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The 100,000-km-long coastline of Europe has a long history of human occupation and intervention in coastal processes. Rapid coastal development that began in the 1960s, however, has accelerated during the past decade with increased human mobility and affluence. This has had disastrous consequences for the European beach resource. Through a series of examples in the UK, Spain, and Italy, we show that poorly sited infrastructure is the primary reason for beach erosion problems, and that decision-making in the area of beach management suffers inherent weaknesses; current practice concentrates on the symptoms (through coastal defense or nourishment) but has been unable to address the root cause (ill-planned development). Consequently, society has become locked into an open-ended series of ameliorative measures that, in turn, fuel ongoing development by removing the element of financial risk from coastal development. The scale of contemporary development on the European coast means that the beach erosion problem will become more acute with time, even without the anticipated large-scale coastal morphological adjustment to sea-level rise. Storms, tsunamis, and a reduction in sediment supply mean that existing coastal infrastructure poses a long-term financial liability. Eventually, the costs involved in continued defense may precipitate changes in public policy. There are indications of this happening, but in the meantime, development increases apace, not just in Europe, but on adjacent Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts, to satisfy a mainly European demand.

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