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Planning at Sea: Shifting planning practices at the German North Sea coast


This paper examines practice of MSP and ICZM at the German North Sea coast. It focuses on the engagement of spatial planners with these practices and their perception of their role. 

Application in MSP:
Type of Issue:
Type of practice:
Cross-border / trans-national aspect:
Key words:

Questions this practice may help answer:

  • How are MSP and Integrated Coastal Zone Management organised in German waters in the North Sea, and more specifically in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein?
  • What are the key characteristics of the two planning paradigms and their application within a coastal and marine context in Germany?
  • What are the main issues and challenges regarding the application of MSP and ICZM in the coastal waters in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein and what kind of planning paradigms do these sub-national entities apply?

Implementation Context:

In Germany, Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) has for the most part been viewed as an informal non-statutory approach. More recently, MSP has emerged as a formalised and statutory framework for the spatial coordination of economic activities and ecosystem-based management at sea. However, the division of spatial competences concerning the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (federal), coastal waters (federal states), and coastal hinterland (variously: federal states, regional districts, municipalities) presents significant challenges to the development of coherent spatial plans for the marine and coastal space under German jurisdiction. This applies in particular to the scope to address socio-economic and ecological interactions between land and sea in a meaningful manner.

Aspects / Objectives:

To critically review the engagement of spatial planning policy and practice with Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Marine Spatial Planning at the North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony, and draw conclusions with regard to the future role of spatial planning at the coast and at sea. 


The paper followed these steps:

  1. Review of international developments in Integrated Coastal Zone Management 
  2. Review of Marine Spatial Planning
  3. Key characteristics of these two planning paradigms and their application within a coastal and marine context are examined 
  4. The methodological approach and case study context.
  5. Empirical case study analysis focusing on the development of Integrated Coastal Zone Management and spatial planning for the coastal waters in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein respectively. 
  6. A comparative discussion
  7. Conclusions

In the conceptual framework used, the researchers divide planners into rational comprehensive and strategic communicative planners. Where the rational planning discourse was strong after the second world war until the 1980’s, since then, there is an increased focus on the (potential) role of spatial planning strategies in communicating a particular spatial vision and policy priorities for a given space into the future. This means that there is less emphasis on the legally defined regulatory role of spatial planning in designating specific land-uses and functions. 

Main Outputs / Results:

  • There is a very significant mismatch between the ambitious objectives associated with Integrated Coastal Zone Management in planning policy statements in both Lower Saxony and Schleswig- Holstein and the much more limited role of spatial planning in relation to coastal management and marine governance in practice.
  • The experience of spatial planners at the North Sea coast with Integrated Coastal Zone Management indicates awareness that a rational-comprehensive approach is not feasible in practice. As a consequence, however, it would seem that planners have shifted to a very narrowly defined role for spatial planning with respect to coastal management, focused on the preparation and implementation of formal planning instruments. 
  • Spatial planning has the potential to play a significant role in relation to the management of the coastal zone in the future. Contemporary challenges associated with climate adaptation, demographic change and sustainable economic development require a strategic spatial approach, taking due cognizance of the competing claims and rationalities of diverse groups of stakeholders. For spatial planning to take on this role, a paradigm shift is required towards an understanding of spatial planning as a strategic, communicative practice. 
  • There is a need for spatial planning policy and practice to integrate the coastal waters more fully in spatial strategies at both federal state and regional scales. Their inclusion to date has been limited to information provision only. The implementation of the MSP Directive will require the coastal states to explicitly address land-sea interactions.


Besides Germany, many other countries have regions or municipalities with competences in ICZM or MSP, for example in Sweden and Norway. Also in these countries it is interesting to see what kind of approach these sub-national governmental entities take towards planning the marine environment.

Responsible Entity:

Universität Hamburg, Institut für Geographie

Costs / funding Source:

German Research Foundation under project grant: Metageographies and Spatial Frames: Coastal Management as Situated Practice in the International Wadden Sea Region

Contact person:

Dr. Cormac Walsh

University of Hamburg (cormac[dot]walsh[at]uni-hamburg[dot]de)