What we learned about making living shorelines more equitable

By Kiya Bibby

OST recently released a report titled Toward More Equitable Nature-based Coastal Adaptation in California. In brief, the report contains policy recommendations and research gaps that, if acted upon, would support the State in implementing equitable nature-based shoreline management strategies, such as living shorelines, for coastal and community resilience. The content was developed in conversation with experts in academia, environmental justice, and policy.

As author of this report along with my colleague, Hayley Carter, who are both also relatively new to working in this space, we’re sharing a few reflections on our process:

Don’t Prescribe Solutions: Our project proposal initially focused on exploring how California can implement living shorelines more equitably, as previous research has demonstrated that conservation efforts in California are more likely to occur in more affluent communities. Our initial thinking was that focusing on a specific solution – living shorelines, nature-based coastal management approaches for addressing shoreline change and vulnerabilities – might allow for development of tangible and practical recommendations. However, early discussions quickly revealed that this specificity itself presents a barrier to truly applying an equity lens to coastal adaptation. In essence, an ‘a priori’ focus on living shorelines might inadvertently perpetuate a less equitable solution in some locations, runs the risk of prescribing priorities and approaches for (and not with) communities, or could unintentionally lead to greater barriers or requirements for living shorelines compared with other coastal adaptation approaches (e.g. seawalls or shoreline hardening). This evolution in our learning is reflected in the report recommendations.

Plan for Capacity Limitations: Many community advocates are at capacity, so use time efficiently and compensate well. While we originally envisioned this project as a full panel convening of environmental justice practitioners and academics, we quickly found this time commitment unworkable for any potential collaborators. Instead, limited calltime, discrete review of written documents, and offering compensation at consultant rates allowed for fruitful discussions and feedback. We also included a recommendation that speaks to the need for capacity building at community-based organizations to increase their ability to engage in shoreline planning processes.

Local Context Matters: Living shoreline project types are diverse, as are California’s coastlines, climate vulnerabilities, and communities, and therefore the potential social equity considerations of individual projects can vary significantly. Local engagement and community needs assessment is an inherent challenge in projects with a statewide scope, like this one, and small organizations with a statewide mission, like Ocean Science Trust. Recommendation 4 seeks to address this by asking shoreline management advocates to define context-specific social equity goals early in the process and establish clear equity metrics to evaluate project outcomes. In addition, climate adaptation may not be an immediate priority for frontline communities facing disproportionate health, environmental, and economic challenges. Thus, improving equitable outcomes from coastal adaptation projects cannot be separated from the need to address broader structural inequities in California that impact frontline coastal communities and effective ocean and coastal policy and management.

For more information about this project and to download the report, visit the Toward More Equitable Nature-based Coastal Adaptation in California project page

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