Imagining (European) Regions

Key words: spatial planning, planning systems and cultures, territorial governance, regional design, democracy, Europe

Since the mid-1980s many (European) regions saw a strong agglomeration of economic and urban functions in and around central cities. Agglomeration processes, driven by (more or less) autonomous market development, have led to an increase in the welfare of these regions. In a context of globalization and market liberalisation, they became the new economic motors of nation states. However, the results of regionalisation are not positive only. While central regions often benefited from these shifts, many peripheral regions, particularly in ‘old’ industry and rural districts, have faced economic decline and shrinkage. Within the more successful ‘metropolitan’ regions the concentration of economic opportunities in few areas and gentrification have produced social segregation, a loss of cultural heritage and place identity. Disparities between and within regions are growing and are, as recent elections showed, leading to political tensions.

It is recognised that spatial planning and territorial governance can contribute to the tempering of negative externalities of autonomous urbanisation: a reduction of the said regional disparities and a more sustainable spatial development therefore. Spatial planning systems can be defined as “the ensemble of institutions that are used to mediate competition over the use of land and property, to allocate rights of development, to regulate change and to promote preferred spatial and urban form”. Territorial governance refers to “the institutions that assist in active cooperation across government, market and civil society actors to coordinate decision-making and actions that have an impact on the quality of places and their development” (ESPON COMPASS, 2016). Both approaches are reflected in multiple current policies of regional, national and European authorities.

However, an in-depth understanding of how spatial planning and territorial governance work is still missing. In particular, it remains unclear how these approaches become effective under the specific circumstances of countries and regions. Spatial development differs across these territories, due to historically rooted urbanisation patterns and existing socio-economic conditions. Planning systems, cultures and traditions vary across these territories too. As a result, policies for addressing the said problems (e.g. national or EU policies to stimulate regional development, cross-border cooperation or urban renewal) deliver different, at times unforeseen, or even contrary results on the ground.

Graduation projects that relate to the topic Imagining (European) Regions take a general interest in spatial planning and territorial governance as a starting point. Students involved with the topic share a curiosity about the ways in which spatial development is influenced by means of planning, how decisions about planning are taken and who is involved in such decision making. They combine this interest with an interest in and analysis of particular regions. Are prevailing planning approaches adequate to address the very distinct problems in regions? Is current decision making inclusive and fair, seen the communities in place? How can approaches be improved to better reflect particular circumstances while at the same time corresponding to the agendas of democratically approved government at levels?

Graduation projects investigating the topic Imagining (European) Regions build up upon an expertise on regionalisation, governance and spatial planning, present at the Spatial Planning & Strategy section and the OTB Research Institute for the Built Environment. They use this knowledge to test the validity of territorial claims (as in critical geography), analytical knowledge on spatial development (as in social and economic geography) and political decisions (as in political sciences and planning), by means of design. Graduation projects may result in designs that criticise planning/political decisions by making the outcome of alternative approaches visible. Projects may favour certain political positions in this, providing they build on theoretical and empirical base. Projects may also be used to compare the effects of spatial planning and governance under various spatial and institutional circumstances and thus take a more objective position. By comparing developments across several European regions, graduation projects may, for instance, draw wider lessons for the European context and EU (territorial) policies. At the core of projects lies an accountable, critical investigation of current planning or a lack of it, in a context of conflicting territorial interests, political polarisation and/or a lack of relevant information on regionalisation.

Leaning outcomes

At the end of the graduation year, students will be able to

  1. Creatively and critically reflect on the interrelated nature of urbanisation, spatial planning and governance;
  2. Analyse varieties in spatial planning approaches and forms of territorial governance/critically reflect on appropriate approaches/forms in the context of particular situations;
  3. Apply trans-disciplinary approaches to explore ways in which spatial planning and governance can support sustainable urban development and territorial cohesion;
  4. Envision desirable and possible futures for cities and city-regions that take account of and respond to prevailing organisational and institutional conditions in areas;
  5. Design a sustainable and politically sensitive spatial plan that addresses these conditions in a constructive way (see student work already done)

Relation with research activities

Randstad/European integration: Graduations investigating Imagining (European) Regions build up upon a broad body of research into Dutch and European spatial planning conducted at the Department of Urbanism and within the OTB department – Research for the Built Environment. Below we have listed a small number of relevant research projects.

Comparative Analysis of Territorial Governance and Spatial Planning Systems in Europe (COMPASS): Numerous reports have called for more effective territorial governance and a stronger spatial dimension to EU policies. Spatial planning should help to combine actions in particular places to achieve more effective results. COMPASS will compare the role of spatial planning in the 39 countries giving special attention to its relationship with the €352 billion programme of investment through Cohesion policy. The project director at TU Delft, Vincent Nadin, said ‘the big challenge for COMPASS is to make an effective comparison whilst respecting the very different social, economic and cultural conditions in the many countries involved. We have a very experienced consortium who can provide the in-depth know-how necessary for an authoritative assessment.’ The COMPASS consortium comprises nine partners and 16 sub-contractors, many of whom have been at the forefront of research on European spatial planning and territorial governance.

COHESIFY: The COHESIFY project funded by the Horizon2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation is investigating whether people in Europe are aware of the EU’s Regional Policy programmes or projects in their regions and in how far they identify with the EU. In particular, the project investigates how, on the one hand, (1) the ways in which the funding is used and its results communicated, and, on the other hand, (2) the characteristics of the regions where it is used (territorial, socio-economic, institutional), affect the ways in which citizens perceive the EU.

PICH: The PICH project aims to develop the state of the art on the impact of planning and governance reforms on the management of the urban cultural heritage in the context of four case study countries (NL, UK, IT, NO). In particular, the project will be able to explain changes in the management of the urban cultural heritage and more explicitly the relation between the planning and management of the tangible heritage to the intangible sense of place.

REPAiR: The REPAiR project draws on geodesign approach and the concept of extended Urban Metabolism to promote the use of waste as a resource in European regions. The aim of the project is to support the regional stakeholders in co-exploration of regional challenges and opportunities for circular economy development, co-design of eco-innovative solutions and co-decision on strategies for their implementation. One of the objectives of the project is to shed more light on the role of regional governance contexts for nurturing circular economy across six differentiated European peri-urban territories.


Reading recommendation

BALZ, V. 2017. Regional Design: Discretionary Approaches to Regional Planning in the Netherlands. Planning Theory, forthcoming. This paper elaborates upon interrelations between regional design and planning. It emphasizes on the importance of an institutional context for roles of design in planning decision making.

GRAHAM, S. & HEALEY, P. 1999. Relational concepts of space and place: Issues for planning theory and practice. European Planning Studies, 7, 623-646. This paper discusses relational conceptions of space and place. It is representative for a range of scholarly writings that argue that conceptions of geographies are tightly associated with interests of actors.

HAUGHTON, G., ALLMENDINGER, P., & OOSTERLYNCK, S. 2013. Spaces of neoliberal experimentation: soft spaces, postpolitics, and neoliberal governmentality. Environment and Planning A, 45(1), pp. 217-234. This paper critically discuss a new practice within urban regions: informal cooperation between a multitude of actors within and outside government.

NADIN, V. & STEAD, D. 2008. European spatial planning systems, social models and learning. disP – The Planning Review, 44, 35-47. This paper identifies varieties in European spatial planning systems that are the result of social models in countries. In discusses different forms of decision-making that are influenced by models.

RHODES, R.A.W. 1996. The new governance: governing without government, Political studies, Vol. 44, No. 4, pp.  652-667. This is a classic paper explaining the difference between government and governance.

ZONNEVELD, W. 2007. Unraveling Europe’s Spatial Structure through Spatial Visioning, in: Faludi, A. (ed.) Cohesion and the European Model of Society, Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, pp.191-208. This paper discusses alternative interpretation of European spatial structures through the lens of so called spatial planning concepts.

Exemplary graduation projects*

* These graduation projects have been selected for their exemplary relation to the graduation research topic Imagining (European) Regions. Please note that the selection includes graduation reports of the EMU European Postgraduate Masters in Urbanism program.