It is increasingly recognised that designing and implementing adaptive land management and development policies for the coastal zone requires an interdisciplinary and integrated approach. Yet, integrative thinking and action often remain problematic due to the competing interests and ambitions involved in coastal zone planning and management and the legacy of established development on the coast. This paper presents a developmental timeline to critically consider institutional responses to coastal development and seeks to locate contemporary challenges, such as climate change, in the context of a new environmental determinism. The argument is put forward that securing a shared understanding of development conditions and risks needs to be predicated on creating more robust conditions for interaction and fostering a sounder appreciation of the inter-dependencies of natural processes and governance. The concept of resilience is critically explored in order to consider a normative analytical framework for facilitating social learning and developing a reciprocal understanding of social-ecological dynamics that offers a spectrum of resilience options. This is illustrated in the context of coastal geomorphological processes and Process-Defined Management Units.