spatial planning with community

Scientists, agencies and organizations increasingly are using systematic planning approaches to identify where and how to allocate effort in conservation and management, particularly at regional levels. Photo © Mark Godfrey/TNC

Marine spatial planning (MSP) is a coordinated approach to designating where human activities occur in the ocean to minimize conflicts among stakeholders, maximize the benefits that people receive from the ocean, and help maintain healthy marine habitats. MSP has been defined as the “process of analyzing and allocating parts of the three-dimensional marine spaces to specific uses, to achieve ecological, economic and social objectives that are usually specified through the political process”. The major output from an MSP process ref is usually a comprehensive plan or vision for a marine region, including implementation and management planning. MSP is usually the approach usually used for achieving the goals of ecosystem-based management (EBM) and integrated coastal management (ICM).

Several benefits of using MSP as a tool for achieving EBM and ICM include:

  • Addresses social, cultural, economic, and environmental objectives with a holistic approach
  • Integrates marine objectives (both between policies and between different planning levels)
  • Improves site selection for development or conservation; more strategic and proactive approach that delivers long-term benefits
  • Supports coordinated management at the scale of ecosystems as well as political jurisdictions
  • Reduces conflicts among uses in the marine area
  • Reduces risk of marine activities damaging marine ecosystems including improved consideration of cumulative effects

UNSECO’s Recommended 10 Steps for Marine Spatial Planning

Step 1: Defining need and establishing authority
Step 2: Obtaining financial support
Step 3: Organizing the process (pre-planning)
Step 4: Organizing stakeholder participation
Step 5: Defining and analyzing existing conditions
Step 6: Defining and analyzing future conditions
Step 7: Developing and approving the spatial management plan
Step 8: Implementing and enforcing the spatial management plan
Step 9: Monitoring and evaluating performance
Step 10: Adapting the marine spatial management process


MSP is increasingly being used to help optimize resource allocation and manage the multiple uses of marine areas, particularly where conflicts exist among uses. MSP is often used to establish multiple-use MPAs or zoning arrangements, such the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia. It has been applied in other marine areas such as the Florida Keys, Channel Islands, Wadden Sea, North Sea, Irish Sea, Baltic Sea, among others. Case studies of MSP can be found on UNESCO’s MSP Around the World site and in the online Marine Spatial Planning Toolkit.

An MSP process can help resolve some of the biggest challenges associated with the ‘open access’ or ‘common’ nature of marine resource use (and overuse!). However, to be effective, MSP needs to be implemented with a strong commitment to process, engagement and follow through. MSP should be seen as an ongoing, iterative process that includes stakeholder participation and which leads to management outcomes.

Coral reef managers interested in initiating or participating in marine spatial planning processes may refer to resources for additional guidance, such as the UNESCO MSP site and the TNC MSP Toolkit or additional resources listed below.

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Last updated April 3, 2018

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