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.

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.

Rethinking the Spatiality of Spatial Planning

Rethinking the Spatiality of Spatial Planning: Methodological Territorialism and Metageographies, European Planning Studies (online first)

This paper, accepted by European Planning Studies in Ocotber 2012 and now available in the ‘latest articles’ section online is my most theoretical paper to date, as indeed the title might indicate. The empirical work it draws on, is drawn primarily from my PhD research on strategic spatial planning for the Dublin-city region. The focus here is on the territorial politics (or perhaps, local scale geopolitics) of spatial planning. It is well-known perhaps that  ‘localism’ is a key feature of Irish planning and development practice. But what do we mean by ‘localism’ precisely? What type of geograhical associations does localism in spatial planning apply?

This paper contributes to partially answering these questions – although admittedly using more convoluted/technical/precise? terminology. Specifically the focus is on the influence of ideas of politically-bounded territorial space on the representation of space in spatial planning documents and in the spatial politics or discourses of political representatives associated with the planning processes for the city-region. In this case, county boundaries represent the dominant spatial imaginary or ‘metageography’. At the same time, however, processes of strategic spatial planning seek to introduce new ways of thinking about relations across space, based on ideas of fucntional geography and to smoe extent relational space. This ‘soft space’ approach is however constrained by the dominant territorial imaginaries which continue to focus on the political and administrative boundaries rather than functional relations.

The paper has gone through a long process with many iterations along the way. Previous versions were presented at the Regional Studies Association Annual International Conference in Pecs, Hungary and at a European Urban Research Association workshop in Oslo (both in May 2010). A working paper version was also published as part of the NIRSA working paper series  in November 2010.

Published Abstract

This paper argues for increased attention to the role of territory and territoriality in framing sociospatial discourses in the context of spatial plan making. In particular, it is suggested that the engagement of political actors with processes of spatial planning tends to be framed within particular spatial imaginaries which reflect established political-administrative and territorial boundaries. It is contended that a critical analysis of the territorial framing of processes of spatial planning is necessary in order to understand the capacity for spatial strategies to effectively challenge and reconfigure established sociospatial imaginaries in functional or relational terms. It is suggested that spatially explicit public policy statements, such as planning strategies, may be characterized by specific assumptions of territorial space, in a similar manner to which mainstream social science has contained implicit assumptions of state-centrism. The salience of territorial spatial imaginaries is demonstrated in the case of European spatial planning and through a local case study of city-regional spatial planning and politics in the Greater Dublin Area.