What is this thing called “European spatial planning”?

A very common arrangement of technical terms in some academic and professional circles and a very daunting one in others. European spatial planning creates intense and unending debates regarding what it actually is, and what is its purpose. A majority of these debates spur from cultural and language differences making it difficult to bring everyone in agreement. Giving an all around valid definition has been a difficult task for most academics that attempted it. However, this is not the task of this article, but rather to lay out general principles and concepts that could make the understanding of this field a little less difficult.

Why spatial planning?

I have to be honest and admit that the title of this article was inspired by a paper written by Nigel Taylor, called “What is this thing called spatial planning?”, from where I also poached and adapted the title. Taylor argues that considering the Anglo-Saxon concept of planning and now spatial planning, and how the British government sees it, spatial planning isn’t really something new. In his opinion spatial planning is just an adapted interpretation of planning in its classic form. While this argument is true nonetheless, spatial planning in my opinion represents an evolution, which brings the realization that the field reshaped itself according to its needs and expectations.

Planning in its simplest form is a national or local regulatory system that influences the development of the built environment. The concept of spatial planning appeared because land-use regulations have proven inefficient in dealing with social, economic and environmental issues that required the same amount of attention as the development of the built environment. However simple or obvious this might seem comparing similar planning systems across different countries shows that discrepancies in perception on what planning is, and what its role is do exist. These discrepancies are conditioned by cultural, political and language differences and can vary in intensity depending on the criteria you investigate.

Do we need a European dimension to spatial planning?

Whenever I am asked this question, in my head I feel like Hamlet. To have or not to have a European spatial planning system? The truth is that there is no real answer at this point in time. The reason I say this is because, as in the case of the European Union project, the question points to a pretty unique situation, if not in form at least in content. No precedent leaves us with no clear definitive answer, as we have no comparison criteria. As a result we can only try to make competent assumptions which we then take responsibility for, but which are neither right or wrong.

The EU tried to propagate the European spatial dimension through the European Spatial Development Perspective (No, the title of this blog is not a coincidence), but the result wasn’t as well received or engaging as envisioned. Because of this the ESDP has been put since then on the back burner. It is still a referential document (it introduced a set of principles and concepts which were only used in academia until then), but it did not take the form of policy. The EU integration processes also emphasized that inequalities in development are more and more visible, making territorial cohesion a major objective for the EU.

The only way to respond to the question raised by the necessity of European spatial planning at this point in time is to actually evolve the question: Considering territorial cohesion across multi-national territories, is a new level of spatial planning required? Territorial cohesion is not a easily solvable problem, as it is affected by almost all sectoral policies and it involves all of the governmental bodies. Would this type of approach enable horizontal (across policy sectors) and vertical (between national and international governing bodies) collaboration, integration and participation? Would the resulting system allow a flexible way of responding to change, and to trans-national and cross-border issues?

From the national standpoint the answer is varied, depending on the political and social cultures of each country. Western European countries are more flexible in considering a new level of spatial planning and its importance. Central and Eastern European countries that evolved as post-socialist democracies are more reluctant towards this type of planning and see it as a threat to their own decision-making process and sovereignty.

In conclusion, giving a clear and unmovable answer to the question: Do we need it? The first answer that comes to mind is: depends on your viewpoint, or better yet, depends on your priorities. The only certainty at this point in time comes from the fact that with all the bad and the good of this approach, at the end of the day it’s still a way of doing things that deserves proper attention from policy and institutional points of view.

We are moving through murky times with difficult economic and social challenges that spread from country to country ignoring borders and geography. It is obvious then that isolated or punctual problem solving techniques are inefficient. People, as well as capital can move faster and faster, bringing, worsening or alleviating problems. It is then worth considering that a more comprehensive, flexible, and integrated system is more likely to generate positive outcomes.