PhD defence Ewert Aukes

Framing coastel squeeze:  understanding the integration of mega-nourishment schemes into the dutch coastal management solutions repertoire  

For as long as humans began to settle, coastal areas proved attractive sites for socio-economic processes. In the Netherlands, intensifying economic processes such as urbanization and globalization have raised and continue to raise pressure on land use in those areas. Add to that natural floods and the increasing threat climate-change-induced sea level rise poses, and a situation of complex societal interactions emerges, embodied by the term of “coastal squeeze” (Chapter 1). As demands on land use rose, the requirements for coastal management also changed: ecological, recreational and economic opportunities became more prominent in design processes for coastal safety projects (Chapter 2). One attempt to combine those spatial functions with coastal safety is the mega-nourishment scheme – a large amount of sand (>5 million m³, or 2000 Olympic swimming pools) deposited on and in front of the beach to increase the coastal protection level in the long term. Coastal management experts see the mega-nourishment scheme as an innovative technology, because before Dutch coastal managers used smaller nourishment amounts of sand to protect coasts for a few years only. However, the mega-nourishment scheme came a long way to be accepted as an option in the Dutch coastal management repertoire. While first ideas already date back to the 1980s, it was not until 2011 that a broad actor coalition led by a Dutch provincial government succeeded in implementing the first mega-nourishment scheme. But this was not without resistance. A period of raising awareness about the innovative idea and facing opposition on the part of the advocates of mega-nourishment schemes preceded its construction in 2011. At the same time, a scientific discourse advocating experimentation with mega-nourishment schemes developed. Many experts expected the advantages of mega-nourishment schemes to outweigh the disadvantages (Chapter 3).

A problem setting including such a complex policy domain led to a focus on interactions between policy-relevant actors and their exchange of arguments pro and con the acceptance of mega-nourishment schemes. Policy situations with such a diversity of interests and of policy options run the risk of getting bogged down in discussions about controversial policy problems and solutions. This holds especially, if the policy debate involves an innovative, unknown, and untested policy option, such as the mega-nourishment scheme. Definitions of a given problem, scopes of possible and acceptable solutions to a previously-defined problem and perceptions of the landscape of policy-relevant actors fall within the realm of meaning-making. Meaning-making, simply defined, comprises all mental processes necessary to understand ourselves, our position in and our relationship with our surroundings. Taking such a meaning-oriented perspective, this dissertation focuses on the role of actors’ frames and interactions between those frames in effectuating policy choice (Chapter 4). Frames can be seen as mental structures enabling people to bring order into their surroundings and make sense of them. At the same time, these structures limit the possibility for people to “see things differently”. This is only one way of understanding how individuals make meaning.

Taking a meaning-oriented research perspective also has consequences for the ways in which we can know things about our research subjects (Chapter 5). A meaning orientation entails understanding patterns of meaning-making, instead of explaining causal relations between independent and dependent variables. Hence, this way-of-knowing (“epistemology”) often links to a way-of-being (“ontology”), which assumes the existence of multiple social realities among people involved. People can see things differently, but, in principle, none of those perspectives is normatively privileged, i.e. no perspective is truer than another.

A dual objective guides the work in front of you (Chapter 1). First, the research explored which frames were successful in the adoption of mega-nourishment schemes in the Netherlands. This objective traces the political arguments that convinced a majority of the policy-relevant actors. Second, the research aimed at revealing those processes of meaning-making relevant for mega-nourishment schemes to come about. While the findings relating to this second objective may be relevant for strategic area management[1] as well, its focus is on positioning meaning-making processes in coastal management in its scientific, conceptual context.

Two overarching research questions follow from these two research objectives:

  1. Which interpretations of the policy situation were relevant for adding mega-nourishment schemes to the accepted set of coastal management technologies in the Dutch coastal management context?
  2. How does meaning-making of the policy situation influence decision-making processes about mega-nourishment schemes in the Dutch coastal management context?

I studied three cases to answer these research questions, two of which were mega-nourishment schemes – the Sand Motor and the Hondsbossche Duinen project – and the third was a small-scale experiment with sand in the Dutch Markermeer: the Houtribdijk pilot project (Chapter 5). In all three cases, I conducted qualitative, in-depth interviews with policy-relevant actors, i.e. employees of governmental organizations directly involved in the decision-making processes for the projects. Afterwards, I analyzed the interviews by focusing on how the interviewees framed various aspects of the coming about of the projects and how they perceived the development of debates among actors in retrospect. In the absence of observed interaction data, the interviews resulted in indirect data for actors’ framing interactions. “Framing” describes the different processes with which people communicate purposefully or sub-consciously with others about a matter at hand. This way of communicating is always permeated with the meaning made through a frame. During the reconstruction of the projects’ frame developments and framing interactions, eventually the most relevant meaning-making process for every particular project emerged.

The first empirical elaboration is the Hondsbossche Duinen project at the North Sea coast in the province of North Holland (Chapter 6). It involved approximately 30 million m³ sand being deposited, amounting to a volume of 12.000 Olympic swimming pools and a surface of 400 football fields. The design included vegetation and a dune valley for fortification and the creation of recreational facilities. Throughout this project, actors’ frames converged more and more. But two changes in project management were necessary for this. The first change was from the provincial government of North Holland to the water board “Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier”. This happened, because some actors emphasized the differences between their own and others’ frames, instead of building on existing similarities. During the second change, the public works agency came on board in a combined project management with the water board. This cooperation, unusual for Dutch coastal management, led to success, because it focused on the similarities between frames.

I devote a second empirical elaboration to the small-scale Houtribdijk pilot project at the coast of the inland waters of the Dutch Markermeer (Chapter 7). This project involved experimentation with the effect of vegetation on nourished sand bodies in inland waters. For this, the Houtribdijk between Lelystad, Flevoland, and Enkhuizen, North Holland was nourished with 130.000 m³ of sand. This amount compares to a volume of 52 Olympic swimming pools and a surface of 10 football fields. The Houtribdijk pilot is an example of what can happen in terms of frames and framing if a private party initiates the project. In this specific instance, the frames of the few involved actors did not so much aim for cooperation, but for an efficient realization of the project according to formal procedures. This low involvement of actors with each other kept exchange among frames to a minimum.

The Sand Motor project is the third empirical case discussed in this dissertation (Chapter 8). Constructed in 2011, this was the first mega-nourishment scheme at the Dutch North Sea coast with approximately 21 million m³ of sand, comparable to a volume of 8.400 Olympic swimming pools and a surface, just after construction, of 180 football fields. The most observable meaning-making processes in the interviews for this project were the ways in which frames interacted. In the realization, one actor – the provincial government of South-Holland – played a large role in convincing other actors of his idea. This actor was very successful in framing his message as such that other parties became advocates of the proposed solution, too. The term ‘interpretive policy entrepreneur’ captures this ability. It describes an actor who can convince others by making meaning in a way that they can easily relate to.

These case studies are not only relevant as stand-alone examples of innovative nourishment schemes in the Netherlands. Through comparing the projects with each other, I gained additional insights (Chapter 9). In this comparison generalization of the findings was not the objective, but seeing similarities and differences between the cases. On the one hand, the comparison included structural aspects of the projects, such as the way in which higher governance levels supported the respective project and the exchange between the political and scientific spheres. On the other hand, I compared the three projects concerning their interpretive aspects. This included which arguments were important in the decision-making processes, in how far the discussions exceeded temporal, institutional and geographical scales, what role interpretive policy entrepreneurs played, and what the character of framing interactions across the cases was.

Based on the three empirical cases and their comparison, conclusions can be drawn about the research questions (Chapter 10). Mega-nourishment schemes’ suggested multifunctionality accelerated their adoption into the Dutch coastal management repertoire (Research question A.). Multifunctionality is not only a versatile argument allowing actors with different interests to connect easily, but it also promises the mitigation of effects of coastal squeeze. Advocates of mega-nourishment schemes had to convince skeptics of the utility of experimenting with this technology to prove that it was indeed multifunctional. In the Sand Motor case, this experimental language was another adoption factor, though inferior to the multifunctionality argument, which helped advocates to realize the project. The influence of meaning-making on decision-making processes can be understood as the ways in which actor coalitions formed around specific interpretations of policy problems and associated solutions (Research question B.). In the three cases, I found framing processes contributing to such coalition forming (“convergent”), and processes detracting from it (“divergent”). Both types of processes can be employed deliberately. However, these processes also occur subconsciously in the natural manner of communication among humans through framing. Due to more and more convergent meaning-making, the coalition advocating mega-nourishment schemes stabilized on different governmental levels and in different sectors. This has leading to broad acceptance of mega-nourishment schemes in Dutch coastal management.

The dissertation opens up at least three directions for future research. First, the knowledge of interpretations and policy processes can be translated into guidelines for practitioners. Profound knowledge of frames, framing and the processes that connect interpretations of policy situations to outcomes of projects offers support for practice. Second, the research focused on actors from governmental organizations, but left out societal actors, e.g. non-governmental organizations, civil initiatives, or the general public. Probing whether those groups also embrace the interpretations that would lead to successful implementation may add valuable knowledge about the relation between governments and their constituency. Third, it is relevant to study how interpretations – in times when opinions challenge scientific findings – influence the categorization of knowledge as ‘questionable’ or ‘undisputed’. Think of the way in which high-ranking politicians doubt the existence of climate change.

In sum, this dissertation draws attention to the societal drivers of coastal squeeze. Furthermore, it studies the adoption of a coastal management innovation – the mega-nourishment scheme – which may contribute to mitigating the effects of coastal squeeze. On the one hand, this research’s meaning-orientation improves our understanding of policy processes in Dutch coastal management. On the other hand, it stresses the importance of meaning-making as a basic cognitive process that is not only important in policy-making, but just as much in everyday decision-making.

[1] Infrastructure projects of the Dutch public works agency feature strategic area management. This type of management organizes the communication with the societal surrounding of the project and serves as a kind of Public Relations.