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Exploring the social context of coastal erosion

management in New Zealand:

What factors drive particular environmental
The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN: 1174-4707
Volume : 2010-1

Exploring the social context of coastal erosion

management in New Zealand:
What factors drive particular environmental outcomes?
Paula Blackett, AgResearch, Hamilton, New Zealand.
Terry Hume, National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA), Hamilton, New
Jim Dahm, Eco Nomos, Thames, New Zealand.
Keywords: Coastal hazards, stakeholders, communities, positive and negative
environmental outcomes

Paula Blackett

Terry Hume

Jim Dahm

New Zealand.

National Institute of
Water and
Atmosphere (NIWA)
New Zealand

Eco Nomos
New Zealand

Coastal erosion and its associated hazards to property and infrastructure and the debates that
emerge over remedial measures cause conflict that requires negotiated solutions involving all
key stakeholders. A series of New Zealand case studies is presented and indicates that positive
or negative environmental outcomes are largely the result of how the negotiation proceeds, who
is involved, how resource management agencies behave and the nature of the physical
environment. Positive outcomes emerge when: Cooperative relationships are established,
learning and trust are developed, risks are addressed, scientific input is managed, lobby groups

are defused, contending interests are reconciled, and records are kept of the negotiation
process and agreements reached.

Exploring the social context of coastal erosion

management in New Zealand:
What factors drive particular environmental outcomes?

Coastal erosion is a natural process that becomes a hazard or a problem when it poses,
or is perceived to pose, a threat to things that humans value (Ricketts, 1986). Yet,
notwithstanding the risk posed by coastal erosion in many New Zealand localities, there is a
strong desire to live close the coast because of its high aesthetic and recreational value.
How to address coastal erosion is a challenge for many coastal communities because there is
debate about alternative remedial measures, resulting in conflict that needs to be resolved. A
series of New Zealand case studies is presented to understand the coastal erosion issue and
identify the factors that determine how best to achieve positive environmental outcomes which
preserve the natural character of the coast. In this paper, positive environmental outcomes are
equated with the retention of natural character because this is described as a matter of national
importance under New Zealands guiding environmental legislation.
New Zealand has a coast that is highly dynamic and varied, with shorelines that are constantly
shifting in position as a result of changing sediment supply, wave attack, gradual changes in
sea level associated with climate change, tectonic movements and local factors including
human intervention (Goff, 2003; Healy & Kirk, 1982; Hume & Herdendorf, 1988). Many of the
earlier coastal settlements were located too close to the sea to accommodate these changes.
Moreover, in some places human interference in natural coastal dynamics and the function of
beach systems has made things worse (Pilkey & Hume 2001). When coastal erosion or storm
events threaten private property, valued community assets or a popular beach the community
demands (from local government) some action to protect their interests. The perceived
solutions, presented by affected parties, are as diverse as the range of values associated with
the coast (Becker et al., 2007; Blackett & Hume, 2006). Central to debates about how to
manage coastal erosion is the challenge of reconciling the interests of those whose private
property is at risk from coastal erosion and public interest in community safety and
sustainability. It falls to local government to work with the community, within the constraints
imposed by the Resource Management Act (1991) (RMA) and other relevant legislation, to
develop an appropriate strategy given the situation at hand. This is never a straightforward
Cooper and McKenna (2008) suggest that when an erosion event occurs the choices are to
either intervene, accept or adapt, or as the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) put it, protect, accommodate or retreat ( Klein et al., 2001; Nicholls et al., 2007 ).
Traditionally, interventions have been dominated by a paradigm that focuses on holding the
line (i.e., a protect approach) by using shoreline armouring and engineering structures. More
recently, there has been a move to use environmentally soft or soft engineering methods
such as beach nourishment and dune restoration (Klein et al., 2001). This reflects a shift away
from a humans against nature ethos towards a more integrated ecosystems based approach
(Kay & Alder, 2005) which is, in essence, about managing humans rather than beaches. This
paradigm shift has gained momentum in the light of the predictions that climate change may
aggravate coastal erosion and flooding and the associated adverse affects of some coastal
engineering structures; and increased emphasis on sustainability and concerns about the
resilience of coastal settlements (Nicholls et al., 2007). Nevertheless, how much this paradigm

shift is reflected in practice is unclear. Adaptation and acceptance of natural coastline

fluctuations may involve managed retreat (i.e., relocation) of community and private assets out
of the erosion prone area over the course of time (Cooper & McKenna, 2008). Application of this
approach is constrained by the nature of the assets and the extent of the human settlements at
risk (Nicholls et al., 2007).
Each approach to managing coastal erosion has a different distribution of benefits and costs
within the community at local, regional and national scales (Cooper & McKenna, 2008). Hard
engineering options (e.g., a sea wall) may protect community or private assets (within design
parameters) but the beach in front of the structure is likely to erode, resulting in potential loss of
the beach. In such a case, beach amenity and use for locals and visitors are lost in favour of
protecting homes and or infrastructure; and significant downstream impacts may also occur.
Managed retreat on the other hand will see beach amenity and public use protected at the
expense of property and or infrastructure. Soft engineering options can potentially maintain both
the beach and protect property; however, success is highly dependent on the nature of the
physical environment, the affordability of the mitigation measures and successfully negotiating
an outcome that reconciles different contending interests. Of course, protection, accommodation
or retreat are not mutually exclusive options. In reality, a combination of approaches over time
may be appropriate. The selection of coastal erosion mitigation strategies is complex because
the chosen strategy must manage both the physical environment and the trade-offs between
numerous values and interests in the coastal marine area at local, regional and national scales.
Furthermore, the chosen strategy must be affordable and equitable. What constitutes an
appropriate solution is, however, highly contested, with multiple stakeholders having very
different interests and agendas. Invariably, the final outcome is a product of how these interests
are addressed through a public decision-making process. Six New Zealand case studies will be
examined to understand the coastal erosion issue and identify the factors shaping the outcome
of efforts to mitigate the associated impacts. The next section provides an overview of how the
New Zealand coastal environment is managed and the nature of coastal communities.

Managing the New Zealand Coastal Environment

The main legal provisions governing the coastal environment
The RMA is the key piece of piece of legislation governing coastal management in New
Zealand. The Act has a sustainable management focus and requires anyone exercising powers
under the Act to recognise and provide for the preservation of the natural character of
the coastal environment (including the coastal marine area), wetlands, lakes and rivers and
their margins, and their protection from inappropriate subdivision, use, and development
(s6(a)). ......... Regional councils, unitary authorities and district and city councils are responsible
for the day to day application of the RMA.
Regional councils are required to sustainably manage natural and physical resources (including
biodiversity, water, soil and air) while district and city councils focus more on land use activities
(e.g., subdivision). ..... Applications for restricted coastal activities require a public hearing
presided over by a hearings committee that will include an appointee of the Minister of
Conservation. ..... This recommendation may be appealed to the Environment Court, which in
turn reports to the Minister. ....... The public can make their concerns known at several stages in
the policy and planning processes; in particular, through submissions ...... City and district
councils can issue building consents for structures, coastal defences and domestic dwellings in
accordance with provisions in the Building Act (2004), which also has provisions for making
publicly available information about hazard risks associated with specific properties through
Project Information Memoranda.
New Zealand Coastal Communities

Coastal communities in New Zealand are a very diverse mix of residents, absentee owners
(beach home owners) and household income and age groups (Becker et al. 2007; Stewart, et
al., 2005). Cheyne & Freeman (2006) suggest the composition of many coastal communities
has changed in the last few years as a result of amenity based purchase of second homes
(holiday homes, baches or cribs) or a counter-urban movement by those seeking a lifestyle
This sea-change phenomenon (Burnley & Murphy, 2004) has numerous social impacts
(Cheyne & Freeman, 2006) which are particularly relevant in a study on the social context of
coastal erosion. Of particular relevance, are increasing property values buoyed by a high
demand for coastal property (Cheyne & Freeman, 2006). Many small coastal baches have been
replaced with much larger and more valuable dwellings. As a result, beachfront property
represents a significant financial investment.
According to Turbott & Stewart (2006), many owners expect to use their property in perpetuity
regardless of whether or not the property is at risk from coastal erosion. It is likely that
inadequate attention is focused on such risk when people buy beachfront property and
undertake significant property development (Bin & Kruse, 2006; Dahm, 2003; Turbott & Stewart,
In the Waikato region, for example, many people think that coastal erosion will not happen in
their community within the next 20 years (Stewart et al., 2005). Many sandy shorelines in New
Zealand are in long term retreat (Pilkey & Hume, 2001) , but, even where the impact of coastal
erosion is already evident, the risk associated with coastal erosion may not be understood or
taken into account. For most people, concern about coastal erosion arises only after an event
(such as a coastal storm) threatens something they value (Cooper & McKenna, 2008).
Beachfront property owners who have been impacted or perceive themselves to be under
imminent threat are then likely to take concerted action to protect their property and the
associated financial investment; notwithstanding potential impacts the protective measures
might impose on other stakeholders, for example, those who wish to maintain beach amenity
and the natural character of the coast, or property owners downstream that might experience
adverse impacts due to protective measures. Conflict inevitably arises and may become
intractable because of the significant interests at stake. Understanding the social context of
such conflicts sheds light on key factors affecting the choice of erosion mitigation strategy, and
how the public decision-making process determines the outcomes of such choices.

Issues surrounding community involvement in coastal erosion management are explored at six
locations in New Zealand to identify the factors that contribute to retaining or losing natural
character of the coastal environment, ..... natural character includes natural features (i.e.,
landforms, indigenous and introduced flora and fauna) and natural processes (both physical and
All coastal environments retain some degree of natural character although increased human
modification reduces naturalness. Situations that resulted in retention of natural character are
described as positive environmental outcomes whereas loss of natural character is considered
to be a negative environmental outcome.
Soft mitigation options, like dune re-vegetation or managed retreat, are thus deemed
positive environmental outcomes because they do not impact on natural character, are
consistent with many district plans and do not reduce the public amenity value of the coast.
Negative environmental outcomes result from mitigation measures that adversely affect natural

character e.g., because of shoreline armouring (or some other hard engineering option). Such
hard engineering approaches may succeed in stopping the shoreline from retreating further
(and thus protect beachfront). But they typically lead to a loss of high tide beach and natural
character of the area, and may also cause significant downstream impacts. In addition to
considerations about natural character, the choice of mitigation strategy obviously has important
social, cultural, aesthetic and economic impacts. The latter are not the focus of this study.

Muriwai Beach forms the southern end of a long dissipative, black sand beach on the west
coast. It receives the full force of long period ocean swell generated to the south of New
Zealand as well as shorter period waves generated in the Tasman Sea. There are large
movements of sand on and off the beach in response to changes in the wave climate and the
level of the beach rises and falls about one to three metres as a consequence. The dunes are
eroded and scarped along the shore. There is strong longshore transport of sand from south to
north along the shore.
Since the 1960s, Muriwai beach has been eroding with the shoreline retreating around one
metre per year. Erosion has threatened mainly Regional Council public park infrastructure,
including a car park, the surf club, the surf club tower, a golf course and roading.
Past attempts to control the erosion include a seawall constructed by the Army around 20 years
ago to protect one of the car parks and, more recently, constructed defences of gabion baskets
and tipped rock to stop erosion where the road and boat ramp enter the beach.
The Regional Council engaged a consultant to facilitate a solution with local stakeholders. This
third party involvement was important to counteract some distrust amongst locals of the council
and its long term plans for the beach front. The consultant established a process where all
stakeholders were represented (local, councils, wider community groups, surfers etc.).
Stakeholders were not committed to any preconceived outcome.
What is interesting about this situation is that the most vocal stakeholders and the wider
community both wanted to retain the natural character of the beach. The end result was a
managed retreat solution through staged implementation with assets to be relocated away from
the seashore when certain trigger points are reached. This solution provides time to conduct
further investigations, get the required resource consents and for the community and beach
users to adapt to change.
Moreover, it allows for the unpredictable nature of coastal erosion. This solution has now been
written up as a formal strategy and hazard lines have been formalised. The surf club has
already been moved inland and fortunately council reserve land is available to accommodate all
future infrastructure moves. Community relations with the Regional Council improved as a result
of this process and now the council continues to manage the reserve in a more inclusive
manner giving the local community more say over what happens at their beach.