New Project: Metageographies and Spatial Frames: Coastal Management as Situated Practice in the international Wadden Sea Region

Following a successful application for funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG), my funding is secured for three years of research on embedded spatialities and situated practices of coastal management in the Trilateral Wadden Sea Region. The project will commence in Autumn 2016.

A summary is provided below. The project represents a continuation of a my recent exploratory work at the Wadden Sea (reported here & here) and more broadly on cultural geographies of the coast. At a conceptual level there are strong continuities with my previous research on metageographies and to a lesser degree, soft spaces, in spatial planning.

Wadden Sea

Coastal management constitutes an ever-present and challenging task for coastal communities across the world. Coastal landscapes occupying the interface between land and sea are characterised by particular and evolving relations between society and nature and characterised by complex interactions between geophysical, ecological, economic and socio-cultural processes. They are imbued with cultural and natural values and associated with diverse and at times contested rationalities of coastal and nature protection. Theoretically informed understanding of the relationships between coastal communities and their environments remains limited. In particular, there is an evident need for situated perspectives which explicitly recognise the diversity of coastal places and associated embedded practices of coastal management.

This research project introduces a novel, innovative approach to addressing the spatial dimensions of coastal management and the implications of particular spatialities on coastal management practices. Taking seriously the proposition that coexisting heterogeneity, multiplicity and diversity is a constitutive feature of spatiality, the project will firstly examine the extent to which coastal management practices are regionally embedded and situated within the coastal landscape. Through comparative case study analysis the research will identify similarities and dissimilarities in coastal management practices across the Wadden Sea and assess the extent to which dissimilarities are associated with local and regionally-specific cultures of practice and landscape characteristics. Secondly, recognising the socially constructed nature of space as well as the structuring role of spatialities in social relations the research will examine the role of embedded spatialities in the collective construction of coastal landscapes and practices of coastal management.

Two comparative cross-border case studies, located at the Dutch-German and Danish-German borders constitute the empirical focus of the research. The project will (a) identify the principal SIS of coastal management within each case study area and their associated actor constellations, normative principles and cultures of practice; (b) identify the influence of material spatial practices on the social construction of the Wadden Sea coastal landscape; (c) examine the role of metageographies as powerful spatial structures underlying the institutional structuring of coastal landscapes and coastal management practices; (d) identify, classify and critically examine processes of spatial framing and resultant spatial frames and their roles within the discursive context of specific sectoral-institutional systems; (e) examine the extent to which the spatial separation of nature and culture in discursive and material structures influences the conceptual separation of nature and culture within the wider institutional contexts of coastal management and nature protection.

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Research Workshop: Managing Coastal Change and Climate Vulnerability: Questions of Place, Space and Landscape

Climate change perception, landscape perception and management practices in coastal areas are integrally related. Climate change becomes grounded and is given meaning through landscape practices. Coastal management and climate change adaptation in theory and practice, have nevertheless struggled to deal with cultural aspects relating to the mediation of perception through landscape and the influence of climate vulnerabilities on the social construction of space, place and landscape. This workshop responds to this challenge, drawing together leading researchers internationally whose work provides important cultural and social-theoretic critiques both from within (spatial planning and coastal management disciplines) and without (cultural geography and environmental humanities).

Workshop Poster

Adaptation to climate change and associated sea-level rise presents profound challenges for coastal regions across the world producing new vulnerabilities, risks and uncertainties. Climate change is increasingly recognised to require a fundamental reassessment of conventional approaches to coastal engineering which have typically relied on hard infrastructures of dykes, dams and sea walls (Temmerman et al 2013). From a cultural geography perspective, it may be argued that the abstract discourse of climate change is given meaning and becomes grounded through the engagement of coastal communities with dynamics of actual and anticipated change in the coastal land- and seascapes (cf. Ratter et al. 2009, Kremer et al 2013). Through this workshop we seek to develop a situated understanding of coastal management as a highly differentiated and place-specific set of practices. Treating coastal management as a set of situated practices implies an acknowledgement of the spatial contingency of scientific, professional and lay forms of knowledge (cf. Brace & Geoghagen 2011, 287).

The workshop will bring a grounded comparative perspective to the question of managing coastal change which has been missing from academic and policy debates on integrated coastal zone management, climate change adaptation and the related field of marine spatial planning. The workshop will consequently focus on questions of spatiality which have received limited attention in the relevant literatures to date. Critical contributions to the growing literature on MSP from spatial planning scholars have argued for an in-depth reflexive engagement with MSP from a social science perspective. Kidd and Shaw (2014) critique the dominant instrumental if not technocratic view of MSP as a rational, technical process of universal applicability contending that marine spatial planning is ‘a social and political process that is inevitably highly differentiated and place-specific’ (2014, 2). We suggest that this critique is equally applicable to ICZM (and coastal management more broadly). Indeed, in spite of its longer history, the concept and practice of ICZM has generated remarkably little by way of critical social science research. At the same time, we argue for increased attention to the material dimension of coastal management and its impacts on the physical geography of coastal landscapes, whether through the construction of dykes, sea walls and other physical infrastructures or the allocation of land and sea -uses. Normative perspectives on ICZM and MSP, focussed primarily on questions of governance, have to date led to a partial neglect of the physical materiality of coastal management (McFadden 2007, 2008).

It is evident that there are marked differences in the national and regional institutional contexts and frameworks within which coastal management is practiced across Europe. Coastal protection in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany may be considered as highly institutionalised occurring within a vertically-integrated governance structure where policy remits and competences are clearly delineated. In the neighbouring federal state of Lower Saxony, coastal protection draws on a long tradition of local community action organised through dyke associations. They continue to play an active role in the physical maintenance of the primary dyke line and cultural maintenance of a particular tradition of coastal protection. Practices of coastal protection have thus developed over many centuries and are embedded within the mentality and culture of local coastal communities (Fischer 2007, 2011). Indeed, experience at the German North Sea coast, indicates substantial resistance to change among coastal management practitioners, potentially constraining opportunities for developing and embracing innovative approaches (Rupp-Armstrong & Nicholls 2007). In this context, it is thus possible to speak of distinct cultures of practice, which have emerged within but are not reducible to distinct national institutional, legislative and cultural contexts.

The concept of landscape can usefully serve to address the social and cultural values and framing implicated in the physical geography and materiality of coastal management from a social science perspective. Coastal management practices are instrumental in landscape change both in a physical and cultural sense. Adopting a situated perspective on coastal management implies that coastal management is materially and culturally situated in the landscape and reflects on its values. Drawing on constructivist approaches to landscape research we furthermore recognise that distinct sectoral institutional systems and discourse coalitions can lead to the simultaneous occurrence of multiple and conflicting constructions or framings of landscape and seascape in the same physical geographical area. Approached from this perspective the concept of landscape provides an important analytical link between aspects of materiality and the intangible aspects of spatiality.

Coastal Landscapes and the Spatial Separation of Nature and Culture

As sociologists of science such as Bruno Latour (1991) and critical political ecologists have persuasively argued, the separation of nature and culture is an artifact of modern society which does not hold up to closer scrutiny. In a forthcoming workshop paper, I argue that nature protection practices are implicated in the creation and perpetuation of a spatial separation of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ which may hinder the development of adaptive approaches to the management of socio-ecological systems.

I will present the paper (abstract below) at the forthcoming workshop of the German working group on landscape research (Arbeitskreis Landschaftsforschung). The workshop is organised by Kira Gee (University of Liverpool) and Martin Döring (University of Hamburg) and will take place at the Institute of Geography in Hamburg. The workshop focuses on sea, coast and river landscapes and aims to explore theoretical, methological, planning and empirical aspects. (The German title is: Meeres-, Küsten- und Flusslandschaften: Theoretische, methodische, planungspraktische und empirische Zugänge für die Analyse von Wasserlandschaften). My own paper represents the first, conceptual output of my new reseach focus on metageographies and spatial frames in coastal management which will focus empirically on the trialteral Wadden Sea region extending from Esbjerg in Denmark to Den Helder in the Netherlands abd encompassing the North Sea coasts of Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony in northern Germany.

Wadden Sea

Figure: The Wadden Sea, Common Wadden Sea Secretariat (2010) Wadden Sea Plan, p. 57,

The role of culturally embedded metageographies in the socio-spatial compartmentalisation of nature and culture: Insights from the Wadden Sea Region

Cormac Walsh

Our understanding and perception of the social world is underlain by culturally embedded spatial structures or metageographies which help us at an unconscious level to order our knowledge of the world. Research in political geography and spatial planning has pointed to the dominance of state-centric ‘container space’ metageographies in shaping the underlying geography of both the social sciences and planning practice. This paper examines the role of such metageographies in the construction of another form of container space; that of the trilateral Wadden Sea as a bounded space located in front of the dyke-protected coastline. In this context, a sharp spatial distinction has been established between a natural landscape in front of the dykes and a cultural landscape behind the dykes. This distinction, although in practice contested, continues to play a significant role in the institutional-discursive construction of the Wadden Sea Area and Region. The paper argues for greater attention to the ways in which nature and culture become separated in the discursive construction and institutionalisation of landscapes and the role of underlying metageographies in the production and reproduction of the socio-spatial compartmentalisation of nature and culture.