Sibyl Bloomfield





What role can Landscape Architecture play in increasing the adaptive capacity of coastal settlements and ensuring the ongoing viability of both social and ecological systems?

Historically human inhabitation has been focused around bodies of water; in New Zealand particularly, access to our coastlines is considered a birthright. (1) The threat of potential sea level rise is putting increasing pressure on coastal environments. Human intervention into coastal landscapes is having a significant effect on the stability and health of our coastal environments and their ability to respond to change. (2,3) The increasing demand for coastal property has seen economic incentives take precedence over the ecological and environmental values, and increasingly coastlines are being overtaken by large-scale developments. The need to develop a resilient and mutually beneficial relationship between these dynamic coastal zones and the human inhabitation is becoming increasingly apparent.

The current models of response to threats to coastal inhabitation are predominantly ‘retreat’ or ‘blockade’. (4) The Netherlands are the most widely recognized exponents of the ‘blockade response’ with complex systems of dykes and reclamations.(5)  More recently with the increasingly noticeable effects of climate change and sea level rise, managed ‘retreat responses’ are becoming more common.(6) Moving back to more stable ground and leaving the edge to its own devices neither addresses the history of human inhabitation of the coastal edge nor deals with the vulnerable nature of the coastal system appropriately. The discussion around the occupation of dynamic landscapes needs to move away from one of control and mitigation and toward greater symbiosis.

Climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of coastal threats; therefore coastal communities need to be better equipped to respond to them. Design-led approaches that acknowledge both human inhabitation and the dynamic nature of the coastal environment are imperative if we are to continue to live the ‘kiwi dream’ of beach holidays in coastal landscapes. The worldwide trend to develop sensitive and ephemeral barrier formations on our coast highlights, in particular the development style and financial investment that is under threat from climate change and sea level rise.

Open space is critical in providing a buffer between coastal processes and coastal settlements. The recreational and natural amenity these spaces provides value to the community while also increasing the flexibility of the natural environment. Most importantly these open spaces, if planned and designed appropriately, can play a crucial role in absorbing coastal threats and increasing the value of the settlements. 

Both urban design and landscape architecture deals with a complex range of stakeholders, often with opposing views. This makes these disciplines appropriate lenses for addressing the tensions and challenges involved in responding to climate change and its impacts to coastal settlements. With design as the interface between the conflicting needs of ecological and socioeconomic systems, a more symbiotic relationship between them can be created. There needs to be a greater understanding of the role that humans can play as part of the holistic system and not as the primary component. In the socio-ecological system adaptability can be defined by “the collective capacity of the human actors in the system to manage resilience”. (7) Our way of life is completely integrated into, and reliant on the continuing health and resilience of all inter-related systems both natural and man-made.

Building adaptive capacity within coastal settlements will increase their resilience and create space within the community for the absorption of gradual changes, while also providing a platform for faster recovery in the event of any larger scale disturbances. Nicholls and Klein propose five approaches to proactive adaptation to climate change:

  • Increasing robustness of infrastructural designs and long-term investments
  • Increasing flexibility of vulnerable managed systems
  • Enhancing adaptability of vulnerable natural systems
  • Reversing maladaptive trends 
  • Improving societal awareness and preparedness (8)

These approaches are tangible; they represent actions and ideals that are accessible and have sufficient definition to form a framework against which a design process and outcomes can be assessed. They deal with both social and environmental issues and cover concepts explored by both the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the Resilience Alliance. Proactive adaptation needs to embrace the concept of redundancy in resilience thinking by providing for change, in both social and physical realms without being specific about the form that it may take to build adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity is about latency and flexibility creating space for responsive adaptation within the socio-ecological system. The link between resilience, or adaptive capacity building and design, needs to be further explored, so that resilience can be given an accessible face that engages community interest, for reasons other than simple necessity. 

The relationship between socio-economic and ecological systems on the coast is fraught with misunderstandings and one-sided arguments. Design, and in particular landscape architecture ,plays a critical role as the interface between ecological needs and socio-economic needs and wants; with design as the interface the relationship can be symbiotic. The strategies developed in response to the issues identified in the design studies provide a platform for finer-grained design moves that will interface the natural environment values with those of the settlement community.

Robustness of social capital, economic value and long term investments can be developed through the creation of high value social spaces that encourage community interaction and social capital building. Building and maintaining a strong sense of place and community identity relies on strong public spaces and high value natural character that the community is closely engaged with. Community engagement in and responsibility for the interlinked ecological systems that characterize the sand spit community is important; particularly in settlements where the majority of the population is temporary. Social capital drives economic and social investment and leads the way for robust infrastructural designs that support and enhance the natural environment.

Flexibility in the man-made environment, as well as in the natural systems is critical for increasing adaptive capacity. Space must allow for changes, both ecologically and socially driven, to ensure the continued viability of coastal sand spit settlements. This must also be achieved in ownership and management responsibilities, to allow for greater diversity in both the social and ecological systems. Encouraging shared responsibility and ownership creates space for change in both the ecological and built fabrics, providing greater flexibility in all elements of the physical environment and socio-economic and ecological systems. This space allows the design to absorb changes in the environment. 

Adaptation is a response to change; and adaptive capacity is the space that is made to allow for changes. Space is not just a physical phenomenon, it can be created through social awareness to accommodate changes without being adversely disruptive. Creating space or tolerance is part of building robustness and increasing flexibility. A strong foundation, built from robust social and ecological capital, and supported by robust infrastructural designs, provides a framework within which change can happen without disrupting the sense of place or social character. 

Adaptive capacity is about absorbing and responding to change. Adapting allows gradual change and growth of the entire socio-ecological system concurrently. Enhancing the natural systems through regeneration, conservation programs and public awareness of the value of natural processes and eco-system services, is an integral part of increasing their adaptive capacity.

Identifying and reversing maladaptive trends in development, land management, infrastructural designs and societal attitudes is recognised worldwide. However the process of changing habits and short-term-goal driven attitudes is complicated. The importance of creating an attractive package is obvious. Society is more likely to buy into wholesale changes if the changes are wrapped attractively in ‘added value’ and ‘increased surety’. 

Awareness builds preparedness; the strength of infrastructural and social systems is critical in response to potential threats that will be exacerbated by climate change. The natural environment has been responding and changing for millennia. The impact of coastal threats affects the social and built fabric most severely. If coastal settlements are to increase their adaptive capacity then awareness of, and preparedness for, potential threats is critical.

Adaptive capacity is achieved through creating open space. Open space allows flexibility, which in turn ensures a robust coastal system. Design is a medium for generating space, which can both mediate and encourage symbiosis between, the wants and needs of the community and the ecological imperatives of the natural environment. Successfully designed open spaces within our coastal environment can perform environmental services and social ones, creating and supporting the interaction of natural and man-made systems to ensure the ongoing resilience of the coastal settlement.


(1) Peart, Raewyn. Castles in the Sand. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2009.

(2) Hilton, M, U Macauley & R. Henderson. “Inventory of New Zealands’s Active Dunelands.” 2000. Science for Conservation 157. 2009. <>.

(3) McFadgen, B. “Archaeology of the Wellington Conservancy: Kapiti-Horowhenua.” 1997. Department of Conservation. 2009. < technical/kapitiarch.pdf>.

(4) Beca Carter Hollings & Ferner. “Omaha Coastal Compartment Management Plan.” 2003. Rodney District Council. 2009 <>.

(5) Visser, J. & Misdorp, R. “Coastal Dynamic Lowlands – The Role of Water in the Development of The Netherlands: Past, Present, Future.” 1998. documents/00000496_C4.105-108.pdf. 2009.

(6) Beca Carter Hollings & Ferner.(2003)

(7) Walker, Brian; Holling, C. S; Stephen R. Carpenter & Ann Kinzig. “Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social-ecological Systems”. 2004. The Resilience Alliance. <>.

(8) Nicholls, Robert J. & Richard J. T. Klein. “Climate Change and Coastal Management on Europe’s Coast.” (Eds), J. E. Vermaat et al. Managing European Coasts: Past, Present and Future. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag Berlin, 2005. 199-225.