Coastal nations in Europe look back on a history of thousands of years of living with the risky environment of the sea. This formed awareness and shaped actions for prevention and preparedness. Building defenses, establishing communities on terps and retreating in risky times are all embedded in the European cultural memory.

Read more about European coasts and the Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) measures taken by our coastal ancestors.

In the last centuries, however, coastal populations have become alienated from living with the sea. The sea and land became two different things. A belief in our technical superiority over the sea and inexhaustible engineering capacities has created coastal areas that are more populated and developed than ever – and more risky.


Tourism and recreation

Fotalia (c) Boris Stourjko


Tourism and recreation are changing the way people think about and use coasts.

From a historical point of view, coastal tourism is a very modern phenomenon. Tourism began around the mid-19th century in the form of luxurious resorts. This eventually gave way to middle class tourism and migration to the coasts from the 1950s onward.

Tourism has brought with it a rather nonchalant attitude toward coastal risks. Modern technology and infrastructure have also made the coast seem less dangerous. Both vacationers and residents often forget the last major storm or see it as a one-off event.

This creates a conflict for coastal managers, who are torn between competing demands for infrastructure right down to the water’s edge and a more sensible depopulation of the coast. As mass tourism and residence along the coasts grows, high-value assets are indeed growing. These trends make managing the forces of nature more challenging and risky. 

Economy and conservation

Fotalia (c) Robin

The economy and conservation of coastal areas can sometimes be in conflict or in harmony.

Unsustainable uses of the coastal environment can create zero sum scenarios. From this point of view, many coastal areas have been preserved precisely because they have not been developed. A growing population in many coastal areas can threaten natural boundaries and capacity.

At the same time, the tourism and recreation economy can sometimes support nature conservation. The understanding that the sea means little without the surrounding nature has added momentum to conservation efforts.

To this end, adapting coastal infrastructure to encourage recreation can create value and economic vitality in the community. Most importantly, recreation has the potential to engage people and make them invested in the long term health of the coast.

Historical knowledge

Fotalia (c) SakhanPhotography

Historical knowledge about living by the sea is passed down from generation to generation. 

Living with risk was a part of life, and coastal residents took measures to minimise the danger. In some coastal zones, such measures have kept villages safe and intact for many centuries

Infrastructure and housing were built as far away from the sea as possible. Otherwise, they were frequently reconstructed. Coastal dwellers tended to demonstrate high tolerance for risk and were prepared for what the sea may bring.

Today, this historical knowledge can inform more sustainable coastal use. The earlier dependence on the sea for a livelihood encouraged conservation knowledge as a value. Fishermen are often the ones monitoring the health of the water, an issue that can otherwise be neglected on the agenda.

Sea-based traditions

Celebrations over harbor
Fotalia (c) Carsten


Sea-based customs and traditions are the cultural backbone of coastal communities.

Even as professional fishery declines, virtually every coastal community has its own seafaring festivals. These occasions are an opportunity for both celebrating the seafaring tradition and discussing the challenges of the maritime industry today. They are often deeply interwoven into the social, religious and economic life of the town and bring the local administration and people together.

Declines in fish stocks and low profitability have largely turned traditional small boat fishing into a hobby.  Nevertheless fishermen often serve as keepers of traditional ways and a historical memory. This can serve as a basis for monitoring. Today the sea continues to be at the heart of daily life and activities for young and old alike, a perfect opportunity for outreach and raising awareness.

Cultural heritage

Column ruins with sea in the background
Fotalia (c) rosensterne


Coasts often play an outsize role in the cultural heritage of a given country.

Maritime areas are extremely diverse, from cosmopolitan urban centres to rural fishing villages. Regardless of size, these areas tend to be unique keepers of tangible and intangible heritage.

Owing to their role in trade and transcultural contact, coasts host unique historical sites and treasures. They are also a frequent draw for prominent cultural figures, such as writers and intellectuals. This is a source of local pride and holds potential for the development of tourism. The very location of a city on the coast is often a piece of history.

Large port cities are among the earliest centres of multiculturalism. This contrasts with the many coastal towns and villages on the periphery. There, the dominant culture is grounded in a traditional lifestyle in agriculture and fishing.

Even today, coasts are often at the nexus of the local and the cosmopolitan. This is a function of high traffic into and out of coastal areas for work, leisure, vacation and living.


These narratives are context-specific opinions. They are individual perceptions and do not represent the opinions of an entire group of stakeholders for a region or country. Some additional interviews took place within another project. They have been selected because they add insight into the various perspectives of different stakeholders.