• Prof. C.  Patrick Heidkamp, Southern Connecticut State University
  • Dr. John Morrissey, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick
  • Dr. Catherine Chambers, University Centre of the Westfjords

Coastal areas, despite only occupying a relatively small percentage of the Earth’s land-surface, provide more than one third of the globe’s value of ecosystem services. Coastal areas are also increasingly at risk due to changing environmental conditions as well as human development pressures. These factors, coupled with the large-scale failure of contemporary governance approaches to direct development to more sustainable outcomes, present stark challenges for coastal stakeholders. Nowhere is this clearer than in contested coastal zones, where intense demand on coastal resources sits uneasily with stewardship, habitat protection and natural resource maintenance imperatives. Coastal zones represent a frontline in the battle for sustainability, as coastal communities face unprecedented economic challenges while coastal ecosystems are subject to overuse, loss of resilience and increased vulnerability.

The RSA sponsored research network on Sustainability Transitions in the Coastal Zone aimed to address limitations in current research through an examination of socio technological transitions with an explicitly spatial focus in the context of the coastal zone. The network convened over 4 workshops, from January 2017-April 2019 with the aim to initiate and foster debate, insight and critical thinking in this space in an incremental and step-wise manner. Details of the 4 workshops are as follows:

 Workshop 1: Review of Coastal Issues and the Conceptual Basis for Transitions

  • January 19-21st  2017 University Centre of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður, Iceland
  • This initial meeting aimed to establish the ‘boundaries’ and potentials of the research network, identifying those aspects of critical importance to further academic and practitioner insight. Spatial understandings of transitions processes, neglected by the academic community to date, were front and centre to discussions.

Workshop 2: Food-Energy-Transportation Systems Transitions

  • September 07th-09th 2017 Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, UK
  • The second workshop addressed three key systems in the coastal context; food, energy and transportation. Current limitations to sustainability and capacity for systems transformation were identified, with reference to core concepts from the transitions literature, including issues of path-dependency, inertia and regime transformation.

Workshop 3:  Governance and Sustainability Citizenship in the Coastal Zone

  • September 13th-15th 2018 Skálanes, East Iceland.
  • The move from top-down governance to a networked, co-owned model of governance was explored for international coastal case-studies, with a view to developing understandings of best practice for coastal sustainability governance. Conceptualisations of coastal stakeholders as sustainability citizens, rather than resource consumers informed the framing of contributions

Workshop 4: Activating Real Coastal Transitions

  • April 12th-16th 2019 Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Ireland
  • This workshop aimed to synthesise outcomes from all 4 workshops and identify transformation pathways for coastal regions. A regionally informed understanding of place and space directed debate to consider problems of uneven transition, and risks of ‘negative transitions’, whereby existing contours of uneven development are exacerbated by transition initiatives.

Summary of Research Network Outcomes:

Themes of resilience and sustainability as related to blue economy activities, issues of governance and justice and cross-cutting themes of gender and intersectionality emerged as being of particular interest and in need of more in-depth, transdisciplinary and place-based research investigation (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Thematic Summary of Discussion Points, 3rd Meeting of the RSA Research Network on Sustainability Transitions in the Coastal Zone

The importance of participation emerged as a key focus of debate, particularly with regard to informed and engaged community-based responses to coastal pressures. Delegates were interested in how participation imperatives would endure resource, environment and political pressures in the coming decades. An argument on how farming narratives and big ideas for coastal sustainability related to one another inter-linked and were perhaps compatible or not provided fruitful ground for productive brainstorming. Figure 2 represents the group’s initial ‘target’ view of coastal sustainability, framing coastal and marine ‘big ideas’ as a succession of narrower and smaller targets. In this representation, the ‘blue economy’ is a broadly framed concept, with scope for widespread interpretation and application, including freedom for various political framings of the idea. ‘Just Transition’ by contrast is a much more narrowly defined concept, with considerably more stringent threshold for practical realization in coastal contexts, characterized by more narrowly defined economic and social performance imperatives.

Figure 2: Thematic Summary of Discussion Points, 4th  Meeting of the RSA Research Network on Sustainability Transitions in the Coastal Zone

Delegates debating Figure 2 pointed out the problematic nature of framing community engagement and just transitions as end-point targets of coastal sustainability. Rather, these concepts could be better understood as facilitating and empowering process related concepts, better applied to frame and understand the means of realizing coastal sustainability and aspects of resilient and sustainable blue economies. Figure 2 captures this critical argument, showing current extractive, resource intensive, carbon dependent and top-down managed characterized coastal economies on the left of the diagram. This framing posits that community engagement and just transitions present means through which the targets of resilient, low carbon and blue economy can be realized. Figure 3 reframes community engagement and just transitions not as key targets, but rather as the means through which the path-dependency and intertia of the current coastal economy can be transformed to more sustainable and resilient pathways.

Figure 3: Thematic Summary of Discussion Points, 4th  Meeting of the RSA Research Network on Sustainability Transitions in the Coastal Zone


List of Achievements:

  • 4 x RSA sponsored workshops conducted 2017-2019 in Iceland, Ireland & the UK
  • 50 attendees in total
  • 16 x student bursaries to facilitate PGR student travel and development


  • Published Edited Volume: Heidkamp, C. P., & Morrissey, J. (Eds.). (2018). Towards Coastal Resilience and Sustainability. Routledge.
  • Published four book chapters in edited volume:
    1. Kristin Weiss, Catherine Chambers and Patrick J. Holladay. Tourism in the Coastal Zone; Livelihoods and opportunity for Youth in Dominica. In Towards Coastal Resilience and Sustainability (pp. 327-343). Routledge
    2. Heidkamp, C. P., & Morrissey, J. (2018). Introduction: Sustainability in the coastal zone. In Towards Coastal Resilience and Sustainability(pp. 1-11). Routledge.
    3. Morrissey, J. and Heidkamp, C.P., 2018. A transitions perspective on coastal sustainability. Towards Coastal Resilience and Sustainability, (pp.15-32). Routledge
    4. Heidkamp, C. P., & Morrissey, J. (2018). Conclusion: Outlook for coastal transitions. In Towards Coastal Resilience and Sustainability(pp. 344-349). Routledge.
  • Edited two special issues of Regions magazine:
    1. Heidkamp, C. P., & Morrissey, J. E. (2017). Coastal Sustainability I: Challenges, Methods and Opportunities: Coastal Sustainability—the Critical Coastal Arena. Regions Magazine307(1).
    2. Heidkamp, C. P., & Morrissey, J. E. (2017). Coastal Sustainability II: Frontiers For Regional Transition. Regions Magazine, 308(1).
  • Convenors of Special Session: Sustainability Transitions in the Coastal Zone, 2019 RSA North America Conference, Montreal, Canada, September 25, 2019 – September 27, 2019
  • Journal Article In Preparation: Towards Achieving a Just Transition in the Coastal Zone: Ideas form the RSA Research Network on Sustainability Transitions in the Coastal Zone (2016-2019). C. Patrick Heidkamp, John E. Morrissey, Cat Chambers et al.