04.12.2020 : Cushla Loomb

Spatial planning for coastal management

Our climate is changing. And no one is feeling the effects more than low-lying Pacific countries. Most efforts and funding provided to date in the Pacific have related to infrastructure improvements or long-term planning of infrastructure to enhance resilience. However, enhancing the resilience of our coastal communities is more than armouring against sea level rise and improving drainage to mitigate coastal inundation. Bold steps are required to ensure our coastal communities and infrastructure are truly resilient and sustainable in the long-term.

Observations from the work I have been involved in across the Pacific, are that the transformational step changes we need are typically only achieved after a catastrophic instigator event. For example, in Samoa a whole coastal community was displaced inland after a cyclone in 2009, when wave run-up damaged the district of Aleipata and made villages uninhabitable.

When disaster strikes, there is a high acceptance that change is needed and, with little alternative, change happens. Unfortunately, long-term climate resilience was not achieved in Samoa in this situation, as the coastal area damaged by the cyclone was eventually re-populated, and so the community remains at risk.

Planning for the future

The key challenges to planning for the future of our coastal communities in the Pacific are the same as those experienced in New Zealand. For example; land ownership and cultural impacts, social fragmentation and economic considerations such as land productivity or value, and the cost of resilience measures (both to construct and maintain).

New Zealand has aging infrastructure and, when the impacts of climate change are overlaid, the costs of maintaining infrastructure are increasing – such as with continual maintenance of roads and pipes, and investment in protection structures such as higher stopbanks and seawalls. Adding to that, the current legislative framework sets up an expectation that we should protect existing land uses and this is reflected in the general engineered response preferred by owners with properties at risk.

The Samoa example proves what can be achieved when faced with hard decisions (in this case with little alternative). The problem with climate change is that the impacts happen incrementally, and the impetus for change does not tend to attain the same level of community awareness and immediate need that a catastrophic event demands. However, with good long-term planning in place, the Samoa situation could have been different.

Engagement and vision the key to success

Many organisations are preparing frameworks that lay out the steps Council and communities need to take, to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. Engagement and achieving buy-in are still matters that remain challenging. Delving into the reasons for this, it appears that in the absence of a clear vision of the future or ‘end goal’, combined with the subtle and incremental changes in the climate we are experiencing, make it difficult to articulate exactly what the benefits of change are, and achieve action on the ground. Funding and funding priorities are a key contributor particularly given the three-year term of decision makers and the fact most funding comes from the ratepayer purse.

So how do we articulate the future vision, to one that can be used to inform the ‘incremental process’ of steps required to adapt to the impacts of climate change? Spatial planning has been used for many years in the context of resource management. However, regional and district plans are limited in their ability to apply wider than the Resource Management Act (RMA), and as a result they are often poorly integrated with infrastructure strategies and funding under the Local Government Act.

The RMA reforms report, New Directions for Resource Management, identifies this shortfall and proposes a new legislative framework that embeds spatial planning as the key mechanism for improving strategic integration across different legislative requirements. Spatial plans have the ability to address the impacts of climate change, including both adaptation and mitigation measures by setting long-term direction that incorporates a suitable evidence base for climate change.

Long-term outlook, collaboration and a national direction

National direction is required to develop common methodology for what will be considered and mapped in a spatial plan. In my view, the spatial plan will need to paint the picture to guide what actions will be done over a 30 to 50-year horizon related to the typical life of infrastructure, but will be mapped based on the predicted impacts of climate change over a 100-year timescale.

In the international context, a ‘no regrets’ policy is adopted where decisions in an uncertain environment are based on a precautionary approach and enhance resilience whether the impact eventuates or not. This approach should form the foundations of any New Zealand spatial plan being developed to enhance resilience.

In the context of coastal management, mapping should include consideration of alternative land-uses in areas subject to sea level rise and ‘room for the river’ type floodplain management and associated retirement or relocation of key infrastructure over time (noting some of our lifeline utilities, such as airports, are in areas of future risk from climate change).

There is also the obvious need for meaningful collaboration and engagement in the development of spatial plans, given the varied jurisdictional responsibilities of key parties (such as District and Regional Councils, infrastructure providers including Waka Kotahi and KiwiRail, and mana whenua). 

Spatial planning is a process that enables you to bring ‘known information’, scientifically expected information and community aspiration for change together to create a clear vision - with local government playing a key role. Spatial plans can be linked to existing frameworks, and in this way provide the ‘vision for the future’ that incremental actions and change can be measured against to track progress and measure success. Early work to establish collaborative working groups and gather the information necessary to frame a spatial plan will assist in setting good foundations ahead of any national direction.

About the Author

Cushla Loomb

Technical Director - Planning

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