Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the results of a research mandated by the regional government of Lombardia, Italy. The results identify the criteria used to decide in what situations the relocation from areas subject to high levels of hydrogeological hazards is a viable preventive strategy. Design/methodology/approach – In the first part, the state‐of‐the‐art regarding voluntary relocation from hazardous areas supported by governmental funding and incentives has been described, showing that very few examples are available for reference. Therefore, lessons learned from involuntary relocation have been considered – especially regarding specific strategies that must be designed to address societal needs. In the second part of the article, the criteria developed, to help decision makers decide when and if relocation may be considered a preventive option, are described in detail. Finally, it shows what results have been obtained by applying the criteria to the case of the Lombardia region. Findings – Four sets of criteria were proposed, shaped according to different geographical scales and to different demands, recognizing that relocation is a rather extreme solution that must be carefully evaluated and proposed to interested parties and citizens. Those criteria have been applied to assess some specific cases in the Lombardia region, and to identify potential candidates for relocation in the whole region, by querying a complex database that was prepared – integrating layers representing hydrogeological hazards on one side, and exposed settlements on the other. Practical implications – Until now, most of the laws to prevent risks have imposed limitations to building and development in hazardous areas, while rarely focusing on existing settlements. The experience described in this article concerns a region that has decided to design a specific law to promote preventive relocation in the most critical situations, where structural measures have failed a number of times, and losses are frequent and large. Originality/value – The criteria proposed in this paper provide a method and a tool for deciding in what cases and circumstances relocation can be considered a viable preventive option to lessen the risk in particularly critical zones, exposed to high hydrogeological hazards. In doing so, it shows that relocation can be considered not as an “emergency” and episodic measure, but rather as a part of a more comprehensive policy, in which candidates for relocation can be determined on a regional scale respecting basic social, political and economic conditions.
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