Specifically, respondents discussed past relocation experiences that ignited concerns about the role of development interests in relocation activities. For example, a community member expressed her concern:

They [the government] come in under the pretense that the communities are flooding, so they take [people] out of these communities, and before you know it, they're already building new development there. But in reality, there were never any floods, that's what they always do.

Relocating informal communities to the benefit of development interests creates community distrust towards planned relocation as a legitimate mitigation strategy. These community member assumptions impact relocation and resettlement practices when it comes to mitigating hazards. Doubt and distrust associated with previous experiences can influence community decision-making processes when considering whether communities will participate and ultimately support relocation and resettlement initiatives.

The Ideal Planned Relocation Process

Informal community members envision relocation and resettlement projects to include a formal planning process where land use, housing construction, and the intentions behind the movement are made with the direct involvement of the community. One community member noted:

I think that it [the relocation process] will not be easy, but to make it a fair process, in my understanding, there needs to be feedback and real participation of the community. That is vital…. there must be a consensus.

Thus, community feedback and participation in planning processes involving relocation and resettlement of informal communities are vital components for the long-term success of the initiative.

Aside from participation in the process, location was another important component of the relocation process highlighted in the focus groups. Community members had specific hopes and expectations associated with the ideal new location, especially the desire for resources and basic services in the new location. One respondent explained:

An ideal process would be one that would relocate us to an area that would be comfortable for us without any problems; one that would provide us with water and other services, like sewage and numbers in front of the houses. A house where each room within the house has electricity and a community with opportunities like any other community.

In our discussions, community residents frequently noted the desire for their new location to have the essential services that other "normal" or formal communities have. Therefore, even when planners acknowledged the importance of providing better housing and access to basic infrastructure in the new location, there were cases where it has not been provided or fulfilled. This is why in the quote above one of our respondents (a community member) speaks about what the ideal relocation process should look like.

In conclusion, planned relocation projects should not only focus on mitigating existing exposure to hazards but also aim to diminish community vulnerability to future broader risks by providing secure housing and access to basic infrastructure and services.

Risks in the New Location

Overall, respondents agreed that the location where communities are to be relocated should be safer than the previous one. Nevertheless, as a result of our discussion, we discovered that in reality risks could still be present in the new location. For instance, a planner explained how the former location of an informal community could flood and how some portions of the new location ended up flooding during Hurricane Maria.

When you look at the maps, [in] some places they [the community] are labeled as floodable and others [other areas] not, but in reality, none of the things that appear in the map happens… You see. After the hurricane, the community told me that they started to see a great fog approaching, but it turned out that it was a water wave.

Even when it can be argued that the majority of a hazard risk was addressed, it should also be acknowledged that the same or other risks can still be present in the new location. Another participant referred to the same case and noted, the new land “is less floodable than the other land, but during María, there were areas that it flooded up to 4ft.” This is especially important in multi-risk and land-constrained environments such as Puerto Rico, where hurricane impacts could worsen over time (Balaguru et al., 201818; López-Marrero & Castro-Rivera, 201919).


Informal communities in Puerto Rico can face many problems associated with environmental hazards risks, lack of proper infrastructure, and housing without formal construction and safety standards (Algoed & Hernández-Torrales, 2019; Safa, 1974; Yarina et al., 2019). Their vulnerability to extreme weather events and their basic needs often serve as a motivating factors both within and outside the community for the initiation of relocation programs and initiatives. Moving informal communities to new locations has the potential to offer residents access to areas that are safer from hazards and have better housing options. However, as was highlighted by participants in our study, the selection and movement to safe locations is not always a simple process. Limited land availability, lack of adequate planning in the new location, and community engagement in the planning process can lead to negative experiences around relocation and resettlement processes.

Furthermore, previous relocation efforts in informal communities have impacted the ways managed retreat practices are received. Specifically, development interests and unequal implementation of relocation and resettlement projects have affected the perspectives of informal communities toward planned relocation initiatives. In an effort to address these trust issues, community members suggested incorporating informal community members in the planning process for relocation and resettlement. Through the use of equitable community engagement efforts and an inclusive resettlement planning process, there may be potential to begin addressing the negative connotations associated with retreat projects in the eyes of informal communities.

Limitations and Strengths

This project explored multiple perspectives surrounding relocation and resettlement practices to mitigate natural hazard risk exposure in informal communities in Puerto Rico. However, despite the participation of a wide variety of relevant contextual experts (planners, architects, etc.) and community representatives (leaders and members), our sample does not fully capture the diversity of professional and community perspectives on informal community resettlement in Puerto Rico. For example, other professionals such as social workers and politicians could have offered a broader view of the social and political influences around relocation and resettlement initiatives, and a larger sample of community members and leaders could have provided a richer and deeper discussions about their individual and collective experience. Regardless of this fact, we believe our study provides an opportunity to learn about the relocation process from multiple critical perspectives while also providing a basic understanding of how managed retreat practices impact informal communities in Puerto Rico. We highly encourage future studies focused on exploring the key issues and findings discussed in this study.

Acknowledgements. The authors thank the participants (planners, architects, GIS analysts, community members, and community leaders) for sharing their time, experiences, and local knowledge with us. We also thank Alysa M. Alejandro Soto, Anel Gisell Rios Soto, Christopher Santos Cruz Daijanise Ortiz Malpica, and Isidro Rivera Cruz, students who assisted with the data collection, transcription, and translation efforts. Lastly, we thank the Natural Hazards Center for their generous support in funding the project and accommodating the various iterations of the research plan and proposal.


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Suggested Citation:

Lorenzo Pérez, M.A. & Contreras, S. (2022). Understanding the Impacts of Managed Retreat and Resettlement on Informal Communities (Natural Hazards Center Mitigation Matters Research Report Series, Report 8). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. https://hazards.colorado.edu/mitigation-matters-report/understanding-the-impacts-of-managed-retreat-and-resettlement-on-informal-communities

Lorenzo Pérez, M.A. & Contreras, S. (2022). Understanding the Impacts of Managed Retreat and Resettlement on Informal Communities (Natural Hazards Center Mitigation Matters Research Report Series, Report 8). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. https://hazards.colorado.edu/mitigation-matters-report/understanding-the-impacts-of-managed-retreat-and-resettlement-on-informal-communities