Bottom up Adaptation Strategies for a Sustainable Europe

Windows for change and the need for leadership

An interview with Mr. Edgar Schmidt

Nestled on a picturesque stretch of Germany’s Baltic Sea coast, Timmendorfer Strand has long been a tourist hotspot. A small but historic spa town, it attracts over 200 000 tourists each year who come to enjoy activities on the sunny beach, as well as partaking in dining and shopping and an array of cultural events in the town itself.

Timmendorfer Strand’s natural environment is the foundation of its economy, and has profoundly shaped its history and culture. In the face of climate change, however, the town faces threats from sea level rise, coastal erosion, storm surges and decreased water quality. Notably, in recent years the town has come together in a participative process, where citizens and decision makers collaborated to oversee the design and implementation of a flood defense system. This process is currently being examined as one of the case studies of the BASE project.

Recently, Mr Edgar Schmidt, a practicing physician and member of Timmendorfer Strand’s Coastal Committee (Küstenausschusses), sat down with Dr. Grit Martinez, a researcher on the BASE project. He spoke of his connection to the town’s natural environment, and how this connection has shaped his outlook, and provided some insights on his experiences in overcoming challenges to implementing the flood defense system.

One element of Timmendorfer Strand's coastal defense system (Photo credit: Ecologic Institute)

A connection to the natural environment

Raised in Hamburg, Mr Schmidt grew up spending weekends visiting Timmendorfer Strand. He found himself drawn to the town’s natural features, eventually settling there because of his affinity for the mix of sand, water and woodlands. Indeed, this connection to the outdoors proved key to his understanding of environmental concepts. “For me, nature is about being outdoors, the chance to move freely, and to experience the seasons changing.”

The coastal defense measures are closely tied in with public perceptions about the natural environment as the economic bedrock of Timmendorf. It has great meaning for its residents because “the Baltic Sea with its beach and coast is our lifeline (Lebensfaktor) and resource, how Timmendorf markets itself and continues to thrive.” Coastal residents thus have a particular sensitivity to changes such as sea level rise that may affect tourism. This created a strong impetus for the flood defense system created along the Timmendorf coast says Mr. Schmidt.

Climate change, adaptation and community perception

Yet even though threats to the region from physical changes have been identified, he noted that the issue of climate change itself does not have great prominence in the region. When asked whether Timmendorfer Strand’s inhabitants consider climate change in their daily lives, Schmidt responds “No, certainly not,” noting that talk of climate change tends to emerge only in the wake of significant weather events. For example, “if we want to change the sewage system, it might take our cows standing in flooded fields where the water can’t drain to actually make a difference.” As a result, any attention to climate adaptation also suffers, as these “concrete events” tend to be briefly lived, and the windows for change are relatively short.

Construction of the coastal defense system (Photo credit: Ecologic Institute)

Indeed, Mr Schmidt notes that the initial impetus for Timmendorfer’s flood defense didn’t come from the local inhabitants, but “was something pushed by the [state government of Schleswig-Holstein].” Yet, at the same time, the success of the participatory approach used to reach an agreement on implementing stemmed from the fact that many of the residents of Timmendorfer Strand feel the same connection to the environment that Mr Schmidt does. They were open to the idea because they have “this special sensitivity.”

'Bottom-up' meets 'Top-down'

In the end, the successful implementation of Timmendorfer’s coastal defense system in 2011 grew out of efforts from both above and below. High level government action from the state served as a catalyst to overcome a lack of awareness, but it was the cultural, social and economic connections to the environment of Timmendorfer residents like Mr Schmidt that created a favourable atmosphere for the initiative to move forward, and ultimately reach a successful resolution. The pictaresque beaches of Timmendofer Strand, and all that the mean to the community, stand to be that much more resilient to physical changes in the years and decades to come.