Coastal Cities and Urban Deltascapes under Pressure: Quo Vadis Homo Narrans?

Today’s blog gives a sneak preview of Global Environment 14.3 on Coastal Cities, due out next week. Guest editor Grit Martinez introduces the issue.

Coastal shores and river deltas have always attracted people to congregate. Presently, an estimated forty per cent of the population worldwide live within 100 kilometres of the coast, including many cities and megacities worldwide. Coastal areas areas provide rich sources for agriculture, fishing and merchandise but they are also challenging places to live – environmentally and socially. 

Throughout the ages of human settlement, the sea and the coast have been dominated by the myth of the uncontrollable force of nature. Ever since people have lived together and interacted with their environment, in this case the sea, they have constructed manifold narratives in verbal, musical or figural forms portraying the danger the sea around them brought. In particular, periodic storm floods as well as erosion are threats to which settlers need to find reactions. Narrations became a communication paradigm, which also provided guidance for protection while living with the sea forces. Slowly, various thoughts and strategies of coastal protection emerged over time and spaces. Such protection measures were not necessarily characterised by the narrative of mastering the sea. Instead, those early coastal and deltaic settlers rather assigned and reproduced meaning from the constant experiences to which they were exposed. Soon measures such as abandoning settlements during dangerous seasons, building houses on stilts, utilizing sand relocations and alluvial deposits, to name a few, proved to be effective. Still, they meant adapting and adjusting circumstances and lifestyles to the sea forces. 

In the age of the Anthropocene, coasts and seas both are characterised by intense social-ecological interactions, recently the industrial appropriation of coasts worldwide and the oceans as a waste disposal site for port industries and land-based production facilities. The narrative of mastering the sea accompanied such perception shifts. A central role in this is played by the development of modern coastal protection systems, whereby coasts are the starting point of human cultivation of and value creation from the sea. In the present era of human-made climate change, rising sea levels and growing populations, these problems are bound to increase. There are thus valid reasons to look on past and recent experiences, which tackle the major ecological and societal challenges coastal populations are facing in order to support their quest for resilient and fair means of coping with them.

This special issue unites case studies from coastal regions and river deltas in Europe, North America and Asia from the last 200 years. Drawing on a rich range of methods and sources from the humanities, social and natural sciences, they contribute to the important discussion of what options ‘homo narrans’ has for coping with current and future environmental risks. They also provide the ground for discussions about whether there is a way to change the narrative again from mastering the sea to an alternative narrative that engages human and nonhuman actors and groups in the building of a just coastal environment by co-working with the sea and coastal environments instead of through its mere depletion. The examples in this issue range from the creation of knowledge to enable living and building with nature to reoccurring ecosystem failures, from technocratic belief in ‘engineering our way out’ to situational tactics of tamed interventions and untamed practices, to reassessing coastal vulnerability and building resiliency or the disappearance of coastal cities due to environmental degradation. The cases also demonstrate that these different practices are linked to different views of how habitats in coastal regions and river deltas should look and how they are understood. Interpreted and modified by special local or regional contextualities and practices, the sea environments analysed in this volume are bound by their place-based histories and the attached intangible and tangible cultural values of individuals, institutions and non-human actors alike.

By understanding socio-cultural complexities of coping mechanisms in ecosystems from the near and more distant past and by tracking the path-dependencies which shaped and shape approaches of urban and rural coastal and delta communities, the empirical studies collected in this issue provide answers to scholars and practitioners alike. They illustrate that coping strategies are based on different capacities originating in historical, socio-cultural, political and economic contexts, interests and ideas. Nevertheless, the cases show that these different capacities are connected through similar challenges, particular to living with periodic floods and erosion. The articles also provide a fascinating picture of the complexity of the human and non-human interface and both the ingenuity of people involved and their repeated propensity to deny known risks and ignore memories of past events. They make plain that an understanding of different value constellations in our coupled human environmental systems is needed to react properly to the major environmental challenges on our coasts and deltas in the future. Moreover, they make a convincing case for the more-than-ever-growing need to consider different ideas, narratives and power relations of coastal and maritime actors and groups in order to shape a coastal management that is ecologically and socially sustainable. 

The authors and editor of this volume would not have met if they had not been graciously invited to join a workshop on ‘coastal cities’ at the Centre for the History of Global Development at Shanghai University in October 2019.  Iris Borowy was the incubator of the idea to bring a wide variety of scholars and practitioners together to exchange their views on coastal pressures and needs.  Shanghai University provided generous support to assemble this group of scholars. Located at the Yangtze River Delta in proximity of the Pacific, Shanghai was the perfect location to meet, exchange, get inspired and finally publish this special issue. 

Berlin, Summer 2021.

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