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Project part-financed by the European Union (European Regional Development Fund)

The Interreg IVB North Sea Region Programme


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The authors are solely responsible for the content of this report. Material included herein does not represent the opinion of the European Community, and the European Community is not responsible for any use that might be made of it.
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The tidal Elbe - a people's perspective

1. Introduction

Geest and marsh, fish and apples, rural yet close to the city of Hamburg, and people who are not as stubborn as it is commonly assumed: Those are the attributes residents of the Elbe estuary use to describe their region.

With a length of 140 km, measured from the weir in Geesthacht to the mouth at Cuxhaven, the Elbe estuary serves as cultural, ecological and economic space. As a tidal, unique ecosystem with rare habitats for plants and animals, major parts of the estuary have been protected as part of the Natura 2000 network. However, the region has been populated and used by humans for centuries. The tidal Elbe is home to more than two million residents. Economic use is intense and includes a variety of different sectors such as agriculture, industry, tourism and fishing. The river itself is used as a national waterway connecting the port of Hamburg to the open sea. In order to protect the land along the river from tidal influence and storm surges, people had to build dikes and take other flood protection measures.

The variety of intensive land uses leads to conflicts. Consensus-based and sustainable development of the Elbe region therefore requires coordination and integration of different interests. This can be achieved by means of integrated estuary management, where management is understood as shaping matters and acting in a targeted way. Integrated management is not merely the task of authorities but involves the affected population as well as all kinds of interest groups and stakeholders.

Perception studies can help to analyse the preconditions for management processes on three accounts. First, they can highlight people’s identification with and attachment to their region. Strong regional identity and attachment can encourage residents to take responsibility for their region and help to promote active involvement with management strategies. Second, they can specify people’s perception of their region. If planners and politicians take into account how people view their region and what they value most about it, residents will support their decisions and plans more easily. And third, perception studies can help to understand the levels of communication that exist between planners and local residents. Do they understand each other, do they use the same language? Are people aware of the challenges authorities are faced with when establishing integrated estuary management?

A population survey was carried out in spring 2012 to analyse the opportunities and challenges for integrated estuary management on the Elbe estuary. It was planned and implemented by the Institute for Coastal Research, Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht with the support of students of the University of Hamburg. The random street survey took place in 18 selected communities on both sides of the tidal Elbe, comprising rural areas and small towns in the federal states of Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, as well as four urban districts on the outskirts of Hamburg (see Map 1). Altogether 812 residents were interviewed, including only those older than 15 years of age and having lived in the region for at least five years.

The survey was based on a questionnaire which consisted of 33 open and closed questions. Answers received to the open questions were later aggregated into categories to allow for quantitative analysis.

The questionnaire was structured into five themes:
The first part focused on respondents’ emotional ties to the region. The German word Heimat was used here because it is particularly good at expressing attachment of persons to places and spaces (RATTER & GEE 2012). Three dimensions come together in the concept of Heimat. The first is a strong emotional component, where Heimat stands for a feeling of belonging and rootedness. The second is a social component, where it represents a place where friends or family members live. The third is a spatial component, linking Heimat to particular places and regions (SCHWINEKÖPER 2005). Insights on which understanding predominates along the Elbe estuary can provide information on the residents themselves and also their attachment to the region. The second part of the questionnaire concentrated on peoples’ perception of their region, asking about their constructed mental map of the surroundings they are living in. The third part stressed economic aspects of the tidal Elbe, asking what people know about the different land uses and the conflicts that exist between them. The fourth part was a multiple choice quiz designed to establish whether residents understand the technical terms authorities use in their everyday work. The last part was concerned with current and future public participation, asking how involved people are in regional management processes and what perspectives they see for the future.

In addition to the random street survey a telephone survey conducted by FORSA (Gesellschaft für Sozialforschung und statistische Analysen mbH) was commissioned. During this survey, carried out in July 2012, 502 people living in the city of Hamburg were interviewed. The six questions asked over the phone were taken from the original questionnaire and adapted to the requirements of a telephone interview.

To put the results into context, they will be compared with the outcomes of similar studies carried out at the German North Sea coast and different German river valleys such as the Middle Rhine, Nahe and Mosel (RATTER 2005; RATTER & TREILING 2008; FRANKE, RATTER & TREILING 2009; RATTER, LANGE & SOBIECH 2009).



The following summary focuses on four main results of the survey. The first part sets out that weak regional identity along the Elbe estuary and an understanding of Heimat less concerned with the regional aspect of the term represent challenges to integrated management. The second part draws a picture of the Elbe estuary as a cultural, ecological, and economic area from the perspective of the residents, which can help to understand people’s point of view and represent a basis for future planning. The third part reveals weaknesses in communication processes between authorities and the public and a lack of knowledge of relevant management issues. The last part looks at public participation and the opportunities arising from the creative and active informal engagement of respondents in preserving their Heimat. The summary concludes with recommendations for action.


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