Coastal landscapes as Boundary Spaces: Wadden Sea Dykes and the Materiality of Coastal Places

In January 2016, I presented a paper at the fourteenth New Cultural Geographies Conference, hosted this year by the Karl-Franz University, Graz, Austria. The abstract is reproduced below. The paper sought to engage with recent debates on the place materiality, following the cultural turn in human geography.


Coastal land- and seascapes constitute liminal, boundary spaces, occupying fluid zones of transition, between the land and the sea (Leyshon 2015). Despite a long history of fixing coastlines on maps and charts, the boundary between the land and the sea defies precise measurement and is characterised by rhythms of change across multiple time-scales. In the context of global climate change, coasts are increasingly recognised to be vulnerable places facing uncertain futures. Understanding coastal places requires appreciation of the powerful material presence of the physical land and seascape and its influence on daily rhythms, local weather patterns and everyday spatial practices. Coastal places moreover are frequently characterised by historical narratives of struggle against the sea, histories of the loss of land and its retaking through material spatial practices of dyking and land reclamation. Recognition of the particularity of coastal landscapes has led to historical and contemporary studies of coastal identity and place attachment among coastal communities (e.g. Fischer, N. 2007, Fischer, L. 2011, Ratter & Gee 2012). Recent contributions by McKinnon and Brennan (2012) and Gee (2015) among others, step across the boundary from the land to the sea providing new insights into the individual perception and social construction of places at the sea. In this context, place attachment to individual seascapes is understood to be influenced by the full range of sensory perceptions and emotional associations, including particular sounds, smells, and memories in addition to visual aspects (Gee 2015). Conceptually, the physical materiality of coastal places provides a counterpoint to contemporary constructivist and poststructural readings of space as relational, socially constructed and cosmopolitan (c.f. Massey 2009, Tomaney 2012). Attention to coastal places highlights the constraints set on the production of place imposed by the immediate physical environment and the need for accounts of the social construction of place to be grounded in the topography of the material landscape (Dirlik 2001, 22). Attention to coastal places furthermore invites a reconsideration of the influence of spatial boundaries and boundary features in the landscape in the structuring of place and space. The paper traces the role of dykes as materially and symbolically powerful boundary features of the Wadden Sea coastal landscape. The role of dykes in the material and conceptual separation of nature and culture into distinct domains is explored with reference to historical studies and contemporary policy debates on coastal and nature protection at the German Wadden Sea coast. It is argued that dykes, as material spatial structures have a profound influence on the structuring of the coastal landscape. Dykes as boundary lines of spatial separation, are instrumental in the socio-cultural separation of nature and culture into natural and cultural landscapes at the Wadden Sea coast. Material and institutional path-dependencies furthermore ensure the endurance of a particular paradigm of coastal protection, founded on the concept of a continuous fixed and uninterrupted, dyke-protected coastline.

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