The BBC’s Blue Planet II series has brought the marine environment into our homes in spectacular fashion. I’ve been blown away by the wonders this series has uncovered and have noticed more people are talking about the issues facing our oceans. From the problems of ocean plastics, ocean acidification and the over exploitation of fisheries, to the huge opportunities to extract clean energy and deliver sustainable aquaculture, the planning profession can make a massive contribution to finding solutions.
People need a healthy marine environment
From the vast open ocean to bustling coral reefs, marine ecosystems are powerhouses for human well-being and prosperity. Oceans are an essential life support system producing 70% of the oxygen we breathe. Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. Over three billion people depend on oceans as their primary source of protein. Oceans are currently absorbing half of the carbon dioxide we emit from burning fossil fuels, buffering the impacts of global warming. These services, and many, many more, we receive free of charge and often unacknowledged.
What’s the problem?
Unfortunately, highly valuable marine systems are more fragile than we might think and are being degraded by human activities at a rapid rate of knots. The cumulative impact of increased fishing, shipping, aquaculture, recreational uses, oil and gas exploitation is putting the marine environment under immense pressure. In some cases these pressures are pushing ecosystems to breaking point. Increased pollution from urban areas and agricultural land, the loss of coastal and marine habitat, the depletion of fisheries, the list goes on.
From the problems of ocean plastics, ocean acidification and the over exploitation of fisheries, to the huge opportunities to extract clean energy and deliver sustainable aquaculture, the planning profession can make a massive contribution to finding solutions.
What can planning do about it?
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom and planners are in a prime position to make a difference. Marine spatial planning, or marine planning in the UK, has been acknowledged at all levels of government as being crucial to managing human pressures on marine ecosystems, whilst realising sustainable social and economic benefits.
Marine planning has been introduced from an almost zero baseline with limited experience and guidance within a global context. The last fifteen years have seen a marked shift from the separate management of individual marine sectors to a more integrated approach.
I’m a Town Planner who started a journey into marine planning in 2011 and I see a stronger role for planners to take forward this function which seems to be increasingly dominated by scientists. Planners have the technical, policy making, stakeholder engagement and spatial planning skills that can make a difference to delivering effective marine plans and sound decision making. Marine planning needs to be delivered by multi-disciplinary teams including scientists, mariners, economists and GIS specialists with a major role for planners to lead from the front.
Planning on land, planning at sea, what’s the difference?
Land use planning is quite different from marine planning. Many legitimate activities can take place in a single location at sea – e.g to fish, to navigate, and/or to develop the sea bed, which pose significant challenges for allocating space. As such, the layering of multiple uses and legal rights across the seabed, the water column and sea surface necessitates innovation in spatial planning and policy development. The dynamic nature of the marine environment brings new challenges, stakeholders, governance structures and ways of understanding space into the planning process.
Land use planning policy is essentially concerned with influencing the behaviour of landowners, while the UK seabed is prominently in ‘public ownership’ and held by the Crown. In principle, anybody with a sound business case can develop the seabed subject to the required statutory consents. In this context marine planning can be very influential and doesn’t have to rely on the will of landowners to take forward development.
The UK has a relatively advanced statutory marine planning system compared with many parts of the world. Like on land, there is a plan led system whereby all authorisation and enforcement decisions that affect the marine area need to be made in accordance with these marine plans unless relevant consideration indicate otherwise. This provides a solid foundation for plan-led decision making to support sustainable coastal and marine management.
In the future, will there be single land use and marine plans in coastal areas? To me, that would make a lot of sense.
Planners can bring much needed plan making experience into the marine context. For those interested in developing their knowledge and skills, there are a number of post graduate programmes in marine planning and management offered by Heriot Watt University, University of Liverpool and Ulster University, to name a few.
Having recently completed a fantastic MSc. in Marine Spatial Planning at Heriot Watt’s Orkney Campus, I believe there is a role for the RTPI to work closely with universities to help integrate the teaching of essential planning skills into these marine focussed courses. This would ensure that university planning schools and marine science faculties are working together to produce well rounded graduates prepared for a profession in marine planning.
The sustainable management of our oceans, seas and coastal areas relies upon good planning based on sound science. For those planners that are happy to remain on land, getting to grips with marine issues is essential if land use and marine plans are to become better integrated at the coast. In the future, will there be single land use and marine plans in coastal areas? To me, that would make a lot of sense.
The Pilot Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters Marine Spatial Plan was the winner of the RTPI's Excellence in Plan Making Practice Award in 2017.
Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.
James Green is Senior Policy Planner (Development and Marine Planning) at Orkney Islands Council.