Managed retreat presents a dilemma for at-risk communities, and the planning practitioners and decisionmakers working to address natural hazard and climate change risks. The dilemma boils down to the countervailing imperatives of moving out of harm’s way versus retaining ties to community and place. While there are growing calls for its use, managed retreat remains challenging in practice—across diverse settings. The approach has been tested with varied success in a number of countries, but significant uncertainties remain, such as regarding who ‘manages’ it, when and how it should occur, at whose cost, and to where? Drawing upon a case study of managed retreat in New Zealand, this research uncovers intersecting and compounding arenas of uncertainty regarding the approach, responsibilities, legality, funding, politics and logistics of managed retreat. Where uncertainty is present in one domain, it spreads into others creating a cascading series of political, personal and professional risks that impact trust in science and authority and affect people’s lives and risk exposure. In revealing these mutually dependent dimensions of uncertainty, we argue there is merit in refocusing attention away from policy deficits, barrier approaches or technical assessments as a means to provide ‘certainty’, to instead focus on the relations between forms of knowledge and coordinating interactions between the diverse arenas: scientific, governance, financial, political and socio-cultural; otherwise uncertainty can spread like a contagion, making inaction more likely.
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