A Tale of Three Cities

The case for radical retreat

Humanity reached peak stupidity one year ago when US President Donald Trump suggested moving the city of Seoul to avoid the risk of a North Korean nuclear attack. Around the same time, the city of Jakarta announced plans to move. This was not so widely ridiculed, as Jakarta is actually sinking and has no choice. Around the same time as that, legendary filmmaker Peter Jackson produced the film adaptation of Mortal Engines, a story about cities in a postapocalyptic future which have been elevated on wheels and treads and now roam the countryside chasing each other around. The film was a gargantuan failure, losing a reported $175M USD—which might have been enough to kickstart Jakarta’s nascent efforts.

Despite a brief midcentury flirtation with moving cities (brought to you by Archigram), the idea itself has largely been relegated to the realm of science fiction. In the meantime, humanity has outpaced the Trump/Hollywood absurdity race by doing something even more absurd: buying time against sea level rise. Across the world, we continue to raise houses, raise sea walls, and otherwise bury our heads in the sand. Sand which is rapidly being washed away. It is time for something new: radical retreat.

I distinguish this from “managed” retreat—a term gaining in popularity because it represents two palatable things: order and pragmatism. The principle concern around managed retreat is our historically low appetite for it. We didn’t embrace retreat after Hurricane Katrina, or Superstorm Sandy, or Typhoon Haiyan. Indeed, many ravaged places are merely resettled after the immediate threat passes. Home is home. And there was something compelling about that place that made people want to live there.


The answer is to give humanity a compelling reason to live somewhere else. Not based out of fear of what might go wrong, but for the promise of what might go right. ‘‘Radical’’ retreat is the optimistic, heady, almost-rushed migration to a new location. We have to see migrating cities as a chance for radical, beautiful futures. An opportunity for a quantum leap in human development. The new technologies that we have always fantasized about. Planned cities have historically been about order. The belief that the stroke of the designer’s pen could separate this neighborhood from that, eliminate social ills and grime and such. That didn’t exactly work out, but that’s okay! Every mistake we’ve made in the last 200 years now has renewed purpose. Every failure in our use of public space, and how to layout infrastructure, is now a blueprint for a new form of city. Even, and especially, their location.

After several decades, the retreat of Soldiers Grove, WI, USA might be seen as pedestrian.  But it was certainly a radical retreat in its time. Soldiers Grove was “America’s First Solar Village.” After a series of devastating floods, the town decided to move itself in 1983. What’s more, it took the initiative to convert to solar power at the same time. Why rebuild the town with the same old gas stations and generators and all that? Why not just rebuild with solar and never have an electric bill again?

An equally radical example currently in progress is Kiruna, Sweden. The city is under threat of subterranean collapse due to adjacent mining activities. So the town center is being moved 3 km to the east. Financed by the mining company, the town is building new housing units and transporting some of the older heritage buildings on massive trucks to the new town. The most radical thing here isn’t the relocation of an entire town, but the fact that an industrial company is actually being held financially responsible for the destruction it wreaks. Right on!


Soldiers Grove and Kiruna offer a hopeful window into things to come. Together, they offer two central imperatives of city-moving.

First, that city-moving is an opportunity for progress, not just relocation. Asking 10 million people to move just isn’t going to work, unless the city is being attacked by the Kraken. Creating the possibility for a better life for those 10 million people only a few miles away creates organic motion that policy wonks can’t engineer. After gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill, California, 70,000 miners from all over the world moved there in only a few months. They were running to something instead of away from something.

Second, that those who engendered the move should be the ones to pay for it. To do otherwise has an inexorable result. Against the unrelenting rising sea, those with means will move. Those without, will stay and face flooding, dispossession, and misery.

Cities will move. That is inevitable. Whether it becomes an opportunity to embrace radical new futures and new technologies, and to create more equitable cities, and to learn from the past 10,000 years of city-making, is up to us. But unless we choose this future for ourselves, the other future seems predetermined: we will win the absurdity Olympics by shear inertia. And those that will suffer the most are those who are already suffering in humanity’s indifference: our homeless, our slum-dwellers, and our informal communities.

Let’s get as excited about the new possibilities as we are scared of the new hazards. Then, we’ll build the cities that we—all of us—truly deserve.

MAIN IMAGE: Many places ravaged by the consequences of sea level rise are merely resettled after the immediate threat passes. Photo Vinh Nguyen/Unsplash