Hunting for the planners’ facts

Project leader Ann-Magnhild Solås and scientist Ingrid Kvalvik in British Columbia, Canada, to learn how different stakeholders' views are implemented in coastal zone plans. Photo: Nathan Young

Coastal planners in Norway and in Canada have recently been visited by social scientists. The objective of the interviews is to gain insight into how municipal planners work on coastal zone plans and impact assessments.

There is often much debate when politicians are about to adopt plans for our coast. Many people have strong opinions about who should be allowed to use the coastal areas, and how.

“There are guidelines for how a planning process should be carried out, but there is a great difference in how the various municipalities solve their tasks,” says Ingrid Kvalvik, research scientist.

Scientists from Nofima, NIKU and the University of Tromsø are now travelling around Troms, Hordaland and British Columbia in Canada to talk to municipal and county or regional district planners. The interviews provide scientists with insight into how the different planners work to provide the coastal zone plans to be adopted.

The coastal commons

Unlike on land, where there are private property rights, business activity in the sea takes place in a commons.  The idea of the coast belonging to the public, something that everyone has an equal right to use, stands strong in Norway. Making changes there, either by building facilities that give the place a different visual expression, or that nature changes because of an activity there, often goes against the ideal of an untouched, enduring nature that gives peace to mind and soul.

But it is not only for recreational purposes that the thought of unspoilt nature is strong.  Untouched nature is an attractive sales product, for both tourists from Asian cities with populations in the multi-millions and Norwegian cottage buyers.

Building something in the coastal zone, for example wind turbines, will often make them more visible and to a larger area than those built on land.  How much such visual intervention in nature interferes with the individual stakeholders in the area will vary. The locals will notice that such structures transform the surroundings in their daily lives, and changes access to fishing and recreational areas.  In many coastal municipalities, planners and politicians face a dilemma when they must facilitate needed business activity while safeguarding other public interests.

Aquaculture or no aquaculture

Troms and Hordaland were chosen as Norwegian focus regions for the project because these counties have very different planning processes and therefore represent different ways to solve the challenges. The extent to which there have been conflicts in work with coastal zone plans in these counties, it has largely been between aquaculture and other interests.

In Hordaland, wishes to expand aquaculture facilities have met resistance from stakeholders for cultural heritage, nature conservation and outdoor life and recreation. In Troms, it is the conflicts of interest between fishermen and fish farmers that have been most dominant.

British Columbia, Canada, has a smaller aquaculture industry than Norway, but the resistance to it is stronger. The conflicts here also concern indigenous peoples’ rights, which we also have a parallel to in the Sámi areas of coastal Norway.

The decision basis

Among other things, scientists are researching how the planners find the information they need. What databases have they used and to what extent have locals been given the opportunity to bring their knowledge to the table?

“In some places, there are many public meetings at which today’s use of the coastal zone and possible developments are discussed, but not in all places. In some regions, the planning processes have been full of conflict. The coastal zone affects many different stakeholders, and it is important that there is enough knowledge of these in the planning process,” she says.

Not all conflicts of interest can be solved, but if the process has been good, the local politicians will have a better basis upon which to make their decisions.  The information basis and how it is considered is one of many things that is being analysed in the project.

Could there be too much knowledge?

One of the objectives of the Coreplan project is to map whether all interests in the coastal zone are considered in the discussion when decisions are made. A perspective from biology is that nature provides a variety of services – such as clean water, shelter for animals, fish and birds, that are important to us and from which we can harvest. Nature can give us recreational opportunities and contribute to our identity. These services are termed the ‘ecosystem services’. Such services may correspond to different kinds of values for us. Social scientists are now investigating whether it would be expedient to use this perspective in coastal zone plans.

The scientists have been met with both enthusiasm and scepticism as they present this new way of thinking about planning. Among the more restrained inputs Kvalvik and her colleagues have received, is the concern that there is already a lot to be considered in planning. The new approach will provide even more. Information is important, but if it is too much, it may become unmanageable.

“One planner we talked to meant that you perhaps did not need so much information – there are often huge amounts of data to relate to. But coastal zone plans are often about conflict resolution, and the new approach may contribute another type of insight that may be good,” says Ingrid Kvalvik.

Information is gathered and organised to make it easier to make decisions about how the coastal areas could be used.

“We are going through a large amount of data at the moment, and still have more key people to talk to.  The question is whether there can be other ways to identify  the resources in the coastal zone and their benefits to humans than those we use today, which can make the planning process better,” says Kvalvik.