Conference Report: Managing places at risk from coastal erosion

CC BY-SA 2.0,
CC BY-SA 2.0,

This is the first of the two conference reports by Dr Steve Millington from the Royal Geographical Society’s Annual Conference 2016.  You can also read the report on the IPM site. You can read the second conference report on Monday, 3rd October.

by Steve Millington

In the UK one reality of climate change is accelerated coastal erosion and the impact on natural assets, farming and communities located in vulnerable locations. This raises profound questions for place management when the place in question will inevitably disappear into the sea as the coastline retreats. 

Vera Köpsel (University of Hamburg) ( is examining landscape perceptions for climate change adaptions through a case study of Godrevy Headland Cornwall, as a way of grounding the abstract changes associated with climate change within a local context.

Godrevy is a well visited National Trust site, designated as both an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Site of Special Scientific Interest ( The headland is also managed by the Towans Partnership ( (responsible for the dune system) and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust (  A farm is also located in the area. Consequently, Godrevy makes a significant contribution to Cornwall’s two main industries – agriculture and tourism.

But, the coastline here is receding by 0.5m a year. There is a strategy here of managed retreat or coastal roll-back, acknowledging the inevitable transformation and loss of this landscape. Erosion is already creating problems for site management, including the loss of access to the beach, cliff top walking routes, plus the undermining of road access to the parking area.  The relocation of the parking is important to maintain visitor numbers, but how can this be achieved without compromising the area’s physical and aesthetic qualities, wildlife and natural features? Beyond these operational difficulties, the long term strategy raises the concern that compromise between natural and human-centred activities is not possible. For instance, should the area be re-wilded and managed solely in the interests of wildlife?

Working with the local stakeholders Vera concludes a constructivist landscape approach is useful for understanding how broader structural processes affects places together with informing long term place management processes.  This approach involves analysing the relationship between:

  • shared landscape constructs:
  • individual landscape constructs
  • and adaptions to physical-material space

She concludes this approach is of particular value for the managing of places affected by coastal retreat.

This work draws parallels with Victoria Brown’s (University of Leicester) PhD research with two villages located in North Norfolk.  Here, the coastline is highly malleable and subject to rapid retreat, which will result in the inevitable loss of the landscape and the communities located there. From a planning perspective there is not a sufficient business case to justify investment in coastal defences, and so a policy of managed retreat has been adopted.

Through research with local householders she examines the anticipated loss of people’s homes and communities, which reveals the anxiety experienced by residents as they face up to the reality of climate change and the uncertainty created within places once considered safe, idyllic and stable. Victoria suggests the socio-emotional qualities of loss might be understood in terms of:

1.       place (village, home, and loved places) and a sense of English and regional identity and heritage

2.       support – resource and emotional blight, as confidence in the local economy diminishes leading to disinvestment, lack of maintenance, and loss of tourism

3.       Loss of young people, which is adding to a sense of terminal decline or stagnation and a loss of vitality

4.       connection – feelings of abandonment, and an absence of hope

In terms of place management, Victoria suggests giving a voice to communities affected by climate change to arrest their feelings of abandonment and involving them in decision making regarding future planning. Even though the communities will undoubtedly change, the management of that decline in terms of retaining elements of the place’s heritage and identity could be of great value to those affected.