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How Marine Spatial Planning can help

The “sea is not empty” and we need wisdom in our planning of waterspace usage, says Richard Colwill, Managing Director, BMT Asia Pacific. Here’s how Marine Spatial Planning can help.

14 April 2015

How Marine Spatial Planning can help

Hong Kong waterways have a unique combination of recreational activity and very heavy commercial activity, all utilising a relatively compact area.  This creates a series of challenging marine planning requirements that need to be addressed. Whilst land use is well zoned and tightly regulated, down to millimeter accuracy on some lots, there is limited designation of waterspace outside of specific fairway/ anchorage demarcations and protected ecological marine areas.

The result, says Dr Colwill, is that we have limited ability to say yes to any new ideas. This ultimately leads to the stagnation and the unimaginative development of waterspace usage as well as land/water interfaces in Hong Kong.

A marine civil engineer by training, Dr Colwill shares his views on how effective planning of Hong Kong’s waters can contribute to sustainable future development.

The following article is a summary of Dr Colwill’s presentation on Marine Spatial Planning at the Hong Kong Harbourfront Commission. 

Q1: What can be done to optimise waterspace in Hong Kong?

The key is Integration. We need the ability to say “Yes” to valuable uses and “No” to disruptive uses in a consistent and knowledgeable manner.

Integration is vital because it recognises the potential uses of multiple activities across waterspaces and at varying depths.

It also considers the needs of different stakeholders which may be competing or complementary, and provides a flexible framework to accommodate future changes.  Such a management framework needs to be built on extensive stakeholder knowledge of existing constraints, but also recognise that plans are not static and should be an enabler of future opportunities.

Q2: What methods should be taken to reconcile the many uses of waterspace?

If wisdom is the judicious application of knowledge, then we need to adopt tools that can collate the required knowledge.

Building from a foundation of data and information it is necessary that these tools provide a disciplined structure and allow linkages to be made, connections realised, and decisions identified and shared (this last point is important, as it provides transparency to the decision making process and allows all stakeholders to understand and weigh the competing demands of waterspace).

This is where Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) comes in. A ‘textbook’ definition of MSP is: an integrated public process to analyse and allocate the use of marine waterspace, manage interactions between users, and identify and achieve economic, ecological and social objectives.

In practical terms, MSP is an interlayering of potential waterspace uses allowing numerous activities to coexist. It is a structured approach to deciding what mix and combinations of services and goods would be best produced from the marine areas, (see Table 1.) It is also a framework for management across all sectors and among levels of government and a platform to actively involve the public and create a first stage plan.

Table 1: Managing interactions: Marine waterspace can provide a variety of goods and services, including:



  • Fisheries
  • Marine animals for recreation, e.g., dolphin watching
  • Sand and gravel
  • Marine minerals
  • Other raw materials, e.g., building materials, traditional crafts
  • Energy



  • Marine transportation routes
  • Tourism, leisure and recreation
  • Cultural heritage and identity
  • Education and research
  • Habitat e.g., nursery areas for fish
  • Protected areas
  • Waste disposal
  • Aesthetics



Q3: What do you consider crucial in developing a plan under MSP?

To identify compatibility and a hierarchy of need.

We recognise that many marine areas cannot simultaneously meet all demands for use (for goods or services), and that the value of marine space cannot be entirely expressed in monetary terms. However, if a solely single-sector analysis (i.e only looking at needs from one perspective) and allocation is conducted, then there may be inadequate consideration of other uses, leading to a chaotic pattern of overlapping and conflicting zones and conflicts between users. 

Allocation on a case-by-case basis also means that decision makers often end up in a reactionary role.  This requirement to integrate the needs of all users is a pivotal element of MPS.

Furthermore, it is necessary to review waterspace and identify which marine areas are most important - both economically and ecologically, considering current conditions and with one eye looking towards the future. 

Q4: What are the benefits of MSP based on concrete example?

MSP proponents outline a number of economic, ecological and social benefits that may be created.

Economic benefits arise from the streamlining and transparency in permit and licensing procedures, and clarity given to the waterspace status over medium to long-term investment planning horizons. 

Ecological benefits revolve around the identification and demarcation of ecologically important areas, permitting a reduction in conflicts and a planning context for their protection. 

Lastly, societal benefits stem from the improved opportunities for community and citizen participation in the decisions that impact ocean space, and economies onshore.

Q: Do you have any parting remarks?

That real outcomes, not processes, are the goals of MSP. But bear in mind that establishing and maintaining continuous planning for marine spatial management will not be achieved unless all stakeholders, including decision makers, politicians, resource managers, bureaucrats, and the general public understand the net benefits of planning – and this is where establishing good process is critical to success.

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