Cities and Regions in Cross-Border Cooperation: Competing or Complementary Dynamics?

On 17th May, I convened and chaired a session on cities and regions in cross-border cooperation at the Border Regions in Transition (BRIT) annual conference. The conference took place in Hamburg (Germany) and (Sonderborg) two hundred kilometres to the North and across the border in Denmark. The conference was jointly hosted by the University of Southern Denmark (Centre for Border Region Studies), HafenCity University Hamburg and University of Hamburg. The theme of the conference: Cities, States and Borders: from the Local to the Border placed emphasis on the evolving roles of cities in relation to nation-states and their territorial borders in the context of economic globalisation and securitisation.

Against this background, the session on cities and regions in cross-border cooperation sought to explicitly address the dynamics of cross-border regionalism and city-regionalism through critical reflection on empirical case studies located across Europe. It is evident that European cities and regions can and do benefit through cooperation across nation-state borders and the realisation of the development potentials of cross-border functional regions. The well-known cases of Öresund, Basel Metropolitan Area, Lille, Luxembourg and Geneva demonstrate clearly that territorial borders need not present insurmountable obstacles to metropolitan regional development (Sohn et al. 2009, Hansen 2013, Fricke 2015). In cross-border metropolitan regions, governance capacity is matched by functional integration and a comparatively high density of cross-border economic, social and cultural relations. Cross-border contexts characterised by asymmetrical spatial development structures face more significant challenges in the establishment of mutually beneficial cooperation initiatives (Calzada 2015). Indeed, as cross-border cooperation in Europe matures, it is increasingly apparent that cities and regions tend to follow distinct strategies and as a consequence multiple partnership initiatives often emerge within the context of larger cross-border regions. As connectivity between cities and metropolitan regions increases, neighbouring rural hinterland regions may face a relative loss of connectivity and become further marginalised. Relational processes of metropolitanisation and peripheralisation are shaped by the spatially selective opening of borders and the associated construction of cross-border corridors and gateways.

May own paper within this session concerned the emerging Fehmarnbelt region at the border between northern Germany and southern Denmark and the role of the cities of Hamburg and Copenhagen and their respective metropolitan regions in this context.


Coastal landscapes as Boundary Spaces: Wadden Sea Dykes and the Materiality of Coastal Places

In January, I presented a paper at the fourteenth New Cultural Geographies Conference, hosted this year by the Karl-Franz University, Graz, Austria. The abstract is reproduced below. The paper sought to engage with recent debates on the place materiality, following the cultural turn in human geography.


Coastal land- and seascapes constitute liminal, boundary spaces, occupying fluid zones of transition, between the land and the sea (Leyshon 2015). Despite a long history of fixing coastlines on maps and charts, the boundary between the land and the sea defies precise measurement and is characterised by rhythms of change across multiple time-scales. In the context of global climate change, coasts are increasingly recognised to be vulnerable places facing uncertain futures. Understanding coastal places requires appreciation of the powerful material presence of the physical land and seascape and its influence on daily rhythms, local weather patterns and everyday spatial practices. Coastal places moreover are frequently characterised by historical narratives of struggle against the sea, histories of the loss of land and its retaking through material spatial practices of dyking and land reclamation. Recognition of the particularity of coastal landscapes has led to historical and contemporary studies of coastal identity and place attachment among coastal communities (e.g. Fischer, N. 2007, Fischer, L. 2011, Ratter & Gee 2012). Recent contributions by McKinnon and Brennan (2012) and Gee (2015) among others, step across the boundary from the land to the sea providing new insights into the individual perception and social construction of places at the sea. In this context, place attachment to individual seascapes is understood to be influenced by the full range of sensory perceptions and emotional associations, including particular sounds, smells, and memories in addition to visual aspects (Gee 2015). Conceptually, the physical materiality of coastal places provides a counterpoint to contemporary constructivist and poststructural readings of space as relational, socially constructed and cosmopolitan (c.f. Massey 2009, Tomaney 2012). Attention to coastal places highlights the constraints set on the production of place imposed by the immediate physical environment and the need for accounts of the social construction of place to be grounded in the topography of the material landscape (Dirlik 2001, 22). Attention to coastal places furthermore invites a reconsideration of the influence of spatial boundaries and boundary features in the landscape in the structuring of place and space. The paper traces the role of dykes as materially and symbolically powerful boundary features of the Wadden Sea coastal landscape. The role of dykes in the material and conceptual separation of nature and culture into distinct domains is explored with reference to historical studies and contemporary policy debates on coastal and nature protection at the German Wadden Sea coast. It is argued that dykes, as material spatial structures have a profound influence on the structuring of the coastal landscape. Dykes as boundary lines of spatial separation, are instrumental in the socio-cultural separation of nature and culture into natural and cultural landscapes at the Wadden Sea coast. Material and institutional path-dependencies furthermore ensure the endurance of a particular paradigm of coastal protection, founded on the concept of a continuous fixed and uninterrupted, dyke-protected coastline.

Research Workshop: Managing Coastal Change and Climate Vulnerability: Questions of Place, Space and Landscape

Climate change perception, landscape perception and management practices in coastal areas are integrally related. Climate change becomes grounded and is given meaning through landscape practices. Coastal management and climate change adaptation in theory and practice, have nevertheless struggled to deal with cultural aspects relating to the mediation of perception through landscape and the influence of climate vulnerabilities on the social construction of space, place and landscape. This workshop responds to this challenge, drawing together leading researchers internationally whose work provides important cultural and social-theoretic critiques both from within (spatial planning and coastal management disciplines) and without (cultural geography and environmental humanities).

Workshop Poster

Adaptation to climate change and associated sea-level rise presents profound challenges for coastal regions across the world producing new vulnerabilities, risks and uncertainties. Climate change is increasingly recognised to require a fundamental reassessment of conventional approaches to coastal engineering which have typically relied on hard infrastructures of dykes, dams and sea walls (Temmerman et al 2013). From a cultural geography perspective, it may be argued that the abstract discourse of climate change is given meaning and becomes grounded through the engagement of coastal communities with dynamics of actual and anticipated change in the coastal land- and seascapes (cf. Ratter et al. 2009, Kremer et al 2013). Through this workshop we seek to develop a situated understanding of coastal management as a highly differentiated and place-specific set of practices. Treating coastal management as a set of situated practices implies an acknowledgement of the spatial contingency of scientific, professional and lay forms of knowledge (cf. Brace & Geoghagen 2011, 287).

The workshop will bring a grounded comparative perspective to the question of managing coastal change which has been missing from academic and policy debates on integrated coastal zone management, climate change adaptation and the related field of marine spatial planning. The workshop will consequently focus on questions of spatiality which have received limited attention in the relevant literatures to date. Critical contributions to the growing literature on MSP from spatial planning scholars have argued for an in-depth reflexive engagement with MSP from a social science perspective. Kidd and Shaw (2014) critique the dominant instrumental if not technocratic view of MSP as a rational, technical process of universal applicability contending that marine spatial planning is ‘a social and political process that is inevitably highly differentiated and place-specific’ (2014, 2). We suggest that this critique is equally applicable to ICZM (and coastal management more broadly). Indeed, in spite of its longer history, the concept and practice of ICZM has generated remarkably little by way of critical social science research. At the same time, we argue for increased attention to the material dimension of coastal management and its impacts on the physical geography of coastal landscapes, whether through the construction of dykes, sea walls and other physical infrastructures or the allocation of land and sea -uses. Normative perspectives on ICZM and MSP, focussed primarily on questions of governance, have to date led to a partial neglect of the physical materiality of coastal management (McFadden 2007, 2008).

It is evident that there are marked differences in the national and regional institutional contexts and frameworks within which coastal management is practiced across Europe. Coastal protection in Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany may be considered as highly institutionalised occurring within a vertically-integrated governance structure where policy remits and competences are clearly delineated. In the neighbouring federal state of Lower Saxony, coastal protection draws on a long tradition of local community action organised through dyke associations. They continue to play an active role in the physical maintenance of the primary dyke line and cultural maintenance of a particular tradition of coastal protection. Practices of coastal protection have thus developed over many centuries and are embedded within the mentality and culture of local coastal communities (Fischer 2007, 2011). Indeed, experience at the German North Sea coast, indicates substantial resistance to change among coastal management practitioners, potentially constraining opportunities for developing and embracing innovative approaches (Rupp-Armstrong & Nicholls 2007). In this context, it is thus possible to speak of distinct cultures of practice, which have emerged within but are not reducible to distinct national institutional, legislative and cultural contexts.

The concept of landscape can usefully serve to address the social and cultural values and framing implicated in the physical geography and materiality of coastal management from a social science perspective. Coastal management practices are instrumental in landscape change both in a physical and cultural sense. Adopting a situated perspective on coastal management implies that coastal management is materially and culturally situated in the landscape and reflects on its values. Drawing on constructivist approaches to landscape research we furthermore recognise that distinct sectoral institutional systems and discourse coalitions can lead to the simultaneous occurrence of multiple and conflicting constructions or framings of landscape and seascape in the same physical geographical area. Approached from this perspective the concept of landscape provides an important analytical link between aspects of materiality and the intangible aspects of spatiality.

Beyond Geography Matters: Paper presented at the German Congress for Geography

Three weeks ago (October 4th), I presented a paper at the German Congress for Geography, Humboldt University Berlin. The paper, entitled Beyond Geography Matters: Negotiating Territoriality and Functionality in Theory and Practice was co-authored with Annegret Repp of the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research in Müncheberg and HafenCity university Hamburg.

The paper sought to critically examine the actual and potential governance capacity of European spatial planning with in light of the emergence of increasingly spatial approaches to governance within the environmental policy field. How do environmental governance actors negotiate territorial and functional spaces in practice? How can the concepts of soft spaces, spatial fit and variable geometry contribute to an analytical understanding of emerging new spaces of environmental governance? Can governance actors move beyond state-centric metageographies to engage with cross-boundary functional spaces?

The abstract is reproduced here:

The multi-level and multi-sectoral governance context of the European Union presents particular challenges of integration across spatial scales, territories and policy sectors. Indeed, a number of studies have highlighted the potential for EU operational programmes to lead to unintended and contradictory outcomes due to problems of coordination and misalignment at the levels of both policy formulation and implementation. The integration of strategic spatial and environmental objectives into sectoral policies remains a key challenge for governance in Europe, arguably requiring changes in institutional structures, governance cultures and operational paradigms at all spatial scales. At the same time it is possible to identify a renewed focus on the spatiality of governance as actors experiment with news of working with functional spaces, crossing established territorial boundaries. In this context, space has become a focus for and means towards cross-sectoral policy integration. River basin management under the EU Water Framework Directive, protected areas under the Habitats Directive and marine spatial planning each represent prominent examples of the emergence of explicitly spatial perspectives under EU environmental directives each of which have also generated critical discussion in the academic literature. Paradoxically, the integrative potential of spatial perspectives in environmental policy has begun to be recognised at the same as academic and policy debate on integrated and strategic forms of European spatial planning have lost momentum and become displaced by less ambitious concepts and discourses of territorial cohesion and territorial governance. We argue that European spatial policy in its current form fails to move beyond its claim that geography matters, to constructively contribute to the question of how sectoral policy (including environmental policy) should address the seemingly elusive spatial dimension. Indeed there has been very limited engagement with academic and policy debates on territorial cohesion and territorial governance in the environmental management literature and similarly limited attention paid to the environmental dimension of territorial cohesion. In the German context, experimental governance approaches such as sustainable land management and urban-rural energy regions nevertheless indicate the potential for integrated spatial-environmental approaches.

Specifically, the paper compares and contrasts the analytical perspectives of spatial fit and soft spaces, both of which move some of the way towards explaining the ways in which governance actors work with multiple socially constructed spatialities. With their separate origins in the environmental management and spatial planning literatures respectively these concepts have developed in isolation from each other and have not previously been brought into dialogue.

Soft Spaces in Europe: Re-negotiating governance, boundaries and borders published in Routledge Regions and Cities Series

The book: Soft Spaces in Europe: Re-negotiating governance, boundaries and borders has been published this summer. It is edited by Phil Allmendinger (Cambridge), Graham Haughton (Manchester), Jörg Knieling (Hamburg) and Frank Othengrafen (Hannover).

Soft Spaces Book Cover

Through five metropolitan  and three cross-border case studies, edited volume greatly contributes to a comparative understanding of soft spaces as an emerging element of the contemporary governance landscape in northwest Europe. The author of this blog (Cormac Walsh) was responsible for the case studies of the island of Ireland and Fehmarn Belt region (Chapters 7 & 9) and contributed to the study of the Hamburg metropolitan region (Chapter 3). Previous versions of the chapters were presented at international conferences in Tampere, Finland (Fehmarn Belt) and Dublin, (island of Ireland).

Here is the official blurb from the Routledge website:

The past thirty years have seen a proliferation of new forms of territorial governance that have come to co-exist with, and complement, formal territorial spaces of government. These governance experiments have resulted in the creation of soft spaces, new geographies with blurred boundaries that eschew existing political-territorial boundaries of elected tiers of government. The emergence of new, non-statutory or informal spaces can be found at multiple levels across Europe, in a variety of circumstances, and with diverse aims and rationales.

This book moves beyond theory to examine the practice of soft spaces. It employs an empirical approach to better understand the various practices and rationalities of soft spaces and how they manifest themselves in different planning contexts. By looking at the effects of new forms of spatial governance and the role of spatial planning in North-western Europe, this book analyses discursive changes in planning policies in selected metropolitan areas and cross-border regions. The result is an exploration of how these processes influence the emergence of soft spaces, governance arrangements and the role of statutory planning in different contexts. This book provides a deeper understanding of space and place, territorial governance and network governance.