Multi-scalar approach to MSP

Main issues

Based on the characteristics of the sea space under national jurisdiction (e.g. dimensions, geographic features, intensity of uses, presence of vulnerable areas, synergies between uses, administrative issues) national MSP authorities may decide to adopt a multi-scalar approach to MSP and prepare distinct plans for different marine areas. These plans may in some cases differ in regard to detail as well as time horizons. The origin of the term ‘multi-scalar’ comes from different planning scales, as depicted in the figure below. In practice, however, it is not the scale that matters but rather the level of detail in various plans.

The multi-scalar approach includes a variety of situations: different areas can spatially overlap or not; different plans can be under the responsibility of the same or different authorities; and there can be a hierarchical relationship between plans. When a multi-scalar approach is applied to areas covered by plans at different levels (e.g. a national overarching plan for the entire sea space and sub-plans for some sub-areas included in this space), this is also referred to as a nested approach.

This topic was discussed at the workshop on "Maritime Spatial Planning in Small Sea Spaces" organized by the EU MSP Platform in Portorož – Slovenia on 15-16 March 2018. The workshop's report contains several examples of how the multi-scalar approach has been applied in different MSP processes throughout Europe.

Please note that this section of the EU MSP Platform website is not currently being updated with new information. However, the resources throughout our website remain relevant to our mission of sharing knowledge and experiences on MSP in the EU.

Frequently Asked Questions

Several EU countries consider a multi-scalar approach to MSP under a variety of different situations and contexts, as described in the Countries section of the MSP Platform website. The following examples can be considered (last update: spring 2018): 

  • In Sweden, three distinct plans for separate areas, covering the territorial sea from 1 nm outward of the base line and the EEZ, are under preparation by the same national authority; while coastal regions also have the right to prepare their plans up to 12 nm (see Carl Dahlberg’s presentation at the "Maritime Spatial Planning in Small Sea Spaces" organized by the EU MSP Platform in Portorož – Slovenia on 15-16 March 2018);
  • In Poland, one plan covering almost the entire sea space and additional separate local plans for lagoons and ports are under preparation (with no hierarchy between these plans), in the future also the “large” plan can be limited in space and if necessary its parts can be replaced with more detailed plans.
  • In Estonia, two legally binding MSP pilot plans have been adopted for two small sea areas (the area around Hiiu island and Pärnu Bay), which now need to be integrated into the overall Estonian plan that is currently under preparation (see Anni Konsap’s presentation at the "Maritime Spatial Planning in Small Sea Spaces" organized by the EU MSP Platform in Portorož – Slovenia on 15-16 March 2018);

  • In Germany, there is no hierarchy between the different plans; e.g. in the Baltic Sea the plan prepared by Mecklenburg-Vorpommern for its 12 nm zone (and equally for the Schleswig-Holstein) is not under a hierarchical order of the plans prepared by the Federal Government for the EEZ in the Baltic and North Sea (see Holger Janßen’s presentation at the "Maritime Spatial Planning in Small Sea Spaces" organized by the EU MSP Platform in Portorož – Slovenia on 15-16 March 2018);

  • In Finland, the national MSP process has identified four planning areas bringing different regions together (including the EEZ and territorial waters), while territorial waters are also part of the planning mandate of coastal municipalities, with overlap among different levels (see Tiina Tihlman’s presentation at the "Maritime Spatial Planning in Small Sea Spaces" organized by the EU MSP Platform in Portorož – Slovenia on 15-16 March 2018);

  • In the UK, the preparation of marine plans is the responsibility of the respective governments within the UK. For example, Scotland has prepared the Scotland’s National Marine Plan, which provides a single framework for managing Scotland’s seas. This plan will be supplemented by eleven Regional Marine Plans - two of which two have been developed so far - prepared by the Marine Planning Partnerships;

  • In Italy, national guidelines for the preparation of maritime spatial plans have been recently finalized and three plans are going to be developed for three distinct marine areas, with the possibility to also develop small scale, nested plans for hotspot sub-areas.

  • In France, the National Strategy for the Sea and the Coast (NSSC) was adopted in 2017; each of the four French maritime regions are called to elaborate a strategic document (Stratégie de Façade Maritime) under the coordination of a national level methodological guideline (see Laurent Courgeon’s presentation at the "Maritime Spatial Planning in Small Sea Spaces" organized by the EU MSP Platform in Portorož – Slovenia on 15-16 March 2018).

The links between the plans developed under the same multi-scalar process may be different in nature. They could include a national strategy (e.g. the Portuguese National Ocean Strategy 2013-2020), national guidelines for vertical and/or horizontal coordination of plans (e.g. the Dutch Policy Document on the North Sea 2009-2015), and/or a national integrated plan (e.g. the Irish strategy Harnessing Our Ocean; the Dutch Integrated Management Plan for the North Sea 2015).


The plans prepared under a multi-scalar approach should be coordinated and coherent in terms of objectives, methods (e.g. involvement of stakeholders), assumptions (e.g. continuation of shipping routes) and provisions. Coordination and coherence should be guaranteed both vertically with the overarching plan (e.g. under a nested approach), and horizontally among the different neighbouring/overlapping sub-plans

Developing a common vision and/or strategy, including identification of common values and strategic interests/objectives, for different planning areas can provide a base for coordination of plans under a multi-scalar approach. The ‘Handbook on Visions’ - prepared by the EU MSP Platform - can support planners in developing such future visions. A common vision allows for a systematic approach to MSP that considers a larger marine ecosystem that crosses boundaries between different planning areas (either overlapping or not). 

Timing is also an important factor, which needs to be coordinated. For instance, alignment of timing was indicated as one of the most relevant challenges to improve coherence among the Swedish national MSP plan and the inter-municipal joint plan for territorial waters developed in northern Bohuslän region (see Carl Dahlberg’s presentation at the "Maritime Spatial Planning in Small Sea Spaces" organized by the EU MSP Platform in Portorož – Slovenia on 15-16 March). Aligned timing with closely related policies, such as MSFD, would also facilitate a better integration of these policies (see for example slide n. 6 in Laurent Courgeon’s presentation). However, this is a challenge due to different timelines and reporting requirements for both directives as well as often different authorities being responsible. Planning under a multi-scalar approach requires an integrated stocktaking assessment of the entire planning area. This should be coherent with the more detailed sub-area assessments. Ensuring coherence of stocktaking at different scales not only implies data coherence, but also coherence of methods, indicators and approaches between the different planning processes. Shared tools can improve the coherence of stocktaking among different plans under a multi-scalar approach. Many tools are available for integrated assessment in general, and particularly for cumulative impacts assessment. A roundtable on this topic was organized in early 2018 by the EU MSP Platform. 

A multi-scalar approach to MSP calls for specific tools to engage with stakeholders at different levels, with the additional complexity in the cases of a governance structure with superimposition of different authorities (see for example the case of the New Caledonia in the French oversee territories, as illustrated by N. Cadic in his presentation at the workshop on MSP for Islands held in held in Gran Canaria on 11 September 2018 - ref. slide n. 13) . 

Engaging stakeholders at the national level generally requires a more formal approach, with specific methods (e.g. formal meetings, circulation of official documents). Instead, stakeholders at the local level (including local representatives of sectors, NGOs, etc.) would require more direct and informal, but highly efficient methods (e.g. focus groups, working groups, informal interviews, web-based dialogue platforms, informal fora). For a multi-scalar planning approach to be successful, interactions and exchanges between groups at different levels (from national to local and the other way around) or among different sub-areas (horizontal dimension) must be ensured.

The importance to identify common values between national and local scale has been pointed out as baseline for marine planning: see for example Shona Turnbull’s presentation on MSP in the Pentland Firth and Orkney Waters given at the "Maritime Spatial Planning in Small Sea Spaces" organized by the EU MSP Platform in Portorož – Slovenia on 15-16 March (ref. slides 9-10)  and Carl Dahlberg's presentation on northern Bohuslän region in Sweden given at the same workshop (ref. slides 2, 5, 8).

Achieving a correct balance of interests of stakeholders acting at different scales is a key issue to deal with in the multi-scalar approach to MSP, including a clear understanding and balanced representation of the different levels of power, and avoiding under- or over-estimation of degrees of power. 

An adaptive planning approach including various iterations of the stakeholder engagement process and transparent identification of MSP benefits and constraints (at the various planning levels) might lead to better understanding and reconciliation of different interests. 

Some examples of tools to support multi-scalar dialogue are available. For instance, a Latvian capacity building effort, which pays special attention to all stakeholders including smaller groups with limited resources and capacities[1], or the web application Boundary-GIS Geoportal that was developed within the BaltSeaPlan project, could support stakeholder involvement. The web application allows any kind of stakeholder to view the current planning status of an area and to comment upon them. The user can do so without any specific IT skills. 

Among the available experiences of integrated, multi-scale assessment, the NEAT tool(Nest Environmental status Assessment Tool Methodology) developed under the DEVOTES project can be mentioned. This tool can help to determine how pressures from human activities and climatic influences can affect marine ecosystems and identify indicators available to assess biodiversity, specifically in a nested approach context. However, it should be noted that the uptake and concrete use of these tools in the real and formal MSP processes is still very limited, stressing the importance of improving factors that can support the transfer of research-based tools to real MSP practice.

However, it should be noted that the operational use of these and other tools in a real MSP multi-scalar process need to be tested and accurately verified.

[1]See Zaucha J. 2014. The key to governing the fragile Baltic Sea, Riga: VASAB; available at

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