Coastal Natural Character Assessment methodologies

Implementation of Policy 13 of the NZCPS 2010 in light of recent assessment techniques. Prepared for Department of Conservation Natural Character Workshop No. 3

Workshops to date

There have been two DOC run workshops concerning implementation of Policy 13 of the NZCPS to date, one in Wellington in August 2011 discussing the construct of natural character (and its definition) and the second, a more focussed critique of the draft Marlborough Natural Character Assessment in September 2011.

Following the four years since these first two workshops, this third workshop focusses on particular methodological issues surrounding natural character assessments done to implement NZCPS Policy 13. This Think Piece reflects on recent experience and the effect of recent decisions, such as the NZKS Supreme Court Decision, on assessment methodologies. This is the only ‘Think Piece’ that has been commissioned as part of this third workshop and is primarily a tool to ignite discussion amongst the invited attendees. During this time, the Marlborough Coastal Natural Character Study has been fully updated and is contained on Marlborough District Council’s website1.

What is Natural Character?

During the first workshop, the discussion of ‘what is natural character’ was debated. A link to the original notes on this workshop can be found on the DOC website2. The principal outcome of this workshop determined that the definition (or more accurately a description) of natural character is:

‘Natural character is a term used to describe the naturalness of coastal environments. The degree or level of natural character within an area depends on:


  • The extent to which natural elements, patterns and processes3 occur; and
  • The nature and extent of modifications to the ecosystems and landscape/ seascape.The highest degree of natural character (the greatest naturalness) occurs where there is least modification. The effect of different types of modification upon the natural character of an area varies with the context and may be perceived differently by different parts of the community’4


This more or less is aligned with the MfE description of 2002. This description/ definition has been used in numerous reports/ evidences and appears to be well embraced.

What is natural?

The Boffa Miskell definition of naturalness was formulated out of these discussions and it was determined that ‘naturalness’ concerning ‘natural character’ is:

‘A measure of the degree of human modification of a landscape/ seascape or ecosystem expressed in terms of:

I. Ecological naturalness (indigenous nature); and

II. Landscape naturalness (perceptions of nature).’

It is considered a helpful way to explain the difference between how landscape architects interpret ‘naturalness’ to how ecologists interpret ‘naturalness’. Natural character is a measure of both.

How does natural character sit with landscape?

Landscape and Natural Character are both RMA Section 6 Matters of National Importance. They are distinct topics, each with their own attributes and considerations – something which is reflected in the NZCPS which states that ‘natural character is not the same as natural features and landscape, or amenity values5’.

Natural Character is a statutory term that has no specific meaning outside of the RMA. Under the RMA it concerns part of the landscape that is associated with the coastal environment, wetlands and lakes and rivers and their margins. Essentially it concerns ‘wet’ parts of the landscape, however the assessment methods for undertaking a natural character study is different to that of a landscape study.

A diagram, produced by Boffa Miskell assists to articulate this, and is contained overleaf. Whilst the diagram is not final or fixed, it attempts to illustrate how natural character is a part of, or component of landscape. Through analysis of its usage and its definition, it is considered that natural character sits at the natural science-end of landscape and includes a small part of the human sensory aspects of landscape (i.e. experiential). This is not to say that landscape assessments exclude these attributes, it is simply identifying that natural character is associated with the more natural science part of landscape (when assessing the coastal environment, wetlands and lakes and rivers and their margins) and that the methodologies for undertaking these studies, are different. The diagram refers to all landscape assessment purposes, not simply identification of outstanding natural landscapes.

Other aspects of landscape assessment, including landscape character, have not been mentioned as part of the diagram.

The essence of this diagram illustrates that there is a difference between landscape and natural character, and for instance, associative matters are aligned with landscape considerations rather than natural character matters. This difference is outlined further below.

It is clear through decisions of the various courts that there are is much discussion on what is natural and what is not6. Without delving into too much theory on this, Boffa Miskell landscape planners, planners and ecologists consider that natural character is essentially the measure of naturalness of an area that is assessed on a continuum.

We see subtle differences between the interpretations of landscape naturalness and natural character naturalness. Greater emphasis is placed on ‘perceptions’ of naturalness in regards to landscape (i.e. a more visual basis) than they are for natural character (which retains a more biophysical/ indigenous emphasis). Furthermore, ecologists assess naturalness differently from landscape architects and this is reflected in the Boffa Miskell discussion above (under ‘What is natural – a brief summary’).

Measuring natural character

It is common practice to measure natural character on a continuum from modified to pristine. Various scales have been used, however it is suggested that a common rating is used amongst professionals undertaking such assessments. Boffa Miskell landscape planners use the 7-point scale, ranging from very low (totally modified) to very high (Indigenous/ pristine). This scaling attempts to include as best as possible a rating that suits different types of environments.

What are the components of natural character?

NZCPS Policy 13 lists a number of matters (which are contained in full within Appendix 1 of this Think Piece). Acknowledgement needs to be made on the word ‘may’ within the policy. This list implies that depending on context, not all ‘may’ be relevant and that not all have been listed. The list within the policy is a mix of factual (or natural science based) and perceptual, although there is a cross-over in many places. There are also words on the list that will sometimes overlap (i.e. geological and geomorphological processes under (b) and then described in (c) as landforms etc.).

When analysing the list, it became clear that there were three main categories arising: Abiotic (or non-living elements, processes or patterns); Biotic (or living elements, processes or patterns) and Experiential (derived from human senses). When arranged under these headings (as outlined in Table 1 below) some matters sit comfortably under one heading and others are more suitably spread over a few headings.

By default, an approximate ⅓, ⅓ and ⅓ grouping appears to cover all potential natural character matters and provides a clear way of organising data, which appears to accord with all matters listed in Policy 13. This method was applied to the Marlborough Coastal Study. Despite the grouping, it is considered that they are not necessarily required to be weighted evenly. In Boffa Miskell’s view, greater emphasis is placed on abiotic and biotic factors over experiential aspects.

The grouping of this data therefore implies a greater level of scrutiny or expertise required compared with early natural character methodologies. It is therefore expected that coastal natural character assessment involve the expert input of a number of science-based disciplines to inform the overall values and characteristics alongside landscape architects.

Such science based disciplines can include geologists, geomorphologists, freshwater ecologists, terrestrial ecologists, avian ecologists, marine ecologists, planners and potentially many other specialist fields. Scientists have been integral in many of the natural character assessments produced by Boffa Miskell over the past few years including the Marlborough Coastal Study. This has provided a rich understanding of how all aspects of the coastal environment contribute to its level of naturalness.

Any natural character methodology must be flexible to suit different types and scales of coastal environments and ecosystems whilst remaining suitably robust to be adopted within relevant planning instruments and informing resource management decisions.

Cultural issues

As the diagram suggests on page 3, associative considerations (such as tāngata whenua, historical associations and more visual aspects including aesthetic matters) fall more readily under landscape. However, it is acknowledged that we all interpret and experience the coastal environment in different ways and that individual views and our own different backgrounds enable us to describe and value coastal areas differently. This of course relates to our own cultural milieu including spiritual values such as whakapapa and mauri in recognition of the world view of Māori.

It appears that as natural character is a statutory requirement under the RMA 1991, its construct has been developed in a more western categorical basis reflecting such interests as property rights and empirical understanding which may differ from other world views.

The concept of natural character is also borne from legislation that at its foundation assumes that human intervention with the natural environment, whether by presence or physical works, forms a detractor to natural character. A Māori world view differs in this construct, whereby Māori and their actions, activities etc. form part of and are inextricably linked to the condition of the natural environment. This results in a cultural divergence of understanding of what Natural Character is.

This thinking accords with the last part of the description/ definition of natural character: ‘The effect of different types of modification upon the natural character of an area varies with the context and may be perceived differently by different parts of the community’.

It is Boffa Miskell’s view that cultural aspects are not included in natural character assessments as the diagram on page 3 outlines. Acknowledgement that different people interpret naturalness differently is noted and that a wide spectrum of people is required to gather experiential qualities7.

All of the coastal environment: Marine, Terrestrial and Freshwater

Due to the difference between land and sea, a division between the marine environment and the terrestrial environment has been suggested to enable more rigorous and robust technical outcomes. A composite rating can then be better understood, should this be required. Boffa Miskell suggest that the mean high water spring mark (MHWS) or CMA is used as the defining boundary.

The marine environment is an integral part of the coastal environment and it is therefore considered that all coastal natural character assessments are undertaken to include the whole coastal environment (i.e. CMA and adjacent land).

In some instances, Regional Territory Authorities have got agreement from Districts within their region to undertake such assessments (thereby including the CMA). In other situations, District Councils have employed consultants to undertake such assessments, however due to the CMA not being part of their jurisdiction, this element of the study is often removed.

The freshwater components of coastal natural character are also significant and will be relevant to land and coastal planning provisions.

It is recommended therefore that Unitary Authorities and Regional Councils undertake this work to such a level of detail that District Councils can utilise this information in their own plans.

Furthermore, the three categories (or attributes) can be listed or described as follows (these examples were used for the Marlborough Coastal Study and subsequent other coastal studies undertaken by Boffa Miskell). Zone A was the marine area and Zone B the terrestrial area.

Scales of natural character

It is important to recognise the scale at which natural character assessments are prepared at. For the Marlborough Coastal Study, a series of scales where established which were reflected through a land typing exercise for the terrestrial component of the coastal environment as well as input provided by marine scientists for the marine component.

Five scales were identified, which pick up on the broad to the more detailed elements, patterns and processes that occur. Broad scale (i.e. regional scale) were discussed at high-level, documenting how large areas share similar characteristics.

Land Typing for the terrestrial component assisted in understanding the various abiotic and biotic components at a more refined ‘mid’ scale than the larger regional scale. This style of modelling approach involves a systematic analysis of abiotic and biotic characteristics in terms of their spatial configuration, process and present condition. Land typing is a nested hierarchy method of analysis enabling typical tables and charts to be produced providing a better understanding of the land. It worked well for the Marlborough Sounds (being a landscape in its own right) however proved more challenging for South Marlborough (where the extent of the coastal environment was quite skinny).

Marine science input informed a detailed methodology into how the marine environment was divided, characterised and subsequently assessed.

This information was then focussed towards a more refined scale. The scaling and mapping was very much dependent on providing council with as much certainty as possible, therefore the most detailed parts of the mapped areas (i.e. the last two – Levels 4 and 5 which focussed on individual stretches of water/ bays/ headland etc.) was characterised and mapped and will be the part most widely referred to within Marlborough’s Regional Policy Statement.

Assessing, mapping and evaluating natural character

It has become quite obvious in recent coastal natural character studies that Boffa Miskell have undertaken, that an indication of the extent of the coastal environment is an essential requirement by the local authority. It has been the case that a line is the preferred choice as this limits the extent of an assessment to a defined and mapped ‘area’, taking into account the matters listed in NZCPS Policy 1 (Extent and characteristics of the coastal environment). All natural character ratings therefore occur within this area. It is acknowledged that precise delineation of the coastal environment is constrained as there are many factors that affect the inland extent of coastal influence and few will start or stop at a defined point.

Judgements on how an area rates as ‘high’, ‘very high’ and even ‘outstanding’ are an integral aspect of evaluation and is often best applied through the development of an assessment matrix as part of the study.

After the values and characteristics have been determined for an area, the extent of the area is then mapped. This will change from area to area and will depend on the scale of assessment.

Outstanding Natural Character

Boffa Miskell confirmed in the Marlborough Coastal Study that Outstanding Natural Character be assessed separately (similarly aligned with ONLs and ONFs). An area with outstanding natural character may be an area within the coastal environment that is considered to have high or very high levels of natural character, although it is important to note that the high or very high ratings do not in themselves equate to ‘outstanding’, as clarified by the following Boffa Miskell definition:

‘Outstanding’ is a comparative evaluative term meaning; to stand out, exceptional, pre-eminent.

It was determined by the study team that outstanding (in terms of the naturalness continuum) sits alongside the 7-scale rating (at the pristine end) and is not a part of the continuum (i.e. making the continuum eight). This decision to separate out this assessment from the main natural character study required a re-evaluation of the highest rated areas (i.e. high and very high) at the local scale (Level 4 for the purposes of the Marlborough study). The re-evaluation of the high and very high areas means that only the highest rated areas of natural character will be considered. This approach is also consistent with studies identifying outstanding natural landscapes (i.e. a landscape or feature must be of sufficient naturalness to be considered outstanding).

It was also determined that outstanding natural character should combine both terrestrial and marine components (as opposed to the Level 4 assessment which considers them separately) so that important sequences of ecological naturalness (such as from the top of a ridge above sea level to the bottom of the adjacent sea and interconnected systems) are considered.

Under the methodology used for Marlborough, an area of outstanding natural character must:

‘exhibit a combination of natural elements, patterns and processes that are exceptional in their extent, intactness, integrity and lack of built structures (the ‘clutter’ factor ) and other modifications compared to other areas in the Marlborough Region’.

An assessment to establish whether all or parts of a coastal area contain outstanding natural character needs only be undertaken when an area rates high or very high at the most detailed mapping scale (i.e. Level 4 or 5). Where adjacent land and sea are mapped as either high or very high at the Level 4 or 5 scale, particular emphasis is taken to examine the sequential relationship of biotic patterns.

The evaluative study of outstanding natural character areas is undertaken at a regional or district scale, therefore comparison of other areas within the region or district is critical in understanding the outstanding values and characteristics that underpin these areas.

Association with Policy 14: Restoration of Natural Character

There is a clear association with both Policies 13 and 14 of the NZCPS. The values and characteristics that are identified as part of the natural character study can then be analysed with restoration techniques worked through with local authorities and local communities.

Implications of natural character under the NZKS decision

The King Salmon decision clarifies that the protection of ONFs and ONLs and outstanding natural character (ONC) from inappropriate development does not infer protection from any development. In defining what constitutes inappropriate development, the meaning of ‘inappropriateness’ needs to be assessed by reference to what it is that is sought to be protected. Conversely, in determining what constitutes appropriate development in the context of outstanding areas, particular attention needs to be directed towards the important, recognised values that underpin such areas at a relevant and clearly identified scale. It is these such values that should form the specific focus of protection. The basis for identifying suitable, compatible activities therefore will depend a lot on the extent to which it can be demonstrated that the establishment or continued operation of particular activities within these areas will not erode such important values.

In essence, the ability to manage outstanding areas within the coastal environment so that important values and characteristics are protected and adverse effects are avoided requires clearly understanding and defining the key values which require protection. Furthermore, effective landscape management must recognise the practical reality that, in many instances, such areas form part of a dynamic environment in which cultural processes, such as farming, will continue to endure.

Implementation of policies

From a planning perspective the King Salmon and Man o War decisions raise interesting challenges for practitioners in terms of ONCs, particularly with regard to how such areas are identified and managed in relevant planning instruments.

In responding to this particular challenge it is suggested that a systematic and robust approach should be adopted by practitioners to inform policy development – one that broadly encapsulates the following:

  • Understanding and recording the natural character within a city/district/coastal environment to enable appropriate thresholds of ‘naturalness’ and ‘outstanding-ness’ to be determined
  • Describing and confirming , in concert with relevant community interests, the associated values and key characteristics of the natural character identified
  • Evaluating these natural character values on the basis of a consistent and coherent methodology, applying clearly agreed criteria that ensure consideration of abiotic, biotic and experiential components identified
  • Mapping HNCs and ONCs identified from this evaluation in relevant planning instruments in a manner that clearly indicates their spatial extent and the reason for their selection
  • Articulating in planning instruments the reasons why identified ONCs are outstanding (i.e. the range of natural character values that justify their classification as an ONC), the presence and effect of existing activities and/or structures.

Appendix 1 – NZCPS Policy 13: Preservation of Natural Character

  1. To preserve the natural character of the coastal environment and to protect it from inappropriate subdivision, use and development:
      1. avoid adverse effects of activities on natural character in areas of the coastal environment with outstanding natural character; and
      2. avoid significant adverse effects and avoid, remedy or mitigate other adverse effects of activities on natural character in all other areas of the coastal environment;

    Including by:

    1. assessing the natural character of the coastal environment of the region or district, by mapping or otherwise identifying at least areas of high natural character; and
    2. ensuring that regional policy statements, and plans, identify areas where preserving natural character requires objectives, policies and rules, and include those provisions.
  2. Recognise that natural character is not the same as natural features and landscapes or amenity values and may include matters such as:
    1. natural elements, processes and patterns;
    2. biophysical, ecological, geological and geomorphological aspects;
    3. natural landforms such as headlands, peninsulas, cliffs, dunes, wetlands, reefs, freshwater springs and surf breaks;
    4. the natural movement of water and sediments;
    5. the natural darkness of the night sky;
    6. places or areas that are wild or scenic;
    7. a range of natural character from pristine to modified; and
    8. experiential attributes, including the sounds and smell of the sea; and their context or setting.



3 For the purposes of interpreting the NZCPS 2010 Policy 13.2, ‘elements, patterns and processes’ means: biophysical, ecological, geological and geomorphological aspects; natural landforms such as headlands, peninsulas, cliffs, dunes, wetlands, reefs, freshwater springs and surf breaks; and the natural movement of water and sediment

4 NZCPS 2010 Guidance Note Policy 13: Preservation of natural character, Department of Conservation, page 11

5 Policy 13 (2) New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement, 2010

6 For example: Harrison v Tasman District Council (W42/1992), Unison v Hastings District Council (C11/2009), Wakatipu Environmental Society Inc. vs The Queenstown-Lakes District Council (C180/99), Maniototo Environmental Society v Central Otago District, Council (C103/2009), Upper Clutha Tracks v Queenstown Lakes District Council (C432/2010)

7 Refer to Decision No. [2014]NZENVC125 Motiti Rohe Moana Trust et al v Bay of Plenty Regional Council

November 2015 Boffa Miskell Landscape Planners

James Bentley, Rebecca Ryder, Rhys Girvan, Yvonne Pfluger, John Jeffcock, Boyden Evans, John Goodwin, Bron Faulkner

For further information please contact James Bentley

11 December 2015