Increasing human demands for ecosystem services due to climate change, population growth, poverty, lack of employment, tourism, and concomitant coastal property development threatens adaptive capacity in South Africa’s coastlines. Adaptation strategies frequently propose ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA) as a model for transformative change. However, several studies point to difficulties implementing EBA across the world. The aim of this paper is to assess to what extent social-ecological systems approaches and common pool resource (CPR) governance theories could inform EBA. Data obtained from interviews and surveys with policy makers and residents in South Africa’s Garden Route District were interpreted using the robustness framework (RF) and the design principles (DPs), two common tools for analyzing CPR governance. We found that the Garden Route coast is threatened by negative interactions between hard public and private infrastructures and ecological infrastructures (the cornerstone of EBA) which are driven by weak local government bodies and asymmetrical power relations. By coding the data for elements/interactions within the RF and then identifying and mapping the DPs onto the RF, we also revealed ways to leverage transformative EBA in the Garden Route. Our analyses suggest that the interactions between human-made and ecological infrastructures, as well as power relation, should be at the core of any development debate. Trade-offs should aim for maximum congruence between sustainability and equity in ecosystem services provisioning. This paper provides some considerations for researchers and decision makers to leverage transformative EBA that could potentially apply to areas experiencing similar challenges.