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Shirk photo

So the two decided to join forces to study the beaches of the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico in much the same way that Rice had studied urban settings.

Rice said that one of the advantages of working with his wife, who has a master's degree in coastal geology and currently runs her own consulting business, is that they bring completely different backgrounds to the project.

"She knows the East Coast up and down," said Rice, noting that the couple are planning to publish a book on their findings. "She may know the history of the coast and the development patterns there better than anyone else. My own expertise is in recognizing social patterns. She provides the facts and I provide the social theory in some ways to organize the facts."

One of the things the pair soon realized is that privileged classes regularly control beach use and development, often in extra-legal
ways, and that the exclusion, displacement and exploitation of longtime beach residents can be as pronounced—if not more so—as what Rice had observed in urban settings.

"In many cases the loudest voices end up defining the concept of the beach for us, and we strive to make that concept a reality by, for example, building seawalls and jetties and using beach nourishment," Rice said. "The problem is, they sell it based on a particular result, but the actual result may be quite different and have unintended consequences. And many times it ends up being detrimental to our long-term health and well-being, and painful to our pocketbooks."

To illustrate, Rice cited the example of claims that if a bridge is built or an area is otherwise developed, then property values will rise and jobs will be created.

"But all too often, property values increase so much that many residents can't pay their taxes and have to sell their property," Rice said. "And the jobs that are created are often low-paying ones that wouldn't sustain someone living there. So they end up bringing in people who live in lower-cost areas to do the work."

Rice also noted that when fishing communities are developed, the fishermen who have lived there for generations may no longer be able to afford dock space because demand from leisure vessels cranks up the cost. And, they may start seeing higher crime rates and other costs that tourists bring with them.

Rice realized that what often happens in urban settings was happening on our nation's beaches as well.

"So development may look extremely seductive on the surface," Rice said, "but when you look at the consequences in the communities, it appears that someone is benefitting from the development, but it's not necessarily the original landowners or residents. And yet, because it's a war of ideas, it's easy for people with a lot of money and attorneys to create the idea that the residents would be so much better off if they let them build that bridge or highway or rezone the land to higher occupancy or whatever the case may be."

While variations of the phenomenon occur regularly along coastal waters and may be well-documented on a local level, as far as Rice knows no one has compiled the stories and made them available so that people who may be affected by development can get an appreciation for what might happen in the future as a result of the decisions they make for their beach property today.

"These struggles over what a space should be are played out over and over again all up and down the coast, but there hasn't been this recognition that it's the same struggle over and over again," Rice said."There have been plenty of newspaper articles written on the subject, but they tend to document a small-scale instance. My research is to a large extent recognizing the commonalties in all of those smaller stories and telling them as one story.

"There's repetition in social processes," Rice continued, "and we can recognize trends in the way the battles are fought and in the
consequences, so by taking the particular local histories and putting them all together we can predict the future a little bit."

To help people understand the consequences of decisions they make regarding the beach, Rice formulated five general beach "ideal types" that describe the physical spaces that result from one ideology winning over others.

They are Exclusive Coastal Community, Theme Park, Fishing Community, Open-Access Coastal Community, and Preserved Coastal Space (see Ideal Beach Types).

"It's important to think of these ideal types not as a way to categorize communities, but as a way to categorize ideals for beach communities," Rice said. "I like to think that they flowed naturally from the data rather than being my own creation, and that anyone who looked closely at the beach would come up with similar descriptions."

Rice's efforts, however, go far beyond merely describing the spaces. "We can call it a particular type of space because it resembles other spaces, but there's no analysis of how it got there if you're just categorizing the spaces," he said. "Examining how ideals are formed can reveal the origin of later actions."

Rice hopes to help policy-makers predict what is likely to happen to current residents once decisions are implemented.

By analyzing the development of various beaches and offering the results to activists, community members, developers, policy makers and anyone else who has a stake in decisions regarding a particular space, Rice hopes to help them learn from other people's experiences and predict what is likely to happen to the space as well as the current residents once those decisions are implemented.

Rice said he's trying not to take a position. "As a social scientist I attempt to be value-neutral," he said. "I'm not necessarily advocating for any type of community. But at the same time that I'm not directly advocating, I think there are consequences that have not been well-documented, and there are people who have a great interest in not making them public. So even though I'm not advocating, I do hope to remove the wool from people's eyes a little bit and allow them to see things more clearly than they might otherwise."

Ideal Beach Types as Identified by Kennon Rice, Ph.D.

Exclusive Coastal Community

The Exclusive Coastal Community ideal views the beach not so much as a common space legally open to everyone, but as their own backyard, or as property of the local community. The fact that it is legally a public space is almost completely forgotten. In physical form, exclusion is achieved through various means including lack of access points, fencing, and financial obstacles that prevent most from getting close to the space. The overall aesthetic of exclusive coastal communities is typically one of wealth and status, with elaborate architecture and landscaping, and security features. These communities are dominantly residential with limited business or commercial properties.

Theme Park or Carnavalized

To view the beach as Theme Park is contrary to seeing it as a private space, but it is also contrary to seeing it as a natural space or even as a community. In physical form Theme Park beach communities are defined by heavy tourism, commercial concentration and influence, and the incidental role of the beach itself to the overall experience. Functioning like a series of theatrical props, the beach itself is merely a backdrop. It makes some of
the roles people play out seem appropriate, even when they would never be socially acceptable in the absence of that specific backdrop. These communities consist of boardwalks, amusement parks, piers, arcades, surf shops, bars, restaurants, souvenir stands, water parks, golf courses, and other amenities. Housing typically consists of highrise condominiums, apartment buildings, hotels or resorts. Populations fluctuate wildly throughout the year with peak season vacation populations significantly outnumbering year-round residential populations.

Fishing Community

The Fishing Community ideal type is defined by the coastal area primarily being conceived of as a natural resource for economic gain. This vision is of a small, close-knit community, with a shared history, common culture, and common form of economic subsistence. In physical form they are working class, dominated by a small number of families that often have been present for generations. They are a diverse mix of residential and commercial properties with no unifying aesthetic style. Fishing gear is often visible, including pots, traps, nets and floats. Shoreline stabilization measures are dominated by bulkheads and breakwaters to protect harbors, marinas and docking facilities. Access to the beach or water is open to everyone. The natural environment is an integral part of the community, but regarded strictly from a utilitarian lens. Historically, most coastal communities began as fishing communities or ports.

Open Access Coastal Community

Open Access Coastal Communities are defined by their affordability and accessibility, and the relative lack of a manufactured social role for visitors. Surf fishing, sunbathing, swimming, surfing, ball-playing, picnics and other minimally disturbing recreational activities are unrestricted. Ample free parking and beach access facilities (e.g., dune crossovers, bike racks) allow for easy and no-cost access by any visitor. Development is light to moderate, dominantly residential, but includes a variety of affordable lodging for vacationers. No concessionaires, boardwalks or theme park-like amusements are present at the beach itself. Historically, open access spaces were common. As development in coastal areas increased, open access beach communities diminished in size and number.

Preserved Coastal Space

Preserved Coastal Spaces are defined by an orientation to the space as a natural ecosystem that has been conserved or protected from development. No transportation infrastructure, facilities or amenities exist within these spaces. Natural processes and ecosystem functions control the appearance, evolution and management of the space. No shoreline stabilization is present to interfere with natural coastal processes. Hiking, bird watching, nature studies, beachcombing, and wildlife photography are common recreational activities of visitors.

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