Spatial Justice, Relational Values and Territorial Cohesion in Europe

In a scientific report commissioned by NUI Galway, Department of Geography (Dr. Marie Mahon) under the EU Horizon 2020 project IMAJINE: Integrative Mechanisms for Addressing Spatial Justice and Territorial Inequalities in Europe, I was tasked with exploring the relational qualities of spatial justice, together with Dr. Brendan O’ Keeffe. The report was written against the background of increased awareness of the fragility and vulnerability, but also, in some respects, the resilience of European solidarity in the face of external shocks such as the Greek Euro-crisis, the 2015 refugee crisis and the exit of the UK from the EU. Spatial justice is recognised as a fundamentally contested concept related to normative EU concepts of a Social Europe and the discourses of economic, social and territorial cohesion. More recently it is reflected, if partially, in the concept of a Just Transition in the context of the EU Green Deal.

In identifying and exploring the relational qualities of spatial justice, we draw on two conceptual strands: relational space and relational values. The term relational space places emphasis on the idea that it is increasingly the strength of relationship, and the degree of common interest, which determines the value of a link in a network, rather than the geographical distance between the nodes. From this perspective, it is evident that spatial justice must be more than simply shorthand for social justice in space and that socio-spatial relations are constitutive of patterns of social injustice and inequality (Dabinett 2010). A progressive discourse on spatial justice requires attention to both the functional relationships between urban and rural, core and periphery, prosperous and disadvantaged regions and the social and political relations of cohesion and solidarity with the capacity to bind places and places together.

The concept of relational values, on the other hand, has recently emerged and gained traction within the academic and policy literature on nature conservation. Here, relational values are understood to derive from the relationships between people and the environment (e.g. Chan et al 2016). In seeking an answer to the question of why people care for nature and the environment, researchers and policy-makers sought to find a third way between intrinsic and instrumental perspectives on valuation. Intrinsic value implies nature should be protected for its own sake or for its inherent worth. Instrumental value assumes the satisfaction of particular preferences, and focuses on use-values. In contrast, relational values are founded on concepts of ‘the good life’ and a sense of care, responsibility or justice: 

“Relational values are not present in things but derivative of relationships and responsibilities to them… An individual preference or societal choice can be questioned or reframed based on its consistency with core values, such as justice, care, virtue, and reciprocity” (Chan et al 2016, 1462). 

In the context of spatial justice in Europe, relational values are most clearly articulated through the concept of solidarity, associated with a sense of community and belonging at the European scale. Critical perspectives, seeking to reconceptualise solidarity beyond the nation-state are of particular relevance here.

Building on this conceptual foundation, the report makes the following observations pertinent to an elaboration of the relational qualities of spatial justice:

  1. A relational approach to spatial analysis and policy-making implies a focus on relationships across space rather than the attributes of specific spatial categories
  2. Core-periphery relations are relative, not absolute, vary from sector to sector and shift over time. 
  3. Physical factors of accessibility, density of settlement, infrastructure and service provision continue to have a significant influence on the geographical distribution of life chances and opportunities across Europe. 
  4. Relations across space are contingent and dynamic but also imbued with power relations. Despite increased attention to opportunities arising from dynamic, non-hierarchical network-based relations, it is recognised that power relations remain relevant and that relations of uneven development continue to be a characteristic spatial outcome of contemporary models of economic development. 
  5. Personal and collective identities are increasingly relational, multiple and multi-scalar
  6. Political-administrative boundaries continue to provide the dominant basis for decision-making
  7. Nation-states continue to provide the dominant frame of reference for the articulation of the common interest and public good in Europe. 
  8. A progressive, relational understanding of spatial justice can open a space for critical discourse on normative societal goals, moving beyond economic growth and competitiveness, to consider alternatives values and perspectives. A relational understanding of spatial justice can act as a necessary to counterpoint to populist movements and their retreat to essentialist concepts of fixed identities and bounded territorial spaces.
  9. a progressive politics of space must engage with relations across time and as well as space. Future place-based scenarios must grapple with the challenges of intergenerational justice, associated with a transition to a sustainable, green economy and society

Please refer to the full report for further details, references and citation. A second synthesis report explores and identifies relationships between social equality, public service delivery and regional autonomy in Europe. All published reports of the IMAJINE project are available for download here.

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