Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Around the world, the crowded coastline is often a battlefield, as communities fight each other, the government, and even nature. Photo by William James Warren/Science Faction/Corbis
Around the world, the crowded coastline is often a battlefield, as communities fight each other, the government, and even nature. Photo by William James Warren/Science Faction/Corbis

Who Controls the Coast?

Squabbling over some of the world’s most valuable territory, the shoreline, is ultimately a very human thing to do.

Authored by

by Jude Isabella

Article body copy

When I was a girl, I was puzzled by homes with fences that surrounded their yards. On my suburban street in the 1970s, there were two families with fully fenced properties. To my naive self it was a stingy gesture; discordant with the rest of the homes, the fences were unwelcome mats in an otherwise friendly neighborhood. Those fences separated front yards from the common areas (streets and sidewalks) and they barked: this is mine.

I don’t remember being overly respectful of property lines when the neighborhood gang played games of hide-and-seek, but I was wary of those two houses with their obvious markers.

In researching this editorial series—Battle for the Coastline—that memory resurfaced. Childish thoughts have a weird duality, both unsophisticated and sagacious. There is truth in such a binary view of my neighborhood: land can be treated as a shared resource (a commons), or as a privately owned slice of the Earth. For the past 500 years or so, communities have been engaged in an epic struggle to balance the two.

The question is particularly acute on coastlines, liminal places that straddle two worlds—one, the ocean, a shared resource; and the other, terra firma, riddled with survey pins. Poor management of coastal zones unravels interconnected social and ecological threads, which, like those in a spider’s web, are strong when woven, but useless when torn. Coastlines are the ultimate commons with countless users who claim the shore for myriad, and often conflicting, purposes: trade, recreation, investment, livelihood, or habitat.

Around the world, coastal communities struggle to retain balance over their border world. They battle the forces that would construct fences and parcel out the continents’ edges to the highest bidder: for a fabulous view, for profit, for security.


How many people—excluding Australians—can name that country’s largest inland cities? What would be left of Las Vegas if you stripped away spectacle, gambling, and the vices associated with temporarily losing your executive cognitive functions? On the other hand, if you lose your shirt at the craps table in Monte Carlo, Monaco, you can find solace at the Oceanographic Museum or ponder the view and your bad luck on Larvotto Beach. Monaco has what Las Vegas has not: location, location, location. Its position in the Maritime Alps on the Mediterranean Sea has made it a destination for conquerors and traders for thousands of years.

We all want a piece of the world’s Monacos. Population has surged in the coastal world. In China, the move to the coast has been particularly high in recent years at over three times the national rate. In the United States, 52 percent of the population lives in a coastal watershed, which accounts for 15 percent of the landmass, which is a 45 percent increase from 1970 to 2010. In Canada, the coastal population growth rate has been on the rise for decades: head in the opposite direction of the oceans’ shores and population decreases exponentially. Keep in mind, measuring coastal population relies on a number of factors—density, distribution, topography—and will vary from country to country. But, everyone agrees most megacities hug the coast, and people continue to crowd the world’s continental fringes.

China’s explosive development has led to explosive population growth on its coasts. Photo by Jon Arnold/JAI/Corbis

Crowded coastal communities spend a lot of energy squabbling over their shorelines. The strong social and territorial behaviors of humans likely emerged, or were reinforced, by living along the bounteous shore over 100,000 years ago. We’ve been duking it out ever since; we always will. And we should: it’s valuable territory, though the politics and economics of the modern world have complicated our struggles.


The coasts are places of wonder and plunder, where the sea is both fickle—moving her boundaries daily, often hurling squalls and storms—and steadfast, offering sustenance and travel. As flexible as the shoreline is, so too has been our relationship with the land, marine resources, and each other. But a fundamental change washed over the world a few centuries ago. What was once a tractable relationship became one of absolutes. It happened when we put a price tag on coastal land. Controlling the coast became a zero-sum game. There would be winners and losers.

In Owning the Earth, Andro Linklater explores what it means to carve up land and privatize what was once a public resource. Like many theorists, Linklater calls the move to private individually owned property a land-grab. Or as Itai Sened writes in more scholarly phrasing in The Political Institution of Private Property, “There is nothing natural, or particularly ethical, about property rights, as such. Property rights emerge because they serve some tangible interests of particular individuals.”

The idea that an individual could own a piece of the Earth’s surface erupted around the 1500s. By a number of accounts, it was spurred by something as mortal as a European population boom: more people needed clothes, clothes were made out of wool, and sheep provided wool. Traditionally, sheep grazed over common land and peasants lived a subsistence lifestyle. But with money to be made on the market, those savvy enough—and already holding some reign of power—to equate privately owned land with material wealth, tossed off peasants, enclosed fields, contained their sheep, and made a fortune. The English exported this radical new concept of owning the Earth pretty much immediately.

They look cute, but a European population boom meant more people, more clothes, more wool, and more sheep. The result? Now is a good time to read the essay if you haven’t already. Photo by Joe McDonald/Corbis

In 1583, Englishman Sir Humphrey Gilbert, explorer and scientist, sailed into the harbor in St. John’s, Newfoundland and promptly surveyed the land at the water’s edge. European fishermen, who had already muscled in on the common resource of the indigenous Mi’kmaq, dotted the shoreline, unloading their cod and drying it on the patch of beach they would claim each season, through a time-honored first come, first served basis. But Queen Elizabeth I had granted Gilbert the right to own all the “soyles” of the lands he encountered. So he carved up the land, declared it privately owned, and charged each fisherman rent. He had conjured a price tag for the beach. So began the methodical looting of the coastal commons and its social and ecological integrity; private property as a global economic and political force has been practically unstoppable ever since.

It’s important at this point to distinguish individual private property from the proprietary kind of ownership held over common land. Cultures the world over, past and present, have had various forms of land and resource control involving some sort of social contract with family, communities, monarchs, or gods. This was not the case for individuals who owned a patch of ground; the government and laws that sprung up around landowners extended them new powers and rights, more civil liberties, and, before long, more legal protections by the state.

The conundrum of how private property fit in with traditional communities didn’t go unnoticed from the outset—society was grappling with a radical concept. It was troubling. To paraphrase 17th-century English political theorist James Harrington writing in The Commonwealth of Oceana: the ruling class is the class that owns the most property, and hence, they make the laws. “The system of government is determined by the system of ownership,” writes Richard Schlatter in Private Property: The History of an Idea. For Harrington, a prime concern for the ruling class should be balancing the distribution of land; otherwise they would court political revolution.

The concept of private property burst into the world when what was once considered a shared resource—common grazing land for sheep—was enclosed. Photo by Matthias Graben/imageBROKER/Corbis

This push and pull—the rights of the commoner versus the rights of the landowner and the role of government—has been a dynamic discussion among political theorists, economists, and law professors for hundreds of years. It’s still troubling and likely always will be: they’re oppositional forces that coexist. It remains normal to question the role of private property in society, because at various times everyone is a commoner. Commoner or landowner, we all need each other. The environment, for example, doesn’t respect political or legal boundaries, says Deborah Curran, a law professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Whether we approach the coastline from a social, economic, or ecological perspective, Curran says, “no one landowner can take care of all of our needs. There needs to be a sense of the whole.”

An ecological preserve, a working waterfront, a military base, a recreational beach. Each succeeds or fails depending on the greater whole, the surrounding communities.


One of the most contested public spaces is the beach. What was once a place of toil became, in the 19th and 20th centuries in Western societies, a coveted paradise, and an even newer idea than private property. Before that, “chasing the shore,” which once meant going to the beach for anything other than work, was weird. Leisure time, higher wages, trains, and automobiles changed all that when going to “The Beach” became a thing, and owning the beach an even bigger thing. Once beach leisure was commodified as a lifestyle, another coastal battlefront emerged: public beach access. Take Malibu, California, as an example. It’s a place awash in wealthy landowners with private properties that become public property below the high tideline. And defining where the line between public and private—between what the homeowners say is theirs and what the beach-loving locals say is everyone’s—routinely results in public fighting. Landowners resort to subterfuge by locking gates, strategically planting shrubbery, even building a fake garage to block the commons. In response, the public trumpets the callousness of such cheats. The police are called; the courts get clogged; it’s a relentless stage for conflict.

But sometimes societies bend the rules of the game. Scotland, for example, has some of the most progressive access legislation, informally called the “right to roam” (which allows people to cross privately owned property without being accused of trespassing). Lobbying for access dates back almost two centuries. The impetus to formalize a cultural moral right of public access was the staggering unequal distribution of Scottish land. By the early 21st century, just 432 landowners held half the country’s privately owned land, a level of concentration unrivaled in Europe. In 2003, Scotland adopted the Land Reform Act, finally solidifying the right, and Ramblers, members of a walking charity that advocates for public access, went to court a few times to test the legislation. It held and still does. From the Scottish experience, it seems that without a public fight, few landowners or governments can be persuaded to protect or return a commons.

“If you don’t have statutory right, it can be taken away,” says Helen Todd, campaigns and policy manager at Ramblers Scotland. “I do think it’s massively important to protect access. It’s fundamental to the human relationship with the land.”

The commons is also fundamental to community relationships. As Gregory Alexander, a law professor at Cornell University in New York who has written about the origins of Scotland’s right to roam legislation, says, “Equal access is good for a society, good for democracy.” It’s inclusive and binding, a defense of the notion that our lives together are more than a series of commercial transactions.

And in his 2008 paper, “Ownership and Obligations: The Human Flourishing Theory of Property,” Alexander writes, “We live in a society characterized by conditions of increasing congestion and social interdependency. The social-obligation theory recognizes that those very conditions, especially our interdependency, create for all property owners an obligation to contribute, in ways that are appropriate to them, to the vitality of the community’s material infrastructure that facilitate the cultivation of affiliation, among other essential human capabilities.”

To flourish, Alexander writes, humans need individual autonomy, personal security and privacy, self-determination, community, and equality.

If a society’s desired outcome is for humans to flourish, the right to exclude the public is contradictory. If exclusion is a right, then that makes human flourishing a zero-sum game, too: some humans get to flourish at the expense of others. And who gets to decide who wins? The problem extends beyond who gets to have a fun time at the beach.

In the article “Okinawa’s Elders Rage Against the Marines,” writer Jon Letman explores how little power the Okinawans have over the geopolitical role of their island as a strategic military point in Asia. Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japanese territory, yet hosts close to 75 percent of all American bases in Japan, a burden the local community believes is based on discrimination against a poorer population with little political clout. The Okinawans lose their autonomy and self-determination to the US and Japanese governments; they lose the game.

In India, Srinath Perur writes about a small community of subsistence fishermen fighting a classic battle between a commons lifestyle and the marketplace. For generations, they’ve seasonally camped and fished on the Arabian Sea’s Gulf of Kutch, their commons. They have a moral claim to the resource, yet hold nothing that calls them “owners.” As industry, supported by government, moves in—grabbing land and excluding fishermen from the intertidal zone—the Wagher fishermen lose their autonomy, self-determination, and community; they lose the game.

“A lot of subsistence cultures have no clear legal boundaries,” says David Bollier, author of Think Like a Commoner. “Yet things change, the world is a dynamic place. There must be different ways that one can manage property other than in the clear and Western sense of surveying and creating blocks of it.”

The human capacity for imagination runs deep. But laws have a way of structuring our actions to the detriment of any dreams of resurrecting or protecting a coastal commons. “Law doesn’t deal well with sharing things. Law wants us to have a particular right to do something,” Curran says.

It’s no accident that two cherished ideas integral to global society emerged alongside private property rights: human rights and democracy. Each of these pathways to justice helps thwart a side effect of private property laws: greed, a common human failing. Name a society that existed pre-private property in which greed was good. To Plato, avarice started war, caused civil strife, and was personally immoral. Confucius, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Judaic commandments are all anti-greed because the powerful have always wanted their own private Malibus. And the Romans have always wanted their Bay of Naples, writes Heather Pringle in an article that explores the fishy business of an ancient “1%.” The Roman Empire’s Neapolitan waterfront became an economic investment for the wealthy to the detriment of the working poor. Wealthy Romans enclosed the sea.


The Romans didn’t have private property laws like we do today, but the powerful hogged a common resource. Their development of the Bay of Naples foreshadowed a complex problem along the coveted coast today, which is complicated by modern property laws: gentrification. Gentrification can prick a city’s heart and gut its neighborhoods physically and psychologically as the landscape transforms. That ugly dock you fished from? The cafe with the cheap coffee and priceless view? That mysterious building you were sure was once a brothel? Gone in one day; the past is so close you can watch its dust settling. Paternoster, South Africa; Vancouver, Canada; Haifa, Israel; Havana, Cuba. Each city has a story of gentrification. Each in conflict with the powerful, each looking for a way around the international real estate market, each hoping to win the game.

This is not to say gentrification is always bad; it could be a force for good when the community at large is involved. Economist Elinor Ostrom, whose work to understand successfully managed commons won her the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, found that a role for commoners (a diversity of local users) in creating and influencing the rules is essential. There is no way Darwin, Australia, could return its coastal control to crocodiles without locals buying into the presence of a predator that would eat the family pet, and the family, if given a chance. Hakai Magazine senior editor Shanna Baker swam with a crocodile to bring us the story “Crocodile Rising.”

The rich and powerful often prevent the public from accessing valuable beach property. Photo by Steve McDonough/Masterfile/Corbis

But, as Curran says, there are limits to local control. “To me it’s a push and pull; how do you get a neighborhood not to be racist, for example? They might have a great democratic system, but what if they are specific about who can live there? We need normative standards.” Social and ecological standards.

Every community needs to acknowledge a greater ecological whole or they find themselves in a tenuous position as nature threatens to swallow their communities. Permanent structures have a way of messing up an intertidal ecosystem’s natural migration inland, a response to rising sea levels and storms. Big developed cities such as Miami, Kolkata, Venice flail to stay above rising tides. Yet the sea chips away at smaller communities that have depended for generations on the coast for a subsistence lifestyle, such as the farmers in the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) Delta, the “rice bowl” of Myanmar and the focus of the photo essay “Coastal Squeeze” by Taylor Weidman. Nature will always win the game if we insist on ignoring her rules and playing only by our own.


I love these stories. They are universal, there is no easy solution, but they show that people will not give up on their shoreline and their neighborhoods without a fight. Even an absurd fight like the one against nature. Or one man’s private battle to remain in his neighborhood, a place he’s called home for decades, in one of the most expensive cities in the world, Vancouver, British Columbia. Writer Laura Trethewey takes readers on a journey with Randy van Eyk in “Vancouver’s Other Housing Crisis,” as the weathered sailor steers his sailboat around the city’s harbor, tucking into watery nooks for a night or two, outmaneuvering the regulations that protect those who own bits of land, not those who need affordable housing.

Controlling or owning the coastline is not for the faint of heart; it’s a constant battle.


For the next few weeks, travel to South Africa, Japan, Israel, Canada, Myanmar, India, Scotland, Cuba, Australia, and even Ancient Rome with Hakai Magazine as our writers unpack clashes around the globe. The stories you will encounter are at once different, but also the same: a battle for control.