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Improving the resilience of UK coastal communities

This article sheds light on the usage of resilience as a quantitative, evidence based framework for management of climatic hazards in coastal areas of the United Kingdom.
Multiple Authors
UK coastal flooding


Coastal policy documents increasingly talk about resilience as a goal, but they are often vague and unclear about what this means in practice. As a society we have been successful in reducing coastal risks from flooding and erosion since the 1953 east coast flooding disaster, but how can we enhance resilience to these same hazards?

Building on developments by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the NERC ‘CoastalRes’ project has developed an approach to assess coastal resilience and this has been demonstrated for England. It shows how resilience to coastal flood and erosion hazards could be measured and applied within existing policy processes. As the extent of climate change impacts become apparent, adapting to evolving and less certain hazards, determining thresholds or trigger points, and balancing competing demands on the coast is increasingly important. At the same time, it is also clear that some flooding and erosion will have to be tolerated and in many locations space on land for rising seas will have to be created. Resilience is a broad concept that incorporates, but goes beyond, risk to consider the ability to anticipate and recover from adverse events that will inevitably occur. Resilience and the enhancement of resilience is therefore becoming increasingly prominent in English policy documents. However, the adoption of resilience as an overarching framework for strategic coastal hazard management has to date been limited.

This paper aims to demonstrate the practicality of formalising and quantifying resilience.

The text below provides a summary of the open access paper “Operationalising coastal resilience to flood and erosion hazard: A demonstration for England” published in Science of the Total Environment in April 2021. The summary is based on the policy brief Improving the resilience of UK coastal communities. For much more detail you can read the full paper here.


In the ‘CoastalRes’ project, resilience was defined as “the ability of a system to prepare, resist, recover, and adapt to disturbances in order to achieve successful functioning through time” and is pragmatically interpreted in economic, environmental and social terms to integrate what is presently a disparate set of policy objectives for coastal areas. This is necessarily pragmatic but includes an explicit consideration of stakeholder preferences and a wider policy-making context that determines the purpose and potential beneficiaries (i.e., ‘resilience against what?’ and ‘for whom?’).

As the approach includes several dimensions of resilience, a set of composite indicators are developed for each of these, grounded empirically with reference to available national geospatial datasets. These indicators are incorporated into a prototype coastal resilience model, which generates a quantitative resilience index both in space and in time (using appropriate scenarios). Different stakeholder perspectives are captured using relative indicator weightings.

The prototype coastal resilience model uses the scores and weights to generate a quantitative resilience index. To demonstrate this spatially, the English coast is divided into units that capture the extent of erosion and flooding, allowing an index to be compiled at varying levels of resolution. This defines the state of resilience at a point in time. Changes in time can be examined by using scenarios to model how measures are likely to respond to changes in the natural environment (such as sea level rise) and the projected impact of policy responses.

Outcomes and Impacts

  • Extending the current risk-based coastal management approach to one more grounded in the concept of resilience requires the development of new tools and techniques to measure and analyse potential futures and, importantly, incorporate stakeholder views and preferences. Fundamental to this is the quantification of resilience in a way that incorporates a multitude of physical, biota, social and economic components and behaviours.
  • The framework and prototype coastal resilience model explored in the NERC ‘CoastalRes’ project show that, conceptually, a resilience approach works and quantification of coastal resilience in this way provides a powerful approach for time-dependent decision-making and management. → Development of the methodology in partnership with stakeholders and using Multiple-Criteria Analysis also makes divergent views explicit and debatable prior to any management or policy decision.
  • The methodology is flexible, can be applied using different combinations of resilience metrics and/or data sources, and could be adapted to address the specific needs of different areas, as well as diverse policy goals and contexts. It is flexible enough to be applied at any scale for which data are available.
  • Comparison of results is possible across different stakeholder perspectives and over multiple scales – from local management unit to national analysis – adding an important dimension that can support the decision-making process.
  • The method also has the ability to incorporate changing societal priorities and policies, updating any projection to reflect changing stakeholder preferences ensuring that the method can remain robust over time. Further exploration of suitable metrics and their representation within the model would be beneficial but may be restricted by the availability of data.
  • The illustrative results demonstrate the practicality of formalising and quantifying resilience, and the insights obtained mainly concern this process of operationalisation.

Lessons Learnt

From a policy perspective, a key issue in delivering resilience in practice is moving from a largely qualitative notion to a quantitative evidence-based framework allowing measurement and assessment to inform policy decisions. Pragmatically, this requires a clear definition and the integration of economic, environmental and social policy objectives for coastal areas, the selection of appropriate indicators and metrics. As the problem requires multiple indicators with different units, a multi-criteria framework offers the ability to usefully score indicators and stakeholder weighting and priorities. Hence the proposed framework for coastal resilience addresses the following steps:

  1. Establish the decision-making context (policy aims, decision makers, key stakeholders).
  2. Identify clear objectives that are specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and time dependent
  3. Define the available options that can realistically address the objective(s).
  4. Utilise multi-criteria analysis to evaluate likely outcomes and measure performance.

Ideally, policy pathways should be developed alongside integrated models with relative weightings of indicators representing different stakeholder perspectives in a transparent way, acknowledging that these weightings may vary according to different stakeholder views. These subjective weightings can then be used constructively to highlight the convergence/divergence that arises from differing stakeholder perspectives, particularly as policy pathways are often predicated on local knowledge.

Refocusing national policy around enhancing resilience to coastal flooding and erosion requires firm commitment from government to develop a consensus methodology in which stakeholder values are explicitly considered, and incentives for coastal managers to engage with and apply this new approach. Such a transition might challenge existing governance arrangements nationally and locally, but would bring substantial reward in the form of a robust evidence-based framework for achieving more sustainable, equitable and societally acceptable adaptive responses to climate change and sea-level rise at the coast.


Townend, B. I. H., French, J. R., Nicholls, R. J., Brown, S., Carpenter, S., Haigh, I. D., Hill, C. T., Lazarus, E., Penning-Rowsell, E. C., Thompson, C. E. L. & Tompkins, E. L. 2021. Operationalising coastal resilience to flood and erosion hazard: A demonstration for England. Science of The Total Environment, 783, 146880.

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