European Spatial Planning: An Idea of the Past or Key to the Future?

Front cover of the book European Spatial Planning edited by Andreas Faludi, published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in 2002.

Reflecting on developments in European spatial policy over the past decades, the publication of the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) in 1999 might be considered the highpoint of European spatial planning. A third iteration of the Territorial Agenda of the European Union (TAEU) is currently under preparation, to be finalised under the current German Presidency of the Council of the EU (second half of 2020). The TAEU has, however, developed little debate and has had limited policy influence since the publication of its first iteration in 2007. The TAEU 2020, adopted under the Hungarian presidency in 2011 comprised a relatively strong endorsement of place-based or spatially sensitive policies at all scales within the EU. Emphasis was placed in particular on ‘territorial diversity’ within the EU and the scope for places to capitalise on their ‘territorial potential’ through regionally-specific development strategies:

“[The place-based approach] aims to unleash territorial potential through development strategies based on local and regional knowledge of needs, and building on the specific assets and factors which contribute to the competitiveness of places”. (TAEU 2020, 2011, Article 11).

Within an EU system often criticised for one-size-fits-all approaches and an inattention to the regional specificities, this statement is welcome. Yet the capacity to move beyond an acknowledgement that ‘geography matters’ for policy-making may be questioned (Walsh 2012). Will the forthcoming TAEU 2030 live up to the objectives of territorial cohesion and address fundmental inequalities of opportunity and living standards across Europe? It remains to be seen. Cohesion and solidarity across state boundaries has been sorely lacking in the EU’s response to the financial crisis (2007-2009), the ‘crisis’ of migrants seeking asylum and a better life in Europe and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed for some commentators, a reorganisation of the territorial governance structures of the EU themselves, replacing the current state-centric model with a Europe of semi-autonomous but mutually interdependent regions may be a prerequisite for effective European spatial planning (e.g. Faludi 2018).

Yet there is some room for optimism. There are spaces for hope. In the following paragraphs, I will outline two cases which demonstrate that the principles of ‘European space’ and strategic spatial planning, at the core of European spatial planning, are alive and well in Europe, even if we need to dig a little deeper to find evidence of them.

Case 1: Brexit and the Irish border

The exit of the United Kingdom from the EU exemplifies in itself, the rise of a form of nationalist, state-centric territorialism, diametrically opposed to the core principles of European integration. It is within this context, that the EU (Council, Parlament and Commission) has demonstrated unwavering commitment to upholding the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement (hereafter GFA) as the basis for peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland. The GFA, signed in 1998, an important milestone in a long peace process and the outcome of multilateral negotiations was founded on a complex and innovative interpretation of territoriality within the framework of European space. The GFA does not mention the European once but the common EU membership of both Ireland and the UK, made possible the gradual emergence of an understanding of Northern Ireland as a ‘shared space’ analogous to the European space of the EU (Hayward 2006, Walsh 2019). John Hume, one of the key brokers of the peace process, member of the European Parliament and Nobel Peace Prize recipient was himself influenced by the ESDP process and recognised its relevance for setting out an agenda for a shared future for Northern Ireland.

In its commitment to upholding the GFA and its efforts to maintain a soft, invisible border on the island of Ireland, the EU demonstrates an awareness of the fact that the very concept of ‘European space’ is at stake in the Brexit process and that innovative, experimental forms of territory have a future in Europe, even when placed under stress by the actions of individual nation-states.

In the period since the signing of the GFA in 1998, considerable effort has gone into ensuring alignment between the spatial planning frameworks in Ireland and Northern Ireland, in ensuring that two documents and processes in different jurisdictions ‘speak to each other’ and provide a joint enabling framework for the spatial development of the shared border region. The process of preparing the current National Planning Framework for the Republic of Ireland, included a consultation event held across the border in the city of Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. This event reflected the importance of cross-border issues for spatial planning and demonstrated a commitment to consideration of functional relations on the island of Ireland in future policy.

This work has occurred largely under the radar, within a context of acute awareness of ongoing political sensitivities and unresolved tensions. It is one component of a larger process of cross-border cooperation at local, regional and national scales, much of which is EU-funded and heavily reliant on the mutual trust, political goodwill and supportive institutional structures all of which are currently under threat through uncertainty created by the pursuit of a hard or ‘no deal’ Brexit by the UK government. Informal processes and practices of spatial planning have the potential to contribute to shaping a joint future for the border region post-Brexit. Much will depend, however, on the outcome of the current EU-UK negotiations and their implications for the Irish border (Walsh & Rafferty 2019, Keohane 2020).

Case 2: Spatial Planning for the Dutch North Sea

In 2014, the Dutch Ministry for Environment and Infrastructure (MvIeM) published a Spatial Agenda for the North Sea in 2050. Working with innovative cartographic techniques to deliberately challenge the reader to view the North Sea and its relationship with the Dutch coast differently , the North Sea 2050 Spatial Agenda constitutes a best practice example of strategic spatial planning within the marine context. At its core an innovative cartographic representation of the North Sea foregrounds relational connectivities across space and emphasises the intensity and diversity of uses of the sea. The unconventional north–south orientation of the core spatial diagrams challenges the reader to think from the sea to the land, upsetting commonplace understandings of the relationship between the marine and the terrestrial:

“The North Sea 2050 Spatial Agenda has been created by looking together with stakeholders at the power and potential of the sea itself and putting that on the map. That is why the perspective of the North is chosen for the maps: you look ‘from’ the sea towards the land”(MvIeM 2014, p. 5; in Walsh 2020).

From the outset, it is thus very clear that the North Sea 2050 is not a technical plan regulating the use of sea space. It is a communicative instrument with the ambitious task of reframing the Dutch North Sea, in terms of relationship with Dutch society and neighbouring countries. The Minister for Infrastructure and Environment of the time spoke of a deliberate effort to move beyond terrestrial ways of thinking, of allowing the sea to become ‘part of the Netherlands’: “We still often think – literally – in terms of a watershed. Where the land stops, the sea starts – simple as that. We should really start seeing the North Sea as a part of the Netherlands, in all its aspects” (Minister Schutz van Haegen, quoted in MIE & MEA, 2014, p. 1). Drawing on ideas of the Netherlands as a maritime nation, the Dutch North Sea is reframed as a socio-cultural space and part of the heritage of the Dutch people.

North Sea 2050: Map of Spatial Developments and Opportunities: 2014–2050. © Dutch Ministry for Infrastructure and Water Management.

Despite the discursive prominence of national, territorial space, the North Sea 2050 has a strong international character, emphasising the wider, international context and the need to pursue Dutch policy objectives in cooperation with neighbouring jurisdictions. In contrast to the common practice for spatial planning visions, whether on land or at sea, of working within the sharply delineated political–administrative boundaries of the planning authority neighbouring jurisdictions are clearly shown and ‘filled in’ rather than displayed as ‘white spaces’. Territorial borders recede into the background and transboundary connectivities are foregrounded. This marks a very significant departure from the dominant container space cartography of conventional marine spatial plans. Indeed, in a further effort to reconfigure conventional spatial frames, thematic maps of the international context of the full North Sea area are included, similarly with an inverted north–south orientation. These maps depict thematic areas of international cooperation and connectivity, including wind energy, shipping, food supply and land–sea interactions, displaying a remarkable level of detail.

Final Remarks

These two very different cases, demonstrate that core principles of European spatial planning continue to be found at regional and national scales within Europe. Whereas a general shift away from explicit spatial visions may be noted at many levels from the city-regional to the macro-regional, there are positive cases of strategic spatial plan-making which upset conventions, cross boundaries and introduce new perspectives on spaces and places. Currently, marine spatial planning are in the process of being finalised across Europe with much work being done to ensure transboundary coherence and coordination. To date, ambitious spatial strategies crossing the land-sea divide to explicitly address interlinkages between the terrestrial and the marine are the exception rather than the rule but the potential is there for strategic spatial planning to play an important role in addressing future socio-environmental and socio-economic challenges across the European territory.

This commentary draws on material from two recently published papers:

Walsh, C. (2019) Brexit Geographies: Spatial Imaginaries and Relational Territorialities on the Island of Ireland, Irish Geography 52(2), 137-152,

Walsh, C. (2020) Transcending Land-Sea Dichotomies through Strategic Spatial Planning, Regional Studies (online first),

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