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Public Policy|Southampton

Opportunities for Local Involvement in Transformational Adaptation on the English Coast


Project Team 

Project lead: Dr Sien van der Plank, SCDTP Research Fellow,

Project funding: ESRC Grant No: ES/W006189/1 

Policy and research support: Dr Wassim DboukRebecca Walley


Relevant Sustainable Development Goals

SDG11 – Sustainable cities and communities; target 11.5

SDG 13 – Climate Action; targets 13.1, 13,2, 13.3

Relevant policy documents

I - National

II - International

Sea wall in Blackpool in 2018, Lancashire (Image: Sien van der Plank)

Project overview

Our coasts are facing unprecedented changes, with climate change driving rising global mean sea level and exacerbating extreme sea level events and coastal hazards. Coastal communities are particularly exposed to risks of submergence, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion. Whilst adaptations to change have been central to coastal life for millennia, climate change brings a speed and intensity of change not previously experienced. Researchers are noting that community level adaptations are needed that are large scale, systemic, and requiring significant changes to lives and livelihoods – Transformational Adaptations – yet there is little evidence of this in practice. Research questions remain: where are transformational adaptations happening, how are they being delivered, how are communities being engaged or empowered to take transformational action; can transformational adaptations create community resilience to climate driven changes? This research aims to overcome those challenges by engaging with key stakeholders in coastal disaster risk reduction, planning and adaptation, to identify how households and community groups can be engaged in these processes.

In summer 2022, Sien will be interviewing key local stakeholders in coastal flood risk management in Hampshire and Norfolk, to answer the question: How can households influence the decision-making processes of transformational adaptation to coastal flood risk? TA offers fundamental challenges to contemporary engagement processes, and to enhance community-centred adaptation the interviews will explore

  1. Identifying how local stakeholders can proactively initiate TA processes, building on their capacities and resilience.
  2. Assessing whether the process of transformation can be grounded in the lived reality of local residents.
  3. Identifying whether vulnerable populations have the political power to influence transformational adaptation decision-making processes.

Initial findings

In this exploratory research, Sien builds on her PhD research (2016-2021), which encompasses a cross-scale analysis of national policy, organisational and household involvement in coastal FRM in England, to develop a more integrated understanding for decision-makers of the challenges facing household adaptation to coastal flood risk. This work identifies a discrepancy between policies and sub-national experiences in establishing, resourcing and sustaining long-term plans for the coast. There remains a paucity of interactions between professions, despite the acknowledged benefits of interacting across boundaries and sectors. Sub-national organisational stakeholders could be empowered by capacity-building and financial resources to be part of the conversation, decision-making and implementation of coastal flood risk management. The work also concluded that households who feel capable to act, and who are aware of local flood risk management, are more likely to take preparedness measures themselves. It is a critical and opportune time for policy makers to set clear goals and provide direction for the role of and engagement of the public as a coastal FRM stakeholder.

More updates will follow in summer 2022 on the interview results.

Podcast Series: Transformational Coasts

Transformational adaptation to hazards and climate change is associated with system-wide change, a focus on the future and long-term change, and the direct questioning of the effectiveness of existing systems. But transformational adaptation for the coastal context, especially the community and household scale, remains vaguely characterised and poorly understood. The Transformational Coasts podcast series seeks to (1) explore the concept of “transformational adaptation” in the coastal context, with a specific interest in the UK’s south coast, (2) identify whether there are any opportunities for transformational adaptation on this coastline, and (3) discuss how householders and community groups could be involved in such transformational processes. All podcast hosts and guests spoke in their personal capacity, not on behalf of their respective organisations. The views presented are their own.  

Transformational Coasts Part One: Sustainable adaptations for climate resilience

In the first special episode on Transformational Coasts, we hear from three experts about the changing coastlines of England and around the world. Professor Robert Nicholls reflects on the history of coastal management in the UK, from defense through to resilience, and past and present management transformations. Professor Mike Elliott outlines the “triple whammy” of threat that coasts face, as well as talks us through the ten tenets for effective and sustainable marine management. Dr Jenny Brown describes her passion for the sea, and the need for sustainability to be embedded into coastal adaptation discourse and practice. Join Sien and Dominique in this exploration of changing coasts and transformational adaptation, where we hear about the shift to holistic coastal management and adaptation, working with communities and taking into account public perceptions of the coast, pathways and systems thinking, green solutions, and reducing uncertainties to improve warning systems. 

Hosted by: Dr Sien van der Plank (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Exeter / Visting Researcher, University of Southampton) and Dominique Townsend (coastal geomorphologist, PhD researcher looking at nearshore change, University of Southampton)

Featuring: Dr Jenny Brown (coastal oceanographer, National Oceanography Centre), Professor Mike Elliott (Professor of Estuarine & Coastal Sciences at the University of Hull and Director of IECS Ltd) and Professor Robert Nicholls (Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research at the University of East Anglia)

Listen to Part One

Transformational Coasts Part Two: Challenges and Opportunities in Coastal Adaptation

In the second special episode on Transformational Coasts, we hear from three experts about the changing coastlines of England, with specific consideration of south coast locations. Tim Loughton discusses the particular challenges and exciting opportunities of coastal communities. Uwe Dornbusch takes the physical geographical perspective on coastal change, but also reflects on the relationship between nature and people in the coastal context, and the changing perspectives on how to best manage that interface. Dr Charlie Thompson describes coasts as an area of exchange, both physically and socially, a dynamic system that needs to be managed as a whole rather than controlled in parts. Join Sien and Wassim as they learn about coastal erosion processes in the short- and long-term in Sussex, the importance of embedded engagement and involvement of communities in coastal adaptation, recognising that coastal change is part of living on the coast, and the role, benefits and limits of nature based coastal management options. 

Hosted by: Dr Sien van der Plank (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Exeter / Visting Researcher, University of Southampton) and Dr Wassim Dbouk (Marine and Maritime Policy Research Fellow, University of Southampton).

Featuring: Dr Charlie Thompson (Senior Lecturer in Sediment Dynamics and Coastal Processes and Director of the Channel Coastal Observatory), Dr Uwe Dornbusch (Senior Coastal Specialist at the Environment Agency) and Tim Loughton (MP).

Listen to Part Two

Transformational Coasts Part 3: Coastal communities

In this final special episode on Transformational Coasts, we hear from three experts about the changing coastlines in the east of England. Peter Aldous, describes the importance of a strategic, evidence-based approach, working with communities, on the ever-evolving coastline. Kellie Fisher stresses the importance of community-led, place-based approaches and being honest in coastal adaptation conversations. Dr Helen Jay reflects on the benefits and vibrancy of our coastlines, and the importance of thinking about transformational adaptation now.  
Join Sien and Rebecca as they hear about the need for long-term planning, ongoing and potential adaptations on the East Coast, the importance and challenges of eroding coastlines, choosing language and communicating adaptation messaging carefully, and the centrality of communities and community leaders to finding adaptation solutions.  

Hosted by: Dr Sien van der Plank (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Exeter / Visting Researcher, University of Southampton) and Rebecca Walley (PhD researcher, University of Southampton).

Featuring: Kellie Fisher (Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Senior Advisor, Environment Agency), Dr Helen Jay (Senior National Consultant for Coast at National Trust) and Peter Aldous (Member of Parliament for Waveney).

Listen to Part Three

Recommended Readings

As part of this podcast series, our respective panels have suggested some readings to accompany each episode. 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three


Van der Plank, S., S. Brown and R.J. Nicholls. (2021) Managing coastal flood risk to residential properties in England: integrating spatial planning, engineering and insurance. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 52, 101961, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.101961 

Sien’s work to engage local community groups on adaptation to flood risk has featured in the March 2022 University of Southampton publication Business Boost: How PhD Students can Collaborate with your Business, and the April 2022 University of Southampton Research and Enterprise magazine Re:action.

Van der Plank, S., S. Brown and E. Tompkins. (2021, May 17-21). Responsibilities in coastal adaptation to climate change: the complex role of households in English coastal flood risk management [Conference poster]. Climate Exp0: A Fusion of Science and Policy Advancing a Resilient, Zero-Carbon World, online:

More outputs to follow…

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