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Reinventing marine spatial planning: a critical review of initiatives worldwide


Although marine spatial planning (MSP) is increasingly being applied worldwide, it appears to be based on an ambiguity that has arisen from its dichotomous role of ensuring both conservation and development. This elusive ideal hints at a possible discrepancy between theory and practice. This paper explores the hypothesis that beyond a performative narrative, MSP is actually better described as a variety of devices which fulfil other roles and converge in terms of planning type. To test this hypothesis, this paper analyses the content of past and present MSP initiatives from around the world. The findings show that these initiatives view MSP either as a strategic sectoral spatial planning tool or strategic planning tool, brought in to complement existing initiatives. Furthermore, these two approaches can actually be seen to converge in the type of planning used, through the role attributed to spatial aspects, and more specifically in the place given to zoning. There are two key implications of these findings: the need to open up theoretical debates more broadly to different disciplinary perspectives on MSP; and the need for crucial choices to be made to ensure that MSP does not become an illusion behind which other agendas lie.


Several scientific communities are working on MSP in parallel.

MSP does not in reality fulfil its theoretical objectives, but it fulfils other roles.

We make a critical review of 44 experiences of MSP from throughout the world.

Different forms of MSP generally make similar uses of zoning.

MSP is both illusory and necessary and must engage a critical turn.

Type of practice:
Stage of MSP cycle:
Cross-border / trans-national aspect:
Coherence with other processes:
Key words:


  • Have countries around the world achieved the conciliation between Blue Economy development and preservation of marine environment using MSP?
  • Can MSP support the achievement of both utilitarian and preservationist objectives?
  • Is MSP evenly implemented around the world?


The study was conducted by a geography researcher from the University of Nantes (France).


The review highlights the differences between the MSP theory and practice through the analysis of MSP initiatives around the world. 


The research involved a critical review of three studies that analysed the MSP initiatives around the world. These initiatives were reviewed using the analytical framework focused on three aspects: (i) MSP role, (ii) planning types and (iii) ambiguities associated with these two elements. 


The study highlights the diverse approaches to marine spatial planning in their application. The author argues that there are significant gaps between the MSP theoretical objectives and their effective outputs.


The methodology applied in this study can be used in any MSP process.

Responsible Entity: 

University of Nantes, CNRS, UMR LETG, Nantes (France). 

Funding Source: 

University of Nantes, CNRS, UMR LETG, Nantes (France). 

Contact person: 

Brice Trouillet: (brice[dot]trouillet[at]univ-nantes[dot]fr)