Reinventing marine spatial planning: a critical review of initiatives worldwide


Please note:

The Commission is in the process of updating some of the content on this website in light of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. If the site contains content that does not yet reflect the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, it is unintentional and will be addressed.



Although marine spatial planning (MSP) is increasingly being applied worldwide, it appears to be based on an ambiguity that has arisen from its dichotomous role of ensuring both conservation and development. This elusive ideal hints at a possible discrepancy between theory and practice. This paper explores the hypothesis that beyond a performative narrative, MSP is actually better described as a variety of devices which fulfil other roles and converge in terms of planning type. To test this hypothesis, this paper analyses the content of past and present MSP initiatives from around the world. The findings show that these initiatives view MSP either as a strategic sectoral spatial planning tool or strategic planning tool, brought in to complement existing initiatives. Furthermore, these two approaches can actually be seen to converge in the type of planning used, through the role attributed to spatial aspects, and more specifically in the place given to zoning. There are two key implications of these findings: the need to open up theoretical debates more broadly to different disciplinary perspectives on MSP; and the need for crucial choices to be made to ensure that MSP does not become an illusion behind which other agendas lie.


Several scientific communities are working on MSP in parallel.

MSP does not in reality fulfil its theoretical objectives, but it fulfils other roles.

We make a critical review of 44 experiences of MSP from throughout the world.

Different forms of MSP generally make similar uses of zoning.

MSP is both illusory and necessary and must engage a critical turn.

Sea Basin(s): 
April 2020
Application in MSP: 
Unknown effect
Not sector specific
Type of Issue: 
Coexistence of uses
Environment aspects
Type of practice: 
Stage of MSP cycle: 
Vision and aims
Analyse spatial aspects
Develop and implement plan
Cross-border / trans-national aspect: 
Coherence with other processes: 
Common Fisheries Policy
Habitats and Birds Directive
Integrated Coastal Zone Management
Marine Strategy Framework Directive
Renewable Energy Directive
Strategic Environmental Assessment

Questions this practice may help answer: 

  • Have countries around the world achieved the conciliation of the Blue Economy development and preservation of marine environment using MSP? 
  • Can MSP support the achievement of both utilitarian and preservationist objectives? 
  • Is MSP evenly implemented around the world? 

Implementation Context: 

The study was conducted by the geography researcher from the University of Nantes (France). 

Aspects / Objectives: 

The review highlights the differences between the MSP theory and practice through the analysis of MSP initiatives around the world.  


The research involved a critical review of three studies that analysed the MSP initiatives around the world. These initiatives were reviewed using the analytical framework focused on three aspects: (i) MSP role, (ii) planning types and (iii) ambiguities associated with these two elements.  

Main Outputs / Results: 

The study highlights the diverse approaches to marine spatial planning in their application. The author argues that there are significant gaps between the MSP theoretical objectives and their effective outputs. 


The methodology applied in this study can be used in any MSP process. 

Responsible Entity: 

University of Nantes, CNRS, UMR LETG, Nantes (France). 

Funding Source: 

University of Nantes, CNRS, UMR LETG, Nantes (France). 

Contact person: 

Brice Trouillet: