Q&A: Marine Spatial Planning

An expanded planning regime takes on the ocean’s vitality.

By Adam Regn Arvidson, FASLA

The peninsula features many overlapping land and water uses.

Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, is an associate professor in the College of Architecture, Design, and Construction at Auburn University. For several years, she has been following the emerging discipline of marine spatial planning, which applies planning principles and community engagement to the world’s oceans. Along with her students, LeBleu has been working on a marine spatial plan for Dauphin Island Peninsula in Mobile, Alabama, where much of the confluence of historic, ecological, and industrial land uses takes place at and beyond the shoreline.

How would you describe marine spatial planning and how it differs from land-use planning?
Typical land-based planning focuses on how different types of users can exist next to each other and what’s the boundary and edge between them. The neat thing about marine spatial planning is the seasonal fluctuation of use. It links multiuse zones and limited-use zones so that a tourist can engage the edge, but then we may cut them off at certain times of the year when certain fish and other sea creatures are spawning. Marine spatial planning has this dynamic-ness built into it, so that it can reach out at a certain time, protect something, and then pull back and let other uses in.

Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, is working on a marine spatial plan for Dauphin Island Peninsula with her students at Auburn University.
Charlene LeBleu, FASLA, is working on a marine spatial plan for Dauphin Island Peninsula with her students at Auburn University.

Where is marine spatial planning used?
Marine spatial planning first caught my eye years ago when a plan was done for the Great Barrier Reef. That was what I would call one of the very first marine spatial plans. Then the Galapagos Islands did one, and then Scotland, then England, and everybody across Europe began to follow suit. In the states, we’ve had Rhode Island do marine spatial planning. As I understand it, Virginia is undertaking it right now.

How is this different from the ways ocean or coastal development has traditionally been managed?
Most of the current coastal and marine regulations are already in place, but they are single-use management decisions. The port authority does the working waterfront. The station industry regulates the commercial fishermen. The corps of engineers regulates the dredging. You know what? They don’t always talk together. You have overlapping uses not working together. Marine spatial planning is an overlay that suggests that they all work together. It needs buy-in from all of those groups.

Why is marine spatial planning a better option?
Number one, it works with public stakeholders—that is the main thing. That’s typically not done in a reactive policy situation. Every different policy entity typically does its own thing, does not necessarily listen to public outcry nor solicit public opinion. To me, that speaks to the heart of the planner in me and the power of public participation and the need for it. The fishermen—particularly oystermen—have typically been left out of conventional planning. In the Galapagos Islands they were noticing that certain species were being overfished. They were able to look at the space and time frame that were key to these particular species and cut [fishing] off for a certain season. That actually helps the fishermen because now they’re catching more in season. They help protect it and then open it up at other times for tourists.

Also, marine spatial planning coordinates policy at multiple scales. It can therefore be embraced regionally, nationally, and locally, but all the time still protecting private property rights all along the edge of the coast.

LeBleu's work in Mobile is seeking to balance industrial uses with natural and recreational uses at the ocean's edge.
LeBleu’s work in Mobile is seeking to balance industrial uses with natural and recreational uses at the ocean’s edge.

How do you apply marine spatial planning in a place like Mobile?
Mobile has a wonderful coastal edge. It has working waterfront. It has submerged aquatic vegetation. It has historic properties: Civil War, Spanish era, English era. It even has a submerged cypress forest that dates back thousands of years. Mobile has all of these wonderful resources, but at the same time, there is a lot of dredging going on. I see the dredging, the gas rigs, the oil rigs, all beginning to infringe upon all these wonderful things.

I am working on the Dauphin Island Peninsula, which is an area south of the city. They approached me to initially come up with a new plan with my students. I said that with all the resources that need to be protected on the coastal edge, it should have a marine spatial plan.

Up to now, we’ve been gathering all of our basic GIS information and doing quite a bit of community engagement. We’re proposing a marine spatial plan that’s a little bit different from most in that it will engage development on the land at the ocean’s edge. That buffer between the water and the land is so fragile because of all the habitat, especially if it’s going to be developed for the tourist industry. That’s where marine spatial planning comes in, because it’s a natural-science-based decision-making process. It’s set up to address conflict and to organize all the human activities.

The students will be assessing the coastal edge and working on the low-impact development portion of that and integrating that into our marine spatial plan, and they will be working with our GIS experts that we have coming online and putting that into the GIS. Students will do an assessment of properties—what needs to be protected? We’ll be assessing the quality of the estuaries down there, probably do tourist surveys, and all of this will of course be made public. We’ll have some public meetings.

The interesting thing, I think, that landscape architecture can add is an increased visualization of what’s going on down there. I think that’s good. You can show people a 2-D map or GIS map and that will give them some information. But if you can present perspectives and models, people just say, “Now I understand.”

All images courtesy Charlene LeBleu, FASLA.

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