Perspectives on social value, processes, and outcomes of Marine Spatial Planning at MARE People and the Sea X, June 24-28, 2019, Amsterdam.

Perspectives on social value, processes, and outcomes of Marine Spatial Planning at MARE People and the Sea X, June 24-28, 2019, Amsterdam.

By Patricia Manuel, PhD, MCIP, LPP


Exploring the human dimension of Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) is one of the themes of the Centre for Maritime Research – MARE – and the People and the Sea conference held every two years in Amsterdam. As a first-time participant at a MARE conference, it was a pleasure to be immersed in discussions about the social value, processes, and outcomes of MSP, and the five days of wide-ranging exploration and debate on the role, contributions, challenges, and opportunities of and for social science in coastal and ocean policy, governance and management. And, fortunately, the conference venue was air-conditioned. We began with a welcome and a “heat advisory” from the chair and MARE Director, Dr. Maarten Bavinck – “We don’t usually have weather like this in Amsterdam.”


It was hot in Amsterdam at the end of June, like the rest of western Europe blanketed in the waves of sweltering air pumping out of Africa. It was so hot that kids were swimming in the canals; restaurants had moved outside to the shade of awnings; even the droves of cyclists slowed down, a bit. Given the weather I had left behind on the North Atlantic coast of Canada, I was not complaining.


Established in 2000, MARE, the Centre for Maritime Research, is a social science collective that fosters academic and applied research and scholarship on the use and management of the marine environment and resources. MARE operates out of the University of Amsterdam and through four institutional partners: University of Amsterdam, Wageningen University, Aalborg University, and Tromsø University. MARE explores four themes from global to local perspectives: Fisheries, especially management and governance; Maritime “work worlds” or, working in maritime contexts; Integrated coastal and ocean governance; and Marine Spatial Planning. MARE publishes the on-line, open access journal, MAST – Maritime Studies Journal and the MARE Publication Series and hosts a biannual policy day and a biannual conference.


The 10th MARE conference, titled “People and the sea: Learning from the past, imagining the future,” met June 24-28, 2019 at the Roeterseiland Complex, University of Amsterdam. About 400 delegates from around the world attended. The program comprised three plenary key note addresses, 100 (!) concurrent sessions, an opening reception, and a celebratory banquet that highlighted student achievements. The 2019 Policy Day that preceded the conference explored the question: What is the social and economic value of fishing in the North Sea and how can we incorporate this into marine science and policy-making?


Conference dinner at Dominicus Church, Amsterdam.
Photo by D. Werle


The sessions were wide ranging: coastal and ocean planning, management, and governance; blue growth and maritime economies; fisheries economies and management; social justice and social economies in small scale fisheries; maritime cultures, heritage, and landscapes; aquaculture and communities; marine environmental quality; marine conservation; food security and marine food systems; maritime local and traditional knowledge systems; marine spatial planning; and more. Researchers from our Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) module – “Social License and Planning in Coastal Communities” – presented papers on research themes of the module. Jessica Melvin outlines the presentations by our researchers on our news page.


With so many compelling topics and papers, it was hard to make a choice, but I was there for Marine Spatial Planning and aquaculture, specifically, which meant that most of my choices were obvious. Six sessions covered the social science aspects: two “general” MSP sessions and a set of four sessions titled ”Critical turn in marine spatial planning – whence and whither,” organized by the Marine Spatial Planning Research Network. Four sessions covered aquaculture, two titled “The human dimension of aquaculture,” one examining “Aquaculture and the ocean frontier” and one “Scrutinizing aquaculture.” These sessions explored the implications and impact of aquaculture for and on maritime community society, economies, and development. Other sessions of interest examined coastal governance approaches. I attended one of the latter specifically to learn how Norwegian municipal planning might contribute to integration in coastal governance


The first MSP session was loosely organized around engagement practices in MSP and ocean and coastal management. By chance and by luck, our presentation, ”Framing community-based decision-making and planning for aquaculture through a participatory Marine Spatial Planning approach” was the first presentation in the session. A rare opportunity!


The MSP sessions routinely drew between 30 and 40 participants, even with 10 concurrent sessions. Being in the first group meant that pretty well anyone interested in MSP was there and especially the scholars from the Marine Spatial Planning Research Network who have been giving a great deal of thought to and critical analysis of the human dimension of MSP and the direction in which MSP is going.


Our paper fit well with the flow of ideas that emerged over the six sessions. We examined and critiqued the opportunity for community-based, deep participation in MSP (with eventual application to aquaculture) among probable MSP stakeholders in Nova Scotia and a document-based analysis of participatory practices used in five MSPs of smaller geographic scope (from British Columbia, Rhode Island, and the United Kingdom). Other papers in the first MSP session looked at community engagement techniques in various applications of coastal management and marine protected areas and MSP. Fortuitously, one of the papers aligned perfectly with another applied research program of mine – nature-based approaches to coastal management. A conversation with the presenter gave me the background I needed to visit (which I did) and appreciate the ”sand engine,” an enormous beach nourishment project on the Dutch coast, just north of Hook of Holland.


The sessions titled, ”Critical turn in marine spatial planning – whence and whither,” were the core of the MSP discourse at the conference, organized by the Marine Spatial Planning Research Network. The very well-organized sessions, thought-provoking papers, and excellent post-presentation discussion created the experience of a symposium on the social dimensions of MSP within the bigger conference. The papers examined where we have been (and are currently) with MSP; the projected trajectory based on existing MSPs and processes; and how that path could put us in an unsatisfactory place for the social outcomes of MSP and MSP governance. Much of the critique centred on the unfilled potential of MSP for, or re-direction away from, meaningful community involvement or integration of social needs and the top-heavy/top-down framework at the expense of local level development and control. Critique of power and control stood out, as well as lack of devolution of power among players, especially to communities where the economic outcomes of MSP should accrue. Concerns about the perceived neo-liberal framing of MSP parallel some of the contemporary critique directed at modern urban development planning. There was also discussion of MSP not realizing its potential to integrate spatial planning across the land-sea continuum. Some jurisdictions are moving in this direction, but the dominant high-level MSP framework is not structured to address the interests of community-level planning and the nuances of local geographies.


Since the majority of participants were from Europe, much of content about MSP was European-based. Nonetheless, we also heard about the American MSP experience and perspective and how MSP illustrates and contributes “to our understanding of contemporary environmental governance … that MSP in the USA has the potential to deliver alternative outcomes to marginalization of communities and enclosure of environments for capital accumulation, but this potential is fragile.”


The smaller geographic scope of the UK plans makes them interesting for our research because we might employ a similar geographic focus. In fact, these plans (Shetland Islands, East England, and Northern Island) were among the set we examined in our work. A particularly relevant presentation for our research focused on an adaptive governance evaluation framework, applied to the two Scottish marine plans – Clyde and Shetland Islands – using 16 semi-structured interviews among the actors in the two plan areas.


Some papers and informal conversations explored the sector-driven orientation of some MSPs, an approach that can be appropriate in coastal regions where one development sector is seeking new space among already established uses. The common sector drivers in these situations are wind energy in the North Sea (Denmark, the Netherlands, for example) and aquaculture (Norway, Scotland), a focus of obvious relevance to our research. Of note, the jurisdiction of Norwegian and Scottish municipalities extends into the marine coastal zone, providing an opportunity for local government involvement in MSP that is not readily available to Canadian coastal municipalities. For us, this means considering other opportunities and contexts, in particular those that speak to the community impacts and implications of marine resource development and the responsibility local governments have to help communities determine their suitability for such development or how to prepare and benefit from it.


What can the lessons and messages of these conference sessions mean for our research? Because I am a licensed professional planner, as well as an academic researcher of planning practice, my training and professional responsibility direct me to think of the social critique of MSP in the context of planning.

UNESCO defines marine spatial planning as “a public process of analyzing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives that have been specified through a political process.” The Canadian Institute of Planners defines planning as “the scientific, aesthetic, and orderly disposition of land, resources, facilities and services with a view to securing the physical, economic and social efficiency, health and well-being of urban and rural communities.” One definition focuses on the marine environment, the other on land and communities. Both, however, are concerned with the distribution of human activity in using the environment (land or ocean) and resources. Both definitions refer to environment (ecological/physical), economic, and social objectives. Sustainability is evident in the statement of professional responsibility of professional planners in Canada. The first statement in the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) Code of Professional Practice is titled “The Public Interest” and instructs that “Planners practice in a manner that respects the diversity, needs, values, and aspirations of the public, as well as acknowledge the inter-related nature of planning decisions and the consequences for natural and human environments” [Italics added]. The MSP definition and the CIP Code of Professional Practice identify respective forms of planning as a public activity. Planning is, at its foundation, a public enterprise undertaken in the interest of the public.

My professional responsibility and academic interests direct me to consider how MSP can contribute to the public interest, to civil society, in the context of Atlantic coastal communities. We already extract resources from the ocean, use the ocean for access and for recreation, and we already try to protect sections of it for biodiversity. If we are going to use MSP to strengthen these initiatives, in the way the UNESCO definition of MSP suggests, how can we undertake these activities in the public interest, and for the public good? The social critique of MSP practice suggests MSP is currently falling short of delivering on the social objectives.

MSP is underdeveloped in Atlantic Canada so, moving forward with MSP in some capacity we have an opportunity to think critically about the social value, processes, and outcomes of this planning activity, and early integration of meaningful inclusion of and direct benefits to the public. Because our research work is distinctly local-level – aquaculture located in bays that coastal communities consider to be their experiential and economic domain, even if local level jurisdiction does not formally encompass the geography that is perceived by people who live and work there – MSP to support decision-making about aquaculture will be a community planning process in practice.