Property Rights and managed retreat: exploring Coastal Lawscapes

Dr Tayanah O’Donnell

Future Earth Australia


There is significant debate and contestation over how climate change adaptation measures are to be implemented in and for developed coastlines. This paper will discuss empirical research spanning several years of research in several coastal localities in New South Wales, Australia. Drawing on ethnographic case studies, in-depth interviews, a mixed method survey, analysis of legal and policy documents, and a field diary, the research builds a detailed understanding of the governance challenges that climate change impacts presents to developed, colonial coastlines wherein plural legal orders are enacted, or sometimes ignored, in favour of political interests. An additional layer of complexity arises when dominant cultural interests, such as private property rights, pervade and influence climate change adaptation policy and outcomes in and for coastlines. One of the consequences of this complexity is the challenge of relying solely on land use planning as a tool for enabling climate change adaptation. In considering these complex and interrelated challenges, a ‘coastal lawscape’ framing is posited as one way to better understand climate change adaptation policy and practices on contested coastlines. A coastal lawscape comprises legal, political and cultural perspectives which manifest as an interplay of interests and demonstrate well the often fractious relationships between a federated governance system, private interests, public space, dynamic material environments, and coastal actors. A legal geography lens usefully maps how these groups utilise law and discourses of property to try and shape both the material environment and climate adaptation outcomes.


Dr Tayanah O’Donnell is a lawyer and geographer and current Director of Future Earth Australia based at the Australian Academy of Science. Tayanah has a strong interdisciplinary track record, utilising her legal and social research expertise to lead and contribute to research teams that deliver cross and trans-disciplinary outcomes in areas such as coastal governance, climate change adaptation, climate change litigation, sustainable cities, and land use planning. She is the author of several journal papers, and her book, Legal Geography: Perspectives and Methods, was recently published by Routledge.