Marine Coastal Cultures Panel at KDM Social Sciences and Humanities meeting in Kiel

by Friederike Gesing

The Marine Coastal Cultures Network convened a thematic session at a two-day workshop organized by the Strategy Group Marine Social Science and Humanities within the German Marine Research Consortium (KDM) on May 24-25, 2018 at Kiel University. The workshop was hosted by the research group „Social Dynamics in Marine and Coastal Areas“ (Kiel University, Institute of Geography). The full program can be found here. As an introduction to our session, Cormac Walsh took up the opportunity to introduce the group to the MCC network and blog (this website), present the brand new virtual bookshelf and invite participants to contribute.


This was followed by a short conceptual input on more-than-human political ecologies, building on ethnographic material from my work on coastal protection in Aotearoa New Zealand. I zoomed in on volunteer dune restoration which is, in accordance with national coastal policy, framed as using “natural defences”. I argued that the recreation of natural dunes by volunteer Coast Care groups relies on various human and more-than-human practices and things. Native dune plants are part of a complex assemblage of sociomaterial practices, actors and objects, and their availability for Coast Care is the result of successful experiments with cultivating native plants in greenhouses.

Coast Care activities, Bay of Plenty, Aotearoa New Zealand. Photos: (c) F. Gesing

Furthermore, Coast Care implies permanent care and maintenance work, planting certain species while removing or excluding others – with enclosures and fences, poison, traps, weeding and other measures. Coast Carers restore an assemblage of animals and plants defined as native. However, the native plant is a historically contingent and natural-cultural category. Those who argue that volunteer dune restoration works with nature are simplifying a complex field by drawing a simple distinction between nature and society. In order to promote their political objective – to provide alternatives to hard protection – and to link it to the larger international discourse on nature-based solutions, they engage in a “strategic naturalizing” of nature (cf. Thompson 2001).

A more-than-human approach understands nature as the outcome of the sort of human and more-than-human practices observed in the field (Hinchliffe 2007). By looking at the entanglements of nature and society, instead of a strict separation, the focus is shifting: to the material processes and social context, to the question which natural environments are preferred and by whom, and to taking responsibility for the answers that are given to these questions. Because the assemblage of nature is a process, intervention is possible and how to engage in the “making of better natures is […] an empirical and political question” (Hinchliffe 2007, 191). A first step towards sustainable more-than-human assemblages of the coast is then to make visible how human and more-than-human actors, practices and objects are gathered and work together – and against each other.


Mara Ort, member of the artec Sustainability Research Center and PhD candidate with the International Research Training Group INTERCOAST, presented insights from her study on the production of space at the Aotearoa New Zealand coastline. Mara’s project addresses how different constructions of coastal space influence planning and development processes of coastal infrastructures. Her approach includes interviews, participatory mapping and document analysis across three case studies: wharf redevelopment in Auckland, runway extension at Wellington Airport, and dredging activities for the Port of Tauranga at the Bay of Plenty coast.

Wellington Airport, Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo: (c) M. Ort

While the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010 gives regional and territorial authorities the mandate to preserve the natural character of the coast, there are conflicting understandings among councils and other coastal management institutions as to how people and the environment relate. The Department of Conservation, the federal nature protection agency, sees people in conflict with nature, whereas Tangata Whenua (local groups of indigenous Maori) put forward an understanding of people as a part of nature. This is in tension with hegemonic understandings of planning, which perceive space mostly in terms of physical structures. In the discussion of her empirical findings, Mara therefore drew on Stephenson’s  (2010) call to take people-place relationships into account.

Mauao (Mount Maunganui), Tauranga, Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo: (c) M. Ort

In their legal challenge to the controversial dredging of shipping channels in Tauranga Harbour (Te Awanui), local Maori groups have framed the harbour as a “garden in the sea” that nourishes history, traditions, identities and mana, as expressed in the proverb “Ko au te Moana, ko te Moana ko au”(I am the sea, the sea is me). This shows that contrary to the hegemonic production of space in planning, there are multiple definitions and meanings of the coast which are expressed in multifold, potentially conflicting practices such as the collection of seafood, recreational use (surfing), or dredging, constructing, and reclaiming.


Cormac Walsh‘s  input “Negotiating Spaces of Nature and Culture at the Wadden Sea” drew a comparison between the Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea National Park in northern Germany and the neighbouring Danish Wadden Sea National Park in southern Danmark. Through qualitative interviews and interpretative policy analysis, Cormac explores how the relationships between society and the sea, nature and culture are articulated and framed in the context of the two national parks, which are characterized by contrasting nature-culture imaginaries, metageographies, and governance cultures.

Do National Parks constitute a form of heterotopia; ‘natural spaces’ set aside from society or should they rather be viewed as instruments for sustainable regional development (Foucault 1986, Kupper 2012, Mose 2007)? This question is answered differently in the two national contexts. In Germany, the objective of the Wadden Sea National Park is to allow natural processes to proceed in an undisturbed manner, a practice which leads to sharp boundaries that exclude hinterland coast and inhabited islands. The German Wadden Sea is understood as a natural landscape. In contrast, the Danish National Park is based on the “use, protection and development in sustainable interaction between people and nature”. Here, the Wadden Sea is perceived as a regional commons and a peopled landscape.


 National Parks – a form of heterotopia? Photo: (c) C. Walsh

The two case studies demonstrate the need for an understanding of coastal management and nature conservation as situated practices, embedded within specific socio-cultural contexts. Through the designation and management of areas of nature protection at the coast and at sea, nature-culture relations are renegotiated and reframed with significant implications for broader processes of coastal management, nature conservation and regional development. Yet the relationships between protected areas and their coastal and marine hinterlands may be interpreted and articulated in very different ways.


Jane Clarke from the School Of Natural And Built Environment at Queen’s University Belfast presented her ongoing research on the transition to a low carbon economy in English and Scottish marine spatial planning (MSP). Jane’s research responds to calls for a more critical approach to MSP evaluation, recognizing both the winners and losers of MSP in practice (Flannery et al. 2016). It takes place against the background of complex spatially and temporally variable uses of the UK’s marine areas in combination with a “horrendogram” (Boyes and Elliot 2014) of marine policy and legislations that leads to fragmented and sectorally focused marine governance. Since 2009, the UK has required the implementation of MSP, defining high level objectives and seeking to eventually establish an ecosystem based approach to managing their waters. The project will investigate if, or how the transition to low carbon economies, which is one of four high level objectives of UK MSP, is occurring across the English and Scottish marine areas.

Research questions: (c) J. Clarke

The project uses semi-structured interviews and thematic analysis and builds on concepts from the Science and Technology Studies literature, including Star and Griesemer’s (1989) conceptualisation of boundary objects facilitating collaboration despite heterogeneity, and Thomas Gieryn’s  (1983) concept of boundary work in rhetorical actions between scientists and non-scientists. While empirical research using the boundary objects concept – such as Tamara Metze’s (2014) study of Fracking in Dutch policy – often has a tendency to focus on their facilitative features and “interpretative flexibility” (Bijker 1995), Jane’s practice-based approach to studying the negotiations over the transition to low carbon economies also puts emphasis on unequal power relations (Oswick & Robertson 2006) and  hierarchy of knowledge boundaries (Carlile 2002).


The research presented in this session demonstrated the value of qualitative empirical approaches for the environmental social sciences. Overall, the panel nicely featured the fundamental role of concept work for understanding coastal management issues. At the ontological level, there have been questions raised such: What is nature/natural? How do people and environments relate? What does transition mean? Interviews, participant observation and document analyses are used to investigate how different framings are enacted in discourse and practice (Mol, 2002). This way, the papers are able to identify hegemonic understandings of space, native nature, landscape, or sustainability, as well as to explore alternative approaches put forward by less powerful actors.

Between Nature and Culture, Land and Sea: Spatial Practices at the Coast: A Conference Report

by Cormac Walsh

The fiftieth anniversary Conference of Irish Geographers, took place at Maynooth University, (close to Dublin, in County Kildare) from 10-12thMay 2018. In response to a call for papers for a themed session with the title: Between Nature and Culture, Land and Sea: Spatial Practices at the Coast, Ruth Brennan (Centre for Environmental Humanities, Trinity College Dublin) and I convened a double session with eight papers[1]presented to a lively audience on the last day of the conference. We were particularly interested in papers which viewed coasts and coastlines as boundary spaces and explored ways in which natural and cultural values are contested and negotiated at the coast. With this thematic focus, the session built on recent work on cultural geographies of coastal change (e.g. Walsh & Döring 2018) and was informed by a broader concern to bring together perspectives from cultural geography and the environmental humanities.

 The first paper, by Frances Rylands and colleagues from the interdisciplinary Cultural Values of Coastlines project at University College Dublin explored the concept of emotional ecologies as a means of incorporating cultural values in policy-making at the coast. Her paper addressed the question of how nature-culture relations can be narrated at the coast, working with through practices of story-telling and story-mapping. Drawing on the Lorimer’s Wildlife in the Anthropocene (2015), she spoke of the non-human charisma of seals and their role as digital personalities in the communication of particular images of nature at the coast. Her paper highlighted the importance of developing and articulating an ethic of care in relation to the marine environment and the potential role of story-telling in articulating otherwise intangible and difficult to grasp emotional responses and cultural values.

Seal photo

A charismatic seal, Glengarriff Bay, Ireland. Photo: (c) C. Walsh

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Tidal Cultures: An Introduction

by Owain Jones
The Tidal Cultures blog was started as part of a UK – Dutch research project conducted from 2012-2015. This was the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Humanities Research Networking and Exchange Scheme; “Between the Tides”:  Comparative arts and humanities approaches to living with(in) intertidal landscapes in UK & the Netherlands. Learning from those who live and work with complexity, change and fragility’: Dr Owain Jones; Countryside and Community Institute; and  Dr. Bettina van Hoven, Department of Cultural Geography, Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen.

severn bridge004v2

Severn Bridge, circa 1979 (c) Owain Jones.

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A Manmade Land? Cultural Meanings and Material Practices of Coastal Protection at the Wadden Sea

by Cormac Walsh

The Wadden Sea constitutes an inter-tidal coastal landscape, reaching from Den Helder in the Netherlands, along the German North Sea coast to Blavands Huk in southwestern Denmark. This coastal landscape has been shaped over a period of a thousand years or more by dyke-building, land reclamation and drainage practices as well as periodic storm flood events producing a material and symbolically powerful boundary between the land and the sea. Today the inter-tidal landscape in front of the dykes is recognised as a unique, ecologically rich and diverse ecosystem of outstanding natural value with the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The status of the Wadden Sea as a natural landscape is nevertheless contested, particularly among the coastal communities for whom this coastal landscape is their home-place or Heimat (Walsh 2017).

The tidal landscape of the Wadden Sea coast has been argued to present a ‘mental provocation, challenging the image of a clear and secure line of separation between land and sea, constitutive for modern scientific and administrative understandings of the ‘coast’ (Fischer, L. 2011). The Wadden Sea presents a challenge to this – literally – linear understanding of the coast in two senses: firstly the fluctuation and fluidity of the barrier between land and sea is prominently visible through the extensive diurnal tidal range, characteristic of this low-lying coast. Secondly, the historical record documents substantial shift in the physical location of the coastline as the consequence of catastrophic storm events, processes of erosion and sedimentation as well as practices of land reclamation. Since the construction of the first dykes in the twelfth century, the boundary between the land and the sea has been progressively pushed westward through extensive dyke-building and land reclamation (Krauß 2005). The history of the coastal landscape is also marked by catastrophic storm-flood events, which resulted in extensive loss of life, land and livelihoods. A storm-flood, recorded to have occurred on the 16th of January 1362 led to the loss of Rungholt in Northern Friesland, an important regional trading centre of time. Similarly engrained in the historical memory of the region is a storm flood event in 1634, which claimed almost 10,000 lives and the island of Strand (Quedens 2010). In Eastern Friesland, the village of Itzendorf was lost to the ‘Christmas Flood’ of 1717. In more recent times, a storm surge in February 1962 brought extensive damage along the North Sea coast and tested the existing system of dykes to their limits and beyond in a number of cases.


Map of Eastern Friesland showing the lost village of Itzendorf, northwest of the town of Norden, by Ubbo Emmius (dated 1595).

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Walling the Coast: Notes from Metro Manila

by Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa

It was in May 2017 that I became stealthy seawall walker, when I finally mastered the fear of losing my footing, clamored atop some loose concrete to gingerly tread the length of about half a mile above northern Manila´s cinereous-gray breakwaters.

12. Long wall

A dike in the making, Navotas City, Metro Manila

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The Relationship between Fishing Generations: Community, Identity, and Knowledge Exchange

by Hannah Fennell

For many fishermen, fishing is much more than a job- it is a way of life, providing fishers with a sense of satisfaction, a connection to the environment and, ultimately, with an identity and a community that spans across the globe. The Orkney Islands is a small archipelago located off the north coast of Scotland, with an inshore fishing fleet of over 100 boats, the majority of which are under 10m in length. Lobsters and brown and velvet crabs are the most valuable species to the fishery, and this is reflected in the presence of two crab-processing factories on the islands. My work with Orkney’s fishing community is grounded largely in assessing the value of the industry to the communities. While I originally began exploring the values of the industry through an economic lens, it was through interviewing and speaking to fishermen and their families I found that the values of the industry extend far beyond the price per kilo of a crab.


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Humanities for the Environment Report 2018: Some Reflections

by Cormac Walsh

In late 2017 / early 2018 two Special Issues of international journals (Global and Planetary Change and Humanities) were published which together constitute the Humanities for the Environment Report 2018 (HfE 2018). The HfE 2018 Report provides key examples of how “humanities research reveals and influences human capacity to perceive and cope with environmental change” and seeks to change perceptions of the Environmental Humanities (Holm & Brennan 2018, p. 1). Both Special Issues emanated from the European Observatory of the broader worldwide Humanities for the Environment initiative. In this context, the term humanities is defined very broadly to include the social sciences. The editors and authors focus very deliberately on the actual and potential role of the humanities and social sciences in relation to contemporary environmental challenges. The first Special Issue, edited by Poul Holm and Charles Travis, seeks to engage with the earth science readership of Global and Planetary Change. In what follows, I focus, quite selectively, on key insights from the Humanities Special Issue and in particular the introductory text (Holm & Brennan 2018) and the article of Billing et al (2017) on sectoral, policy and academic visions for the marine environment. Specifically, I focus on two insights concerning societal adaptation to change and the concept of ‘world-views’. Continue reading “Humanities for the Environment Report 2018: Some Reflections”