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Community at the heart of coastal adaptation: Whakahekerau – Rakiātea Rautaki tai – St Clair – St Kilda Coastal Plan

Community Vision and Objectives from the Coastal Plan

Figure 1: Community Vision and Objectives from the Coastal Plan

With Gemma Greenshields | Principal Community Engagement Specialist, WSP

Engaging communities on climate change and coastal adaptation is no easy task. There are expectations on what community wants from their space based on their connections to the area, varying levels of knowledge about what adaptation means, an uncertain future and of course emotions always run high when we’re talking about people’s homes, private land, businesses and public recreational space. This article shares our experience of putting community at the heart of coastal adaptation through the Whakahekerau – Rakiātea Rautaki tai – St Clair – St Kilda Coastal Plan.

There is plenty of information about climate change and adaptation out there, there are many experts with views about the best solutions, but ‘selling’ these to the community isn’t going to give the Council (in Aotearoa/NZ’s case) a true social licence to act. Community engagement creates a genuinely meaningful platform to take community through a process where they are empowered to guide the adaptation process. It also provides Council with a social licence to carry actions forward in the future.

Through the St Clair to St Kilda Coastal Plan, Dunedin City Council put the community at the heart of decision making. They started with a two-way conversation to understand what was happening at the coast, while working out what mattered most to the community. Our process was guided by New Zealand Ministry for the Environment’s coastal hazards and climate change guidance (2017) which recommends planning for the impacts of climate change and coastal hazards and follows a 10-step decision cycle.

The St Clair– St Kilda Coastal Plan is an adaptation planning process focused on the coastline of St Clair and St Kilda Beaches in Dunedin. The current coastline includes a combination of hard and soft defences, including a sea wall, geotextile (sand-filled) barrier and a length of sand dune. Collectively this coast shelters the low-lying inland South Dunedin area, providing defence from coastal inundation and erosion. This section of coast is heavily used by the city with many people using the coast year-round for recreation activities such as walking, surfing and other sports. It is an understatement to say that the community cares deeply about this coast.

The engagement journey began with a period of critical review and reflection. This was not the first time that this community had been asked to provide input on its coastline. This preparation was crucial for preparing conversations that in many ways had been started, but in the community’s eyes, left un-finished. The Engagement Plan was validated early with key stakeholders and community groups to ensure we clearly understood how people wanted to be involved, and where and when would be best to include them. The engagement team and project team had a strong desire for authentic engagement. We wanted to truly engage with communities ensuring that their feedback shaped the vision, objectives and potential future management options (see Figure 1 for the outcomes of this process.)

We started with the question ‘What matters most?’ to understand what people valued about the coast, before working towards ‘What could be done about it’ to ensure a sustainable and lasting outcome for the coast and community.

Some engagement methods

Figure 2: Some engagement methods

A diverse range of methods were used to encourage participation in the process (see figure 2 for some of the methods used). We allowed opportunities for the community to come to us and have in-depth conversations through workshops and one-on-one meetings. We also ‘went to the people’ with intercept surveys on the beach and pop-up sessions in the surf-life saving clubs. Alongside tried and tested engagement methods we used innovative methods including printmaking sessions (art workshops) online multi-media and multi-criteria decision-making surveys. (Figure 3 shows some photos of the print making session.)

An iterative process allowed constant reflection throughout – who were we hearing from and who were we missing. This enabled us to change our methods, for example, we were missing the whanau (family) voice and youth. We actively sought this through an arts activation and print making session and through visiting youth at schools, university and the local youth council. During the COVID-19 lockdown we extended our engagement timeframes, extended our reach online and used video within our online surveys to curate a workshop experience online.

These methods helped to diversify our engagement tools and mitigated several key engagement risks, such as certain groups being under-represented, COVID-19 restricting face-to-face engagement and overcoming a history of distrust in decision-making at the coast. Through the St Clair – St Kilda Coastal Plan engagement process we received feedback from more than 2000 individuals, with several thousand others also being reached in other ways. More than a dozen different engagement methods were used to source feedback and many more communications methods were used to advertise and supplement our engagement activities, such as posters, radio, media spots and brochures. We were pleased with the diversity of groups and individuals engaged and of the strides we have made to build trust and integrate community ambition into a truly forward-looking plan for the city’s much-loved coast.

Community members at the Printmaking Sessions

Figure 3: Images from the Printmaking Sessions

Winning the 2021 IAP2 Australasian Core Value Awards Planning Category and Project of the Year was a real testament to the authentic, iterative approach adopted for the St Clair – St Kilda Coastal Plan. This demonstrated how we can put our communities at the heart of climate adaptation processes. This was further reiterated when it was acknowledged by people within the community, who didn’t necessarily agree with the outcomes but commended the robust and open engagement approach undertaken. People could see why decisions were being made, even if they didn’t agree with them. For me, as an engagement practitioner, this realisation from our harshest critics is what I strive for. I want to thank the community for their contributions over the 2 years we worked on this and for all of their inputs that directed the Whakahekerau – Rakiātea Rautaki tai – St Clair – St Kilda Coastal Plan.