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 Building with Nature Guideline > Sandy shores > Sandy shore environments

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Sandy shore environments


Sandy shores appear as beaches in enclosed bays between rocky headlands or as long stretches of sand adjacent to coastal dune systems or sandy spits. Sandy shores are highly dynamic environments, have a characteristic biodiversity and represent a unique gradient of habitats. The environment is attractive for housing, accommodates key marine infrastructure and provides excellent opportunities for fisheries, recreation and drinking water resources, thus represents high economic value. Natural development of sandy shores depends on the accumulation of sand that is transported to the coast from inland sources by rivers, and / or from marine sources by waves, currents and wind. The morphology of a sandy shore supports the habitats and ecological processes in this environment. On the long term, sandy shore development is governed by the balance between the net supply of sediments and the demand, created by sea level rise and subsidence.

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System description

Biodiversity is high on sandy shores, with all major taxonomic groups represented. In general, species diversity varies across the coastal profile. On the beach, diversity increases from the high water to the low water line, then decreases again lower in the surf zone, to pick up strongly - in mass as well as diversity - further seaward (Brown & McLachlan 1990). On a local geomorphological scale differences can even be found between the troughs and crests of mearshore sand bars. As dunes, beaches and foreshore are important habitats for a variety of species, international legislation is put into place to safeguard their protection. As shorelines around the world are under pressure from human activities, their nature value needs defending while maintaining their socio-economic value.


Physical processes on sandy shores are highly variable, both in time and in space and at a wide range of scales (from individual particle movement to global, sea level rise). Organisms living here are adapted to this dynamic environment and reflect the complex ecomorphological interactions. Human interventions will change the environment and may generate anomalous habitat conditions. Whereas an intervention (for example a shore nourishment) at a certain location may cover only a few hundred metres and take not more than a few weeks or months, the effects may extend over several kilometres along the coast and may last for years. When designing an intervention, it is therefore essential to consider the biophysical interactions involved and the different scales at which they take place. Building with Nature takes these processes into account and tries to make use of them wherever possible. In the following sections, the principal processes will be discussed, distinguishing smaller and larger scale processes.

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Ecosystem Services

Natural ecosystems in general provide a multitude of resources and services to mankind and planet. Collectively, these benefits are known as ecosystem services. The issue of ecosystem services has been discussed for decades. In 2004, the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) divided the ecosystem services into four categories;

  • provision, such as the production of food and water, or the availability of mineable resources;
  • regulation, such as the control of climate and disease;
  • cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits; and
  • support, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination (TEEB). For further reading on ecosystem services see here.

    Ecosystem services in coastal areas

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Building with Nature opportunities

Building with Nature for sandy shores involves measures or interventions that optimize the use of ecosystem services to achieve new functionality, sustainability and new opportunities for nature. This implies changing from traditional management (MacHarg, 1969) - focusing on a single goal and ignoring other aspects, especially supporting ecosystem services - to a more adaptive management which accounts for the complex and dynamic nature of the sandy shore ecosystem, including all four types of ecosystem services.

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Lesson Learned

The lessons learned are derived from the pilots and historic cases addressed in the Holland Coast subprogramme. Further additions will be made as more results become available.

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