Rhys Girvan and Emma McRae delve into natural character assessments in the coastal environment and help define the difference between natural character and landscape evaluation. They also consider how to define the coastal environment, scale of assessment, and outstanding natural character.
The term ‘natural character’ occurs within the first of eight matters of national importance under Section 6 of the Resource Management Act (RMA). Under the RMA, sustainable management of natural and physical resources requires the preservation of natural character within the coastal environment (including the coastal marine area), wetlands, rivers lakes and their margins. However, the term ‘natural character’ is not defined.
When the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement (NZCPS) was released in December 2010, local authorities were tasked under Policy 13 to map or otherwise identify (at least) areas of high natural character in the coastal environment. The NZCPS also introduced the new term, ‘outstanding natural character’. In defining natural character, the NZCPS clarifies that natural character is not the same as natural features and landscapes or amenity values and provides a list of eight matters which may apply in Policy 13 (2).
Guidance prepared by the Department of Conservation on how NZCPS Policy 13 is applied, identifies that the degree or level of natural character depends on:
1. The extent to which the natural elements, patterns and processes occur;
2. The nature and extent of modification to the ecosystems and landscape/seascape;
3. The degree of natural character is highest where there is least modification;
4. The effect of different types of modification upon natural character varies with context and may be perceived differently by different parts of the community
Whilst such guidance is useful for understanding the concept of natural character, it does not clarify how natural character relates to a landscape assessment. In seeking to clarify this relationship, natural character can be conceived of as a measure of the condition of biophysical landscape attributes. Such condition can vary as a result of levels of human modification and takes account of the way biophysical attributes are experienced i.e. the ‘feeling’ of being in a wild unmodified environment. By comparison, landscape evaluation considers a broader suite of biophysical, sensory / perception and associative attributes including aesthetic and scenic qualities alongside other shared and recognised values.
Preserving natural character within coastal environments requires identifying the extent and characteristics of the coastal environment itself. Policy 1 of the NZCPS 2010 recognises that the coastal environment will vary from location to location and includes a list of nine matters it includes. The coastal marine area (CMA) is defined below the mean high-water spring (MHWS), however the inland extent of the coastal environment can be more difficult to define. Policy 1 recognises that the coastal environment includes “Areas where coastal processes, influences or qualities are significant…”. In this context, significant implies not just that coastal processes, influences or qualities are present, but that they form a key characteristic of that environment.
Natural boundaries such as coastal escarpments and ridges can provide a clearly defined and logical inland boundary to the coastal environment. Coastal watersheds can also be helpful. Where structures, such as roads and buildings are evident, these can dramatically reduce the significance of coastal processes, influences or qualities of the coastal environment. In ‘flat’ coastal areas, the significance of coastal influences may decrease gradually as you move inland. Consequently, mapping these areas can be challenging, and land use, coastal hazard lines and landscape character may help define where the inland extent of the coastal environment occurs.
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17 January 2019