EU Territorial Agenda 2030 – Place-based development for a Just and Green Europe

The Territorial Agenda 2030: A Future for all places (TAEU 2030) was adapted this week on 1st December 2020 at an informal meeting of the minsters responsible for Spatial Planning and Territorial Development and /or Territorial Cohesion, under the auspices of the German Presidency of the European Council. This document constitutes a high level commitment to principles of place-based sustainable development and territorial cohesion. It is the third iteration of the Territorial Agenda of the European Union, the first version of which was adopted in 2007 and the second (TAEU 2020) adopted in 2011. Indeed, in many respects, its genesis may be traced, back to the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP 1999), as discussed in a previous commentary here. It may also be viewed as complementary to the New Leipzig Charter on sustainable urban development, the most recent version of which was adopted on 30th November 2020.

Regional differences in economic development since the 2008/2009 financial crisis (source: Atlas for the Territorial Agenda of the EU 2030.

The TAEU explicitly underlines the importance of and seeks to ‘provide orientation for’ strategic spatial planning as well as calling for a strengthening of the ‘territorial dimension’ of sector policies at all levels of governance. In what follows I provide a short, concise summary of key elements of the TAEU 2030 prior to providing my own critical reflections.

Two overarching objectives are identified under the headings of a ‘ Just Europe‘ and a ‘ Green Europe‘, reflecting both spatial justice and sustainable development interpretations of territorial cohesion as well as the current importance of the European Green Deal as a strategic policy framework.

Under the heading of a Just Europe, identified priorities include the following:

Better balanced territorial development: recognising the need to address polarisation between core ands peripheral regions and the diverse needs and potentials of territories with specific physical characteristics such as coastal zones, islands, mountains and lake basins.

Functional regions: recognising urban-rural functional interrelationships and the need for managing functional spaces that do not correspond to administrative boundaries and supporting the development of long-term integrated place-based strategies for peri-urban, rural and peripheral areas (urban areas are addressed by the Leipzig Charter).

Integration beyond borders: Supporting and deepening both territorial and maritime cooperation between places, crossing international boundaries. Examples mentioned explicitly include Interreg programmes, macro-regional strategies, EGTCs, mainstream Cohesion Policy programmes and numerous sectoral strategies and programmes.

Under the heading of a Green Europe, identified priorities include the following:

– Healthy Environment: Ensuring the functioning of resilient, enhanced and accessible ecosystems, supporting integrated management and the development of nature-based solutions; Mitigating the risk posed by climate change and biodiversity loss to livelihoods; promoting the resilience of all places impacted by climate change and developing and strengthening place-based mitigation and adaptation strategies; protecting and managing natural and cultural heritage through community empowerment and integrated local and territorial development

Circular Economy: Promoting and supporting the transition of Europe’s economies towards a place-based circular and climate neutral economy, through place-based industrial symbiosis and innovation; Supporting the development of local and regional circular economy strategy linking the local and global; fostering resilient and diversified local economies through strengthening innovation capacities and local strategies for energy transition.

– Sustainable Connections: Developing smart and sustainable forms of digital and physical connectivity, supporting balanced territorial Europe and functional regions; Supporting inclusive digitalisation and e-governance and a a digital infrastructure with a low carbon footprint; Supporting efficient and and environmentally-friendly transportation while recognising the importance of access to intermodal freight and passenger transport for all places in Europe; inviting spatial and transport planners to explore new and environmentally progressive models for local and regional transportation.

Critical Reflections

Positive new aspects

The TAEU 2030 moves beyond its predecessors in a number of respects. It reaffirms EU-level commitments to balanced regional development territorial cohesion, cross-border and territorial cooperation. It is more explicit in its support for integrated spatial planning / territorial development strategy-making at all scales. The use of the terminology of a ‘Just Europe’ may be interpreted as a recentering of territorial cohesion policy around spatial justice concerns and less of an emphasis on economic growth and competitiveness. To what extent this will follow through in practice, remains to be seen.

The most significant new development is the headline objective of a ‘Green Europe’. Here the role of place-based strategies and spatial planning in a transition to a green economy is made explicit reflecting the importance of climate change policy imperatives and the Green New Deal as an overarching strategic framework. The explicit joining up of these policy fields is very welcome and serves to act as a reminder of the potential transformative role for strategic spatial planning in moving forward an ambitious green economy agenda.

Missed opportunities

As with any policy statement of this nature it is also possible to identify some missed opportunities. Firstly, it may be noted that although the TAEU 2030 is accompanied by an atlas with detailed maps of key indicators, there are no spatial diagrams or strategy map to illustrate the objectives and priorities contained within the agenda document itself. This is perhaps not surprising but in light of the possibilities afforded by modern cartographic methods to go beyond the representational and depict policy visions and scenarios through powerful imagery, it must also be seen as a missed opportunity.

It be also be noted that the TAEU 2030 remains an almost exclusively land-based agenda. Despite the high intensity of activity currently taking place in maritime spatial planning and marine governance more broadly, the Territorial Agenda stops at the coast and does consider the marine as a relevant space for integrated territorial development and place-based policy. This oversight may be attributable to a strict division of portfolios between DG Mare and DG Regio but indicates a lack of joined-up policy-making at the core of a strategy advocating integrated cross-sectoral approaches.

Concluding comments

The TAEU 2030 is a high level statement of policy priorities and objectives. Its success will be measured by the extent to which it influences decision-making and policies at lower spatial scales. It is an invitation to all those engaged in spatial planning, integrated strategy-making and territorial cooperation to actively embrace place-based policy, to consider the broader societal and environmental challenges such policies can address and to think and act in terms of pathways towards a sustainable just and green Europe. Policy-makers at all levels, however, need to continue to be held to account to ensure that future decisions align with the objectives set out in the TAEU 2030 are supported through funding programmes as well as legislative and policy frameworks.

Christian Lüer and Kai Böhme of Spatial Foresight in the very timely article, just published by Planning Practice and Research ask:

Can the Territorial Agenda 2030 and the process leading to it reenergize spatial planning in Europe and push European spatial planning towards limiting spatial inequalities and promoting territorial cohesion more effectively?” (Lüer & Böhme 2020, 10).

This is the key question which needs to be monitored closely in coming years. As the authors suggest, it also needs to be viewed as call to action for the European planning community (in practice and research) so that TAEU 2030 becomes a framework for action and not just ideas.

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