Managed retreat: transformations in the government of coastal environments in Germany and New Zealand


Jan Scheve

Michael Flitner

New Zealand and Germany have densely populated, low-lying coastal areas that are exposed to erosion and sea level rise. Both countries have put extensive financial and technical efforts in coastal defense measures in order to protect buildings, settlements, and infrastructures. These measures range from hard protection structures such as dykes, seawalls, and groins, to soft protection methods such as beach nourishment and dune restoration. However, there has been a growing debate about the long-term effectiveness of these measures, and other policy options have been considered. One alternative form of shoreline management is generally referred to as ‘managed retreat’ (MR). MR involves a withdrawal from the existing coastline, and in some cases entails the relocation of buildings and infrastructures. MR purposely allows flooding of presently defended areas, and it is seen to foster biodiversity, improve the efficacy of flood-protection, and decrease the overall costs for coastal protection. However, due to the notion of losing land to the sea, MR is an emotional topic that is politically sensitive with unsolved legal questions. Moreover, MR builds upon the prediction of future risks, such as sea level rise, that may be controversial or even contested, and it is thus difficult to implement.

In this PhD research project the emerging policy field of MR in New Zealand and Germany will be investigated. The preliminary research questions are: Which actors are involved in constituting the discourse on MR? What power hierarchies structure the discourse? How do these actors argue for or against the application of MR measures, especially with respect to the notion of risk, environmental preservation, economical issues, cultural values etc? What are the procedures to assess risks and environmental/economic impacts associated with coastal erosion? How do the different political cultures and actor constellations in Germany and New Zealand affect the debate on MR?

In order to approach these questions a set of qualitative methods is used. In-depth interviews with experts and representatives of relevant institutions (local/regional councils, dyke associations, interest groups, insurance companies, scientists etc.) will be conducted, and reports and official documents will be examined. Moreover, field sites that are exposed to coastal erosion, and may be subject to a MR policy will be explored and visited. The aim is to develop an understanding of how the debate on MR is being framed, and what material-semiotic networks form around the debate. The research will follow recent theoretical developments in Political Ecology, New Cultural Geography and Geographical Risk Research that are informed by post-structural thinking, discourse analysis, and Actor-Network Theory.