The Landscape
of Retreat

Publication forthcoming  [K. Verlag, Berlin]

A Platform for Research in Natural Hazard Preparedness


The Landscape of Retreat offers a portrait of adaptation, established through fieldwork across exemplary sites and communities living with risk. The publication seeks to creatively refine the idea of ‘retreat’ by examining select, precedent-setting sites. Because the term poses more questions than it answers, it is important to understand what retreat is not: it is not nostalgia for sobering events, and it is not a last resort. Instead, the articulation of retreat offers a framework for attending to the radical difference between accepting norms and refusing to be stuck in their game.

The difference opens the possibility for adaptive stories to register with a concerned public, as an alternative to global-integration strategies that insist on rebuilding on otherwise vulnerable land. The Landscape of Retreat is a primer for advancing planetary strategies that are not limited by citizenship or geography, and engage changing biophysical, ecological and cultural processes equally.


Over forty retreat cases structure the book. Sunken Ancient Egyptian cities that once occupied the unstable shorelines of the Nile’s estuary, nomadic patterns transformed by the climatic shifts of the Little Ice Age in Greenland, the birth of a volcano in mid XXth century Mexico and the move from water to land of boat-dwellers in the lagoonal landscapes of Vietnam are some of the cases that build an expanded imagination around retreat.

Fieldwork was conducted across four exemplary sites and communities that acknowledge the recurrence of vulnerability or the augmentation of risk and have taken action—independent from mainstream policy—to move out of harm’s way. The basic theoretical and practical parameters of moving accepts the fluctuations of landscape and reacts in response. The research that emerges highlights the land that is ‘left behind’ as humans resettle on higher, drier ground. The Landscape of Retreat expands how creative disciplines can grow their response strategies in collaboration with the changing landscape.

Forthcoming book

As the land shifts, quakes, and floods with increasing frequency, it is evident that current modes of adaption and mitigation are increasingly short-lived. Already, questions arise regarding the sustainability of ongoing funding to reinforce the status quo through rebuild procedures and resettlement operations. Even as future predictions continue to underestimate or fail, and as alternate configurations intensify, it is clear that current institutional structures at the local, national, and international scale are lacking frameworks for dealing with growing risk, how to effectively assist its victims cope and adapt in their current conditions, and even more urgently, how to develop a framework for an alternative future.

Focusing on one of the most significant vulnerabilities within settlement patterns, this Colloquium specifically considers the effects of intensifying sea level rise and its effects on littoral ridges—from coasts, to rivers, streams and wetlands. In particular, the panel will address the potential of domestic migration in the context of retreat, relocation rebuilding. Given the reality of time-limited approaches, as well as eventual reductions in both geography and investment, the Colloquium will consider retreat as a viable spatial alternative, with consideration of what is needed for design and policy to accommodate this possibility.

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Colloquium “Retreat | Rebuild: an essential dialogue between Design and Humanitarian Fields” with Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Harvard Art Museums, Various invited guests and panels including UN shelter cluster, World Bank, Yale University and MoMa NYC. (2017)

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Elkin, R.S. and J. Keenan, “Retreat or Rebuild: Exploring Geographic Retreat in Humanitarian Practices” in Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies to Costal Communities, W. Leal ed. (Birkhauser, January 2018). Ch. 10, (Peer Review).