Below is a summary of this research. If you like a copy of the any of the reports produced for this study you can either go to Coastal Character and Values website (Click the link) or you can email me at garrymiddle@icloud.com - (click to email)

Context and study aim

Many of Australia’s coastal communities face unprecedented changes caused by both rapid population growth and increased coastal erosion because of climate change induced sea level rise and increased storm activity. Communities are likely to resist those changes that most impact on the existing coastal values and character. Put a different way, communities are more likely to accept changes that acknowledge, respect and are consistent with existing coastal values and character.
The National Sea Change Taskforce initiated a research project in collaboration with Curtin University in Western Australia (WA) with the aim of developing a methodology and planning tool to capture and document coastal values and character in coastal communities.  Stage 1 of the study also involved selecting four coastal communities in WA as case studies to test and refine the methodology. 
The four case study coastal communities in Stage 1 of this study were:

  • Shoalwater, City of Rockingham, WA
  • Australind, Shire of Harvey, WA
  • Flinders Bay, Shire of Augusta and Margaret River, WA
  • Falcon, City of Mandurah, WA

This report presents the data, and analysis of that data, for the four case studies and reviews the methodology applied in the research.

What has been written previously about character?

The notion of ‘character’ is now a commonly used idea in urban and regional planning. For example, Perth’s key strategic planning document Directions 2031 notes that:

A key planning challenge is to influence the growth of the city in such a way that a critical threshold of activities are delivered in locations that are accessible to the growing population, while at the same protecting those areas that are valued and give our city its distinctive character.

Identifying what is the character of a location is, however, no simple matter. As Ray Green notes in his book titled ‘Coastal Towns in Transition’ :

Place-character, often simply described as the ‘feel’, ‘ambience’ or ‘atmosphere’ of a place, is admittedly and elusive and somewhat difficult term to define, precisely because it is an inherently intangible experiential phenomenon, yet it is conveyed through tangible features of the environment. 

Character is clearly something which humans ‘feel’ and is inevitably a subjective thing. It is perceived and conceived by the people who make up that community and by those who visit it. Getting agreement as to precisely what is the full nature and extent of the character of a place will be difficult, although it should be possible to identify some common elements of the landscape about which there is broad agreement.  

 Character can be seen to be made up of three components.

  • Firstly, character is not just about the natural environment and landscape, it is also about the built environment.
  • As well, the people who make up that community also create part of its character. Part of character is, therefore the social interactions that go on in that community.
  • Finally, there are the less tangible feelings that the physical environment and living in or visiting a place evoke in people, primarily the residents, but also those who visit the place.  

Together, these three components define the character of a place.

Of course, the people who make up a community will change over time, and it is likely that new residents will inherit and adopt much of the existing community’s views about the character of the place: indeed, it is likely that they have chosen to live in a community because of its character. However, they will also bring new perspectives on what is character. In this way, the notion of what is the character of a place will evolve over time. In other words, character is not a static thing, and is mostly likely to apply to the built environment and the social interactions. Character, therefore, is more than heritage protection, although preservation of important heritage buildings and landscape is part of character. 

To sum up, the character of a place is the sum of tangible physical elements of the local environment, both natural and built, the tangible social activities that typify a place, and the less tangible feelings that the physical environment and living in or visiting a place evoke.

It is a highly subjective notion, although it should be possible to identify some elements of the landscape where there is broad agreement within the community that these are important in identifying the character of the place.  Further, character should not be seen as a static thing, especially the built environment, and an adaptive approach and flexible approach should be adopted in planning for and managing the character of a settlement.
Finally, given the highly subjective nature of coastal character, a primarily qualitative methodology is used in this study to help identify character. 

The four case studies

Figure 1 shows the location of the four case studies.

 Figure 1: Location of the four case studies (Source: Google Earth)

Figure 1: Location of the four case studies (Source: Google Earth)

Shoalwater is about 50 km south of the Perth CBD, and was established as a community in the late 1940s and early 1950s, likely primarily as a holiday destination, comprised mostly of holiday houses.  Shoalwater is now a well-established residential community that, as with the rest of older Rockingham, used to be well separated from the Perth. Shoalwater is now part of the wider Perth metropolitan area, but still retains some of its holiday settlement feel, with a portion of houses occupied only on weekends and holidays. Most of the older shacks, primarily adjacent to the coast, have now been replaced with modern two story houses. There are also some apartments/units, mostly dating back to the 1970-90s.
The beach is within the Shoalwater Marine Park, which includes the off-shore islands. The foreshore is largely undeveloped, with two areas grassed with play equipment and picnic facilities, and limited car parking. The southern part of the beach has a café and shop that is primarily geared towards tourists taking boat tours of the nearby islands and reefs. The lots are, on average, large by today’s residential standards, typical of the older areas of Perth, which have traditional not be serviced with reticulated sewerage and relied on septic tanks. Shoalwater is now fully serviced with reticulated sewerage.

Australind is about 160km south of Perth, just north of the regional centre of Bunbury. Rather than being a coastal community, it is set on the Leschenault Inlet. Australind is a mixed community comprised of primarily residential dwellings typical of outer suburbs of major urban areas, with fewer holiday houses than the other case studies. The housing stock is primarily brick and tile, with a mixture of one and two storey dwellings. Two-storey housing is more prevalent along the estuary foreshore and on the high points overlooking the estuary. Figure 4 shows the location of Australind, which is bounded by the Collie River to the south, Australind Bypass to the east, and by Buffalo Road to the north.

The Flinders Bay is a very small coastal settlement about 310km south of Perth, containing around 40 houses, separated from the western extent of the town of Augusta by the Flinders Bay Caravan Park (figure 6 shows the extent of the settlement). Most of the houses are holiday homes, with only around one third permanently occupied. Some of the original weatherboard houses have been restored, however many of the older shacks have been replaced by modern buildings, some of these two storey. The streets within the settlement are narrow and uncurbed and fencing between properties is minimal. Peppermint trees are abundant.

Falcon is a well-established community about 80 km south of the Perth CBD that, as with the rest of Mandurah, is well separated from the Perth Metropolitan area.  It was historically a holiday destination that was separate from the rest of Mandurah. With the rapid growth of Mandurah, Falcon is now continuous with the rest of Mandurah, but still retains some of its holiday settlement feel, with a portion of house still used only on weekends and holidays. Most of the older shacks have now been replaced with modern two story houses on the main road adjacent to the coast (Spinaway Parade). The streets behind Spinaway Parade host a range of housing types, many quite old. 

Other coastal settlements included in the data analysis

Dr Middle has been carrying out on-going research on coastal locations in WA, using students to collect much of the data - the data collection was also part of learning in two of the core units in the undergraduate degree in urban and regional planning.  Students are required to visit different WA beaches and carry out surveys of beach users. These beaches and coastal communities are: Cottesloe, Busselton, Rockingham Beach and Two Rocks.
Second, at the same time that this study was being carried out, the City of Albany engaged consultants to carry out a similar exercise for two of its coastal communities – Emu Point and Middleton Beach. The City sought permission to apply the Curtin methodology its work, and also sought advice and guidance on using the methodology, carried out by consultants.  This was agreed to subject to the City of Albany providing Curtin with the data collected in their work.

Methodology

The methodology described below is the final methodology after a review of there outcomes of the four case studies.

The first part of the study involves surveying users of the main beach of each settlement. The survey asks the following of beach users:

  • Frequency of visit;
  • Duration of visit;
  • Activities carried out during visit;
  • To rate the beach on a range of coastal values. Respondents were asked to rate the following values:
    • As an ecosystem 
    • As a commercial economic resource (does it add direct economic value business)
    • As a personal economic resource (does it add economic value to property values) 
    • For land based recreation (walking, running etc.) 
    • For water based recreation (swimming, boating, fishing etc.) 
    • For its cultural value
    • As a scenic landscape
    • For its wilderness (isolated natural values) 
    • As a social space (people to meet and interact etc.)  
    • Spiritual value 
    • As part of its sense of place 
    • Other 
  • Their views on that is the character of the place
    • What landscapes, natural and built, are part of the character of the settlement,
    • What activities are part of the character of the settlement; and
    • What words or phrases would they use to describe the overall character of the place.
  • Some basic demographic data (home postcode and suburb, gender, age and group size).

Identification of existing local character 

A three-step process using a visual research methodology called photo-elicitation, where photographs are used to engage participants in research, was used to identify the existing character of the beach. 
The first step was to produce a set of photographs that show typical landscapes, both built and natural, that are representative of the existing character for each settlement. As noted above, each person who participated in the survey was asked what landscapes, natural and built, are part of the character of the settlement. Each location is visited and photographs are taken of those landscapes identified by the participants were taken. To ensure a wide range of landscape types were represented, photographs of additional typical landscapes and features noir identified by the participants were taken and added to the list. Photographs are taken on the same day within a short period of time to ensure consistency across the photographs of key visual issues, including time of day, colour balance, contrast, brightness, shadows, and the nature of the sky.

The second step was a public display of these photographs to gain further input from community members. This was done in one of two ways: either at same beach where the survey data was collected, or at a public location like a shopping centre. The date and time of the exhibition is well advertised in the local community. Community members who attended the exhibition are asked to select the images that most represented the character of the location, by checking boxes on a ‘ballot paper’ containing reproductions of the images. At this time they were also asked some questions about their selection, and also what words or phrases would they use to describe the overall character of the place and what activities are part of the character of the settlement.

Below is a copy of one of the ballot papers used in the study.

 Ballot paper for the Flinders Bay study

Ballot paper for the Flinders Bay study


The third step involves compiling the data on words and activities that are seen as part of the character of the settlement. The character 'words' are then converted into a word cloud with then larger the word, the mores often it is quoters by participants. Below is an example of one from Two Rocks.

Key overall findings (i.e. not case study specific)

As noted at the start, the individual reports for each case study cab de downloaded from the specific website set up for the study. Below are the key overall findings. 

1. Character

Firstly, in all settlements the naturalness of the coast and near-shore marine areas are significant in defining character, as is the typical uses of the coast. Where there was heritage associated with a coastal location, this were also rated as being in character.
Second, there appears to be two broad types coastal settlements based on the significance of the built environment:

  • Those where the built form, especially the houses, are not considered to be significant in defining the character of the settlements; and
  • Those where the built form, especially the houses, are considered to be significant in defining the character of the settlements.

Third, the built form adjacent to the coast is especially significant. It is here where the natural landscape and the built landscape work together to define the character of the settlement. Those settlements where there is significant re-development is occurring are more likely to fit into the latter category.

2. Re-defining character - what the research found

It was noted above that the character of a place is the sum of tangible physical elements of the local environment, both natural and built, the tangible social activities that typify a place, and the less tangible feelings that the physical environment and living in or visiting a place evoke. It is a highly subjective notion, and should not be seen as a static thing, especially the built environment. Consequently, an adaptive and flexible approach should be adopted in planning for and managing the character of a settlement.

Based on the research carried out in this study, the notion of character can be better refined. Character can be seen as having three components:

  • What people see – both the natural and built environment;
  • What people do at the coast; and
  • What people ‘feel’ about their community.

The first two are the tangible elements of character and can be captured and represented in photographs. The last one is the intangible and is best captured in words.

Further, cuttings across these three components of character, four key elements of character can be identified:

  • First, it is the iconic, for example a lighthouse, a jetty, an outstanding landform, an annual festival or the ‘holiday village’ feel.
  • Second, it is important heritage or history associated with the coast, for example memorials, landmarks and events that have a long history.
  • Third, it can be the ordinary, for example a certain house design, activities like swimming and reading and relaxing, a feeling of peacefulness, or a stretch of beach.
  • Finally, and probably most importantly, it is the individual things that are seen as being different and special that sets the settlement apart from others: for example a quirky or unique house design, a nesting site for a rare species of fauna or a unique swimming event (e.g. swimming around Busselton jetty). 

The total of these four elements across the three components of character define the unique character of a coastal community.