Photo: Lidunn Mosaker Boge©Nofima.

Is integration the new buzzword in coastal zone planning?

The world is facing major challenges: rising temperatures, rising sea levels and food shortages; One wouldn’t be blamed for losing sleep over issues of lesser urgency. Although the solutions to these problems aren’t yet on the agenda, we know that they can be found in the ocean. Oceans and coastal areas have been singled out as a hotbed for future growth and development.

Facts about the project

The FAIRCoast project aims to facilitate more integrated governance of the coastal zone in Norway.

Here, increased tourism and aquaculture are to become the new alternatives to oil and contribute jobs, while more environmentally friendly food and energy production will provide for a greener future. Ocean and coastal areas are also valuable natural and recreational areas that must be preserved for posterity.

In short, things are happening along the coast. However, when many things happen in the same place at the same time, problems often arise. And although we have one of the world’s longest coastlines thanks to a countless number of islands and fjords, (actually the second longest in the world, only beaten by Canada), there isn’t always enough room for everyone. Even where huge coastal areas are involved, space is a scarce commodity, and the distribution of scarce commodities is far from simple. How can one best ensure that differing interests can live side by side? And in cases where one type of use excludes another type, how should one decide who gets access.

The answer that is often given regarding these questions is more ‘integrated planning’. Similar words that are also used are ‘unified’, ‘coordinated’ or ‘concerted’ planning, but they are all based on the same basic idea; if we look at different considerations and areas uses in context, the planning processes will become more efficient and the distribution of land-use more equitable. But what does that actually mean in practice?
‘Integrated’ planning can involve very different things, and many factors need to be in place for it to actually function in practice.

In the project FAIRCoast (“Facilitating Integrated and Responsive Coastal Governance”), we are studying various aspects of Norwegian planning to identify what either contributes to or prevents more integrated governance of the coastal zone.

At first glance, integrated planning sounds like a good thing, but it could quickly become a buzzword and join the list of other similar concepts like ‘sustainability’ or ‘ecosystem-based management’

Within the actual planning process, where municipalities are primarily responsible, integrated planning may require that planning takes place across boundaries. This might mean that one spatial plan is made that includes both sea and land areas instead of making two separate plans, or that one looks beyond municipal boundaries and makes a joint spatial plan involving one or more municipalities. Furthermore, it might revolve around how well one facilitates participation or how thoroughly impact assessments are made.

Outside the actual planning process, however, there may be completely different requirements that must be taken into account. Key to this is that so-called ‘overall’ considerations are included in a good way. Examples of such topics that do not belong to a specific sector can include climate and environmental considerations, sustainable development or public health. These are topics that cannot be resolved by a single actor, where no one actually has the overall responsibility and where all involved are required to share more or less the same perception about the goals and how to reach them.

A key element that must be in place so that these types of overall considerations are handled in a good way, is conformity between different sectoral authorities’ responsibilities. Even though the municipalities have a very important role when it comes to coastal area planning, they are far from alone. A tangle of various sector authorities that each manage their own area, such as fisheries, aquaculture, shipping traffic etc, also needs to be coordinated. The question here is whether the different sector authorities are stepping on each other’s toes. This also applies to the relationship between different levels of authority, namely municipalities, counties and state.

Therefore, it is far from clear what integrated planning entails, and a lot needs to be put in place before we reach our goals. At the same time, it is necessary to ask some critical questions about the objectives of integrated planning. It is undoubtedly positive that many aspects are viewed in context when governing our oceans and coastal areas, however, it also leads to some challenges.

Firstly, it is not given that more integrated planning leads to more efficient planning. If more integrated planning in practice simply gives rise to more extensive processes, where more users are involved, more interests have to be taken into account and more thorough assessments conducted, planning will be a protracted and costly affair. Many municipalities are already struggling today with a lack of resources, and the situation doesn’t get any better by having to do ‘more for less’. A possible solution may include clearer signals regarding what the municipalities should prioritise when it comes to planning, something that could provide stronger guidelines from the outset and thereby limit the scope. However, this will unsettle municipal autonomy, and it is doubtful that it will be well received by the municipalities.

Secondly, regardless of how the integrated planning is organised, nothing changes the fact that in some cases, planning is a zero-sum game that deals with the distribution of benefits. In other words, we only have a given amount of space available, and if someone gains access, then others will be excluded. Even though an ‘integrated process’ can potentially give more legitimacy to decisions, there will always be some who feel unfairly treated.

The fact that more interests and areas of application are being seen in context, as well as increased cooperation across both municipal and authoritative boundaries, is undoubtedly positive, but we should be realistic in relation to the goals of integrated planning being a response to the challenges of today. At first glance, integrated planning sounds like a good thing, but it could quickly become a buzzword and join the list of other similar concepts like ‘sustainability’ or ‘ecosystem-based governance’; popular words that are often highlighted as a goal we should strive for, but where the practical significance often comes second.

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