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Planning for Sea Level Rise: Adaptation in Small Coastal Communities in Aotearoa New Zealand

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This article presents findings from research undertaken to explore how local authorities and small coastal communities can successfully and sustainably adapt to accelerating sea level rise (SLR) associated with climate change.
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6PLANNING QUARTERLY
PLANNING FOR
Brenna Sherson
University of Otago MPlan Graduate and Urban Planner at WSP
Ashraful Alam (corresponding author)
Master of Planning Programme Coordinator, School of Geography, University of Otago
– adaptation in Small Coastal Communities
in Aotearoa New Zealand
Sea Level Rise
SEA LEVEL RISE
7ISSUE 217
Adaptation to SLR: Too complex to plan?
ere are known challenges in
implementing planned adaptation to
SLR. Short-term responses can lead to
maladaptation that passes on hazard
vulnerability to future generations,
whereas long term responses are oen
controversial and evoke widespread debate
[1]. e uncertainties in predicting future
SLR negatively inuence both political
and public will to initiate sustainable
adaptive responses. Political and public
will to adapt is generally triggered by
sudden natural hazard events that elicit
shock and fear within the community.
Episodic responses that are quickly built
and then abandoned by local authorities
as the immediate hazard passes, will not be
adequate for responding to climate change
induced SLR [2]. SLR is occurring and
will aect the entire population, although
For cover photo: Flooding in Long Beach, 24
July 2017 Photo: Alfie West
Source: “Our City, Our Climate” Report by
Willis and Cox (2018, p. 27
ash.alam@otago.ac.nz
This article presents findings from research
undertaken to explore how local authorities and small
coastal communities can successfully and sustainably
adapt to accelerating sea level rise (SLR) associated
with climate change.
not everyone shares an understanding of
what it actually means, how it will impact
society, or what we should do about it
[3]. Coastal communities will be the rst
to experience the impacts of accelerated
SLR due to climate change, therefore
these communities are more susceptible
to harm [4]. Unfortunately, they are less
likely to have the means to proactively seek
out participation opportunities within
planning due to barriers that are explained
in the ndings section of this article [5].
Why research on small coastal
communities?
Signicant research has focussed on
climate change eects and responses in
Dunedin [6, 7], with a number of research
projects currently investigating South
Dunedin, the largest coastal community in
Dunedin predicted to be impacted by SLR.
e immediacy of hazards such as ooding
associated with climate change, has
made it easier for communities and local
authorities to understand the importance
of a planned adaptation response [6].
In comparison, the impacts of SLR on
smaller coastal communities are expected
to be more gradual but will become more
frequent over time. e dierences in
the temporal scale result in dierent
conversations regarding how coastal
communities understand climate change
and how they should adapt to it [3, 6].
While the value of exploring how to
facilitate planned adaptation to SLR
in coastal communities is generally
well understood, there is little research
focusing on small coastal communities
that are oen marginalised in formalised
planning processes. is study provided
an opportunity to investigate the dynamics
and challenges to facilitate planned
adaptation to SLR by examining two
small coastal communities in Dunedin:
Long Beach and Aramoana (Figure 1).
Both are low-lying, with properties and
infrastructure vulnerable to inundation
during high perigean spring or ‘king’ tides,
which occur 3-4 times annually. ey are
also highly vulnerable to sea inundation
and high-water speed and associated health
risks [8]. Due to distinct localised attributes
(e.g., demographic make-up, density) and
being zoned “Township and Settlement” in
the District Plan, adaptation responses that
are appropriate for South Dunedin will not
suit these small settlements.
Planning for SLR: What can we learn from
Dunedin’s small coastal settlements?
Primary data for this study1 was collected
in June-July 2019 using semi-structured
face-to-face interviews with professionals
in the climate change adaptation eld
in local governments in Dunedin and
community members living in the case
study areas. e rst few community
8PLANNING QUARTERLY
SEA LEVEL RISE
members were reached through the
community groups of the Aramoana
League and the Long Beach Amenities
Society, and then a snowballing method
was employed to reach other members.
ematic analysis of interview materials
informs three key ndings: a) stakeholders
have mixed views on the current national
and local level adaptive responses; b)
there are barriers to eective engagement
with legislated and non-legislated forms
of public consultation; c) communities’
characteristics are the key to enhance
resilience and adaptation capacity. ese
are elaborated in the following three
sub-sections.
National and local adaptation responses
to SLR: how, who and where – require
consistency
ere were mixed views among
practitioners and community members
on the dierent national and local level
adaptation responses to SLR currently being
implemented in small coastal communities.
First, there is a general uncertainty on how
local authorities should respond to SLR due
to an overall lack of direction and clarity
in the national level guidance. At times the
guidance available from the national level2
seems to be falling short, and practitioners
urge for “more tools and teeth” to be able to
put the national guidance into real-world
action. However, there is the danger that
communities do not view pre-determined
options positively. Local authorities should
co-develop the solutions to enable creative
options that address local needs and desires.
Furthermore, there is uncertainty about
who should respond to SLR. e blurring
of the roles and responsibilities of the local
authorities was consistently recognised as
a barrier to carrying out actions, including
community engagement. e shared roles
and responsibilities for hazards explicitly
set out in the Resource Management
Act 1991 require the Otago Regional
Council (ORC) and the Dunedin City
Council (DCC) to unify their approaches
Long Beach
Aramoana
South Dunedin
Dunedin
City Centre
0 1 2 3 4 5
km
´
Dunedin
Figure 1: Location map showing Long Beach and Aramoana
THE SHARED
ROLES OF THE ORC
AND DCC MEAN
THAT COMMUNITY
MEMBERS HAVE
TO CONTACT
MULTIPLE PEOPLE
FROM BOTH
ORGANISATIONS
TO DISCUSS ISSUES
THEY ARE FACING.
This long-winded
communication
process decreases
the community’s
satisfaction with
the engagement
process required for
adaptation planning.
to adaptation but this complicates the
eorts of both local authorities to move
forward with adaptation actions. e
shared roles of the ORC and DCC mean
that community members have to contact
multiple people from both organisations
to discuss issues they are facing. is
long-winded communication process
decreases the community’s satisfaction
with the engagement process required for
adaptation planning.
Both Regional and District Councils have
responsibilities to avoid or mitigate natural
hazards as part of their core services
under the Local Government Act 2002 and
the RMA 1991; however, this obligation
is at times complicated and challenged.
Community members do not believe that
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9ISSUE 217
Christchurch
Diverse work across an array of complex projects
Strong and supportive team of planners and multi-disciplinary experts
Make a meaningful difference to key projects for Aotearoa
Flexible working environment
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Work with us to create what matters for future generations
wsp.com/nz/planning
Join our team of planners and collaborate with our network of over
49,000 experts globally, to deliver meaningful planning solutions across
some of the most diverse and challenging projects in Aotearoa.
Kuaka Gateway, Hawke’s Bay
Winner of the NZPI Rodney Davies Project Award 2019
10 PLANNING QUARTERLY
SEA LEVEL RISE
local government responses should include
the power to ‘displace’ people, particularly
on the basis of scientic predictions, if they
choose to reside within at-risk areas. e
perception of the “right to assume risk” is
seen as potentially damaging by planners
as although an existing occupant accepts
the risk, the issue of “moral hazard risk”
remains. e risk can be “passed on” to
unsuspecting new occupants who may
not be ready to accept the risk and would
seek political or legal action for Councils’
negligence. To avoid the uncertainty
Councils should nd ways for eective
communication of the existing risks and
potential future costs to the community
members.
Finally, members of small coastal
communities perceive that local
government responses to SLR are unevenly
distributed. Key informants within local
governments also acknowledge that a
greater share of councils’ current adaptation
eorts and resources are being injected
into the South Dunedin community, rather
than the other small coastal communities
in the region. e wider context of the
eects of SLR experienced in Dunedin City
necessitates such selective eorts as some
coastal settlements are more vulnerable
than others and the cost of infrastructures
to intervene varies signicantly. To
counter this, small coastal communities
with less political power aspire for local
government support so that they were able
to self-organise to tackle future hazards.
Community engagement in planning for
SLR: there are efforts, there are barriers
too
Under the RMA 1991, there are specic
legislative processes that ensure the
public are consulted. e most recent
statutory form of engagement has been
through submissions on the DCC Second
Generation Plan. However, community
members consider these processes to
be limited and generally one-o, not
allowing for relationships to be built or for
ongoing discussion. Despite local council
eorts, members lost interest because of
uncertainty about the timeframe regarding
“what was going to happen and when…,
this situation did not help to stay involved”.
Some could not see if the eects of SLR were
relevant to them and withdrew. Another
key barrier to engagement identied by the
key informants was “participant burnout”.
While community groups are organised
and active, the volunteerism on which
these groups depend can be considered
too demanding, and the same residents
are oen over-relied upon. Groups and
individuals become so fatigued it reduces
their capacity to engage with the issues
their communities face. Another diculty
inhibiting eective communication is
the lack of outcomes from previous
engagement. Lack of follow-up and action
aer the rst round of engagement can
also negatively aect community members’
willingness to engage in the future.
Non-statutory forms of engagement
had some community uptake in the
form of community working groups3
and achieved some positive outcomes
through developing social capital and
emergency management plans. However,
there are signicant barriers to eective
communication. Lack of resourcing is
the rst key barrier which can force local
governments to operate ineectively:
“we have been operating a bit like a de
facto climate change unit for some years
now. Climate change like many other
things that come into Council, doesn’t
have an easy home in our structure…”.
(Local government ocial)
Furthermore, the issues of climate change
and SLR are in themselves barriers because
of the complexity and uncertainty of
the predictions and long timeframes.
COMMUNITY MEMBERS DO NOT BELIEVE THAT LOCAL
GOVERNMENT RESPONSES SHOULD INCLUDE THE POWER TO
‘DISPLACE’ PEOPLE, PARTICULARLY ON THE BASIS OF SCIENTIFIC
PREDICTIONS, IF THEY CHOOSE TO RESIDE WITHIN AT-RISK AREAS.
The perception of the “right to assume risk” is seen as potentially
damaging by planners as although an existing occupant accepts the risk,
the issue of “moral hazard risk” remains.
11ISSUE 217
According to a key informant, although
it is a commonly accepted truth that the
climate is changing, local authorities and
communities remain resistant to taking
action simply based on “the perception of the
adaptation tasks at hand”. e 'perception'
was that the task of adaptation to climate
change eects is much too complex, and
therefore sometimes dismissed as too hard
to achieve.
System characteristics for adaptation
to SLR: community, community and
community!
ree dening features were uncovered
that inuence the potential for local
government planned adaptation responses
to SLR in Long Beach and Aramoana.
ese were the wider context of climate
change eects experienced within
Dunedin City, lack of infrastructure,
and the small-town make up of these
settlements. ese features reinforce the
importance of looking at the ground and
developing greater understanding of these
small coastal communities to build on
from there. Focussing on and facilitating
the “system characteristics” of individual
coastal settlements that build adaptive
capacity and resilience, including their
social capital, self-organisation, exibility,
social memory and local knowledge, would
be an appropriate response.
Sustainable adaptation requires robust
levels of “social resilience” in which
social capital and networks allow people
to act collectively. e importance was
emphasised by key informants:
“When it comes to knowing your
community, if we all know our
neighbours around each other, there
is a certain amount of resilience
which comes with knowing who
people are around you and that
social connectedness…” (Emergency
management ocial)
e case study communities already have
good self-organisation skills. For example,
both have active community groups which
hold fortnightly meetings to discuss broad
issues and upcoming community events.
Long Beach and Aramoana have each
made community submissions in response
to the DCC dra Second Generation
Plan before. Social ties and the ability to
self-organise are strongly valued by both
communities. e community respondents
all independently identied that the tight-
ACCORDING TO A KEY INFORMANT, ALTHOUGH IT IS A COMMONLY
ACCEPTED TRUTH THAT THE CLIMATE IS CHANGING, LOCAL
AUTHORITIES AND COMMUNITIES REMAIN RESISTANT TO TAKING
ACTION SIMPLY BASED ON “the perception of the adaptation tasks at
hand”. The 'perception' was that the task of adaptation to climate change
effects is much too complex, and therefore sometimes dismissed as too
hard to achieve.
12 PLANNING QUARTERLY
SEA LEVEL RISE
knit nature and “get in and get it done”
attitude of their community is especially
valuable when responding to hazard
events. Also, there is a collective “social
memory” of these communities having
“always been adaptable”, leading to a feeling
of self-reliance and independence, but also
a sense of stagnation when it comes to
potential planning for transformational
adaptation. For example,
“Storms happen, the place turns into a mess,
we clean it up. at’s how it has always gone,
we get through every time”. (Community
member)
Two key methods for enhancing these
system characteristics were uncovered
during the course of this research:
facilitating actions that deal with
uncertainty, and actions that mobilise the
community. Additionally, two primary
challenges for planned adaptation in Long
Beach and Aramoana were highlighted:
lack of ‘power’, and doubts about the
perceived relevance of SLR eects. All
these factors considered indicate the
need to implement a community-based
adaptation approach that focusses on
both adaptation and development while
beneting from local resources and
ensuring eective implementation and
outcomes for adaptation actions.
Whether successful adaptation to SLR
can be carried out is unknown. However,
through a resilience lens it becomes clear
that the options for future adaptation need
to consider not only the system’s or the
community’s ability to respond, but also
the need to take advantage of opportunities
presented to the community. Appropriate
planning, including meaningful
community engagement, can assist with
conicts that are ultimately grounded
in fundamental disparities of power and
justice to enhance community resilience in
the face of an uncertain future.
Postscript: let’s not let the ‘smallness’ of
small coastal communities deter planning
for SLR
As a point of departure, it must be
acknowledged that this short piece could
not capture the many stimulating ndings
that came out of Brenna’s MPlanning
thesis. Nevertheless, the overall experience
of the research stimulates a broader equity
question: whether within the existing
status-quo some coastal settlements are
in a benecial position to receive more
attention from planners (and researchers),
and thereby more incentives, whereas some
smaller and distant coastal settlements
are thrown into ambivalence because the
communities do not have the power and
resources to raise their voices. It must be
questioned whether the ‘smallness’ of small
coastal communities deters planners from
acting and timely engagement with them.
Settlements, small or large, far or near, are
at risk from accelerated SLR due to climate
change. ere is no golden standard either
to t them within the same planning
instruments. Due to the ambiguity of what
constitutes successful adaptation, and the
localised nature of climate change eects
and the community’s capacity to deal
with them, eective engagements between
local authorities and communities are
the essential rst step for successful and
sustainable adaptation planning.
Note:
1. The fieldwork was conducted as
a requirement of Brenna’s Master of
Planning thesis submitted in 2019. This
article highlights a section of the thesis.
2. e.g., Ministry for the Environment
national guidance for Coastal Hazards and
Climate Change – Preparing for Coastal
Change 2017.
3. Emergency Management Otago and the
DCC Community Development Team have
teamed up and Civil Defence Otago are
working on case studies.
References:
1. Barnett, J. and S. O’Neill,
Maladaptation. Global Environmental
Change, 2010. 20(2): p. 211-213.
2. Stephenson, J. and C. Orchiston,
Communities and Climate Change
Vulnerability to rising seas and more
frequent flooding 2018, Motu Economic
and Public Policy Research.
3. Adger, N.W., N.W. Arnell, and E.L.
Tompkins, Successful adaptation to
climate change across scales. Global
Environmental Change, 2005. 15(2): p.
77-86.
4. Reisinger, A., et al., The Role of Local
Government in Adapting to Climate
Change: Lessons from New Zealand, in
Climate Change Adaptation in Developed
Nations: From Theory to Practice, J.D.
Ford and L. Berrang-Ford, Editors. 2011,
Springer Netherlands: Dordrecht. p.
303-319.
5. Butler, J.R.A., et al., Integrating
Top-Down and Bottom-Up Adaptation
Planning to Build Adaptive Capacity: A
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Management, 2015. 43(4): p. 346-364.
6. Heyd, C., Planning for Flood
Adaptation: Lessons from Dunedin and
Mosgiel Taieri in School of Geography
2019, University of Otago Dunedin, New
Zealand.
7. Stephenson, J., Community
Development for Climate Adaptation:
Dunedin City Council perspective. 2019,
National Science Challenge: The Deep
South.
8. Willis, S. and C. Cox, Our City,
Our Climate. 2018, Blueskin Resilient
Communities Trust: Dunedin, New
Zealand.
SETTLEMENTS, SMALL OR LARGE, FAR OR
NEAR, ARE AT RISK FROM ACCELERATED SLR
DUE TO CLIMATE CHANGE. There is no golden
standard either to fit them within the same
planning instruments.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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  • J Barnett
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Barnett, J. and S. O'Neill, Maladaptation. Global Environmental Change, 2010. 20(2): p. 211-213.
Communities and Climate Change Vulnerability to rising seas and more frequent flooding
  • J Stephenson
  • C Orchiston
Stephenson, J. and C. Orchiston, Communities and Climate Change Vulnerability to rising seas and more frequent flooding 2018, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.
Planning for Flood Adaptation: Lessons from Dunedin and Mosgiel Taieri in School of Geography
  • C Heyd
Heyd, C., Planning for Flood Adaptation: Lessons from Dunedin and Mosgiel Taieri in School of Geography 2019, University of Otago Dunedin, New Zealand.
Community Development for Climate Adaptation: Dunedin City Council perspective
  • J Stephenson
Stephenson, J., Community Development for Climate Adaptation: Dunedin City Council perspective. 2019, National Science Challenge: The Deep South.
Our City, Our Climate
  • S Willis
  • C Cox
Willis, S. and C. Cox, Our City, Our Climate. 2018, Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust: Dunedin, New Zealand.