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.

Spatial Visions as Soft Institutions – the case of the Atlantic Gateway in North West England

Contributed by Philip O’ Brien, PhD researcher in urban planning at the Department of Civic Design, University of Liverpool


‘Soft spaces’ of planning and governance have been associated with the tendency towards non-statutory aspirational territories that are defined according to normative European policy aims, while the concept was originally identified in the context of a large scale state regeneration strategy.

Distinct from both of these types, the Atlantic Gateway is a soft space constructed around the investment strategy of the Peel Group, a privately owned property company with extensive landholdings in the north west of England.  While briefly adopted as a state-led strategy, it is now once more a private sector-led initiative, with a board appointed from across the public and private sectors.

The Atlantic Gateway presents a very different example of soft space to those explored in the literature, both in terms of its ownership and its aim, which is singularly to stimulate investment and growth.  While state-led soft space strategies such as the Thames Gateway and the Hamburg Metropolitan Region are closely intertwined with the ‘hard’ spaces of government in the region, the Atlantic Gateway instead operates by lobbying central government on major infrastructure investments such as high speed rail and port facilities, while attempting to informally coordinate the activities of city-region economic development partnerships around the soft space of the Atlantic Gateway.  The differentiated array of sub-national governance structures that is seen to have flourished as a result of regulatory experimentation by neoliberal governments over the course of the last three decades is complemented by the Atlantic Gateway, which through private sector activity is able to bring together state investment at a scale not addressed in an integrated way by the state.

Altlantic Gateway


The Atlantic Gateway: ‘overlapping connected economic geographies’ (Source: The Atlantic Gateway, 2010).

While the Atlantic Gateway presents itself as a new and innovative space that usurps formal administrative boundaries in the same way as the economic processes it seeks to direct, it is in fact based on the Mersey Belt, a regional spatial vision of longstanding.  Yet the same spatial vision has been used as the background for widely differing planning and governance strategies, reflecting shifts in attitudes to spatial development.  While the 1974 regional strategic plan uses the Mersey Belt to represent the existing urban core of the region into which future growth should be directed in order to prevent further urban decline and dereliction, the Atlantic Gateway adopts the infrastructural assets and skilled labour markets of the same space in order to position the Mersey Belt within the discourse of internationally mobile capital and labour.

Thus the spatial vision of the Mersey Belt functions as a soft institution, highly durable in the planning and governance strategies of the region yet equally malleable to the ends of each given strategy.  Two possible insights may be drawn from this.  First, given the increasingly prominent role of spatial visions in planning and governance, this malleability may prove telling, as politically diverse strategies are able to utilise widely accepted spatial visions in order to gain traction.  Second, the purposes of soft spaces might be well served by the co-option of existing spatial visions for the same reason.


Philip O’ Brien, University of Liverpool, contact: Philip.Obrien[at]

Rethinking the Spatiality of Spatial Planning

Rethinking the Spatiality of Spatial Planning: Methodological Territorialism and Metageographies, European Planning Studies (online first)

This paper, accepted by European Planning Studies in Ocotber 2012 and now available in the ‘latest articles’ section online is my most theoretical paper to date, as indeed the title might indicate. The empirical work it draws on, is drawn primarily from my PhD research on strategic spatial planning for the Dublin-city region. The focus here is on the territorial politics (or perhaps, local scale geopolitics) of spatial planning. It is well-known perhaps that  ‘localism’ is a key feature of Irish planning and development practice. But what do we mean by ‘localism’ precisely? What type of geograhical associations does localism in spatial planning apply?

This paper contributes to partially answering these questions – although admittedly using more convoluted/technical/precise? terminology. Specifically the focus is on the influence of ideas of politically-bounded territorial space on the representation of space in spatial planning documents and in the spatial politics or discourses of political representatives associated with the planning processes for the city-region. In this case, county boundaries represent the dominant spatial imaginary or ‘metageography’. At the same time, however, processes of strategic spatial planning seek to introduce new ways of thinking about relations across space, based on ideas of fucntional geography and to smoe extent relational space. This ‘soft space’ approach is however constrained by the dominant territorial imaginaries which continue to focus on the political and administrative boundaries rather than functional relations.

The paper has gone through a long process with many iterations along the way. Previous versions were presented at the Regional Studies Association Annual International Conference in Pecs, Hungary and at a European Urban Research Association workshop in Oslo (both in May 2010). A working paper version was also published as part of the NIRSA working paper series  in November 2010.

Published Abstract

This paper argues for increased attention to the role of territory and territoriality in framing sociospatial discourses in the context of spatial plan making. In particular, it is suggested that the engagement of political actors with processes of spatial planning tends to be framed within particular spatial imaginaries which reflect established political-administrative and territorial boundaries. It is contended that a critical analysis of the territorial framing of processes of spatial planning is necessary in order to understand the capacity for spatial strategies to effectively challenge and reconfigure established sociospatial imaginaries in functional or relational terms. It is suggested that spatially explicit public policy statements, such as planning strategies, may be characterized by specific assumptions of territorial space, in a similar manner to which mainstream social science has contained implicit assumptions of state-centrism. The salience of territorial spatial imaginaries is demonstrated in the case of European spatial planning and through a local case study of city-regional spatial planning and politics in the Greater Dublin Area.

Mapping the true extent of Dublin’s functional urban region – What the best available evidence tells us

Originally published on Ireland After Nama

As reported in an editorial in today’s Irish Times, a special issue of the Journal of Irish Urban Studies has just been published, presenting work of the Urban Environment Project, a large-scale, multi-insitutional and multi-disciplinary collaborative research project led by UCD Urban Institute Ireland and funded by the Environment Protection Agency. Issues addressed by the special issue include biodiversity, city-regional governance, office location patterns simulated coastal flood risk and spatial planning. All articles in this issue are available to download here. The analysis below is extracted from one article of this special issue.

The spatial extent of Dublin’s functional urban region or commuting hinterland has served as a key indicator and point of discussion on the ‘sprawl’ of Dublin and extent of uncontrolled urban expansion over the Celtic tiger period. The location of unfinished and partially vacant housing estates in some locations suggests that private developers significantly overestimated the extent of the ‘Dublin market’. The analysis below serves to map the spatial extent of the Dublin functional urban region and identifies the share of the Dublin workforce commuting from the Mid-East Region (Kildare, Meath and Wicklow) and beyond.

The spatial extent of the Dublin Functional Urban Region and Economic Core Area is derived from 2006 Census of Population data. The Place of Work Census of Anonymised Records (POWCAR) subset of the 2006 Census of Population, allows for a direct assessment of employment density at a fine spatial scale and a direct matching of origin and destination data for the analysis of commuting flows. The Dublin Economic Core Area, as shown in Figure 1 comprises all EDs where employment density is at least 7 jobs per hectare (700/km2) within the four Dublin counties.  The ECA includes approximately 406,000 people at work and 525,000 residents in 159 EDs and covers an area of 150.0 square kilometres (km2). In addition to the traditional Commercial Business District (CBD) large suburban nodes including Blanchardstown, Swords, Dublin Airport, Tallaght and Sandyford, indicating the increasingly dispersed and polycentric pattern of employment distribution within the city

Figure 1: Dublin Economic Core Area. Source: Census of Population 2006 POWCAR dataset OSi boundary datasets, OSi permit no. MP009006(c) Government of Ireland

The spatial extent of the Dublin Functional Urban Region (FUR) is subsequently defined in relation to the ECA. The inclusion of EDs within the FUR is determined by two criteria:

  1. At least 10% of workers resident in the ED work in the Dublin ECA
  2. 50 workers, resident in the ED work in the Dublin ECA

The criteria outlined above, are selected to reflect the actual spatial extent of the FUR based on daily commuting flows (Figure 2). In total 454 EDs are included within the 2006 FUR. The total FUR area covers 4,138 km2. For comparative purposes the spatial extent of the Dublin Sub-Region as defined by the ERDO strategy on the basis of 1981 data is shown in Figure 6.12. The area of the Dublin Sub-Region (2,016 km2) is less than half that of the 2006 FUR. Differences in methodology preclude further inferences to be drawn regarding the spatial expansion over the 1981-2006 period. With the exception of Togher, Calary and Altidore, located in north Wicklow, all EDs included in the ERDO sub-region are also included in the 2006 FUR. The principal contiguous area of the 2006 FUR extends to include all of the Dublin Region and large parts of northeast Wicklow, northeast and central Kildare, south and east Meath and southern Louth.  Urban centres located at some distance from the principal contiguous area but included within the FUR include all or parts of Dundalk, Kells, Portarlington, Borris, Athy Baltinglass, Arklow, and Gorey. It should be noted that the spatial extent of the FUR as defined here is less than that defined by Williams et al. in the Society of Chartered Surveyors commissioned study (published in 2007). The FUR has not contracted between 2002 and 2006. Rather, improvements in data availability and methodological changes have allowed for a significantly more accurate assessment of the spatial extent of the Dublin Functional Urban Region. In total approximately 388,000 workers resident in the FUR in 2006 commuted to work in the Dublin ECA. This is however only 52% of the total number of resident workers in the FUR, indicating the continued significance of smaller dispersed centres of employment.

Figure 2: Dublin Functional Urban Region. Source: Census of Population 2006 POWCAR dataset, OSi boundary layers, OSi permit no. MP009006(c) Government of Ireland, ERDO Eastern Regional Settlement Strategy (1985).

A county and regional level analysis of the workforce in the Greater Dublin Area is provided in Tables 1 and 2 below. The Greater Dublin Area workforce (defined by place of work) is composed of workers commuting to a fixed place of work (‘commuters’), those working primarily at home (‘home’ workers) and those with no fixed place of work (mobile’ workers). In this analysis mobile workers are excluded as their principal county of work is unknown. Almost 70,500 mobile workers are recorded with places of residence within the Greater Dublin Area. This compares to a total of 626,162 commuting to work in the GDA and 25,968 working from home in the GDA.

The statistics in Table 6.2 include both commuters and home workers. The place of work of home workers is determined by their place of residence. The total number of jobs in the Dublin Region (525,204) was significantly higher than in the Mid-East Region (126,886) in 2006. Comparing with total population figures, however, provides a more meaningful basis for comparing the regional distribution of employment. There were approximately 442 jobs per 1000 population in the Dublin Region, compared with 267 jobs per 1000 population in the Mid-East Region.

Table 1: Greater Dublin Area workforce classified by place of work and place of residence, 2006, Source: Census of Population 2006 POWCAR dataset

In total 82.6% of those at work in the Dublin Region were resident within the Dublin Region[1]. An additional 13.4% are recorded as commuting from the neighbouring Mid-East Region. By comparison 77.6% of those at work within the Mid-East Region were resident within the Mid-East Region. 11.4% of those at work in the Mid-East Region commuted from beyond the Greater Dublin Area, a significantly higher proportion than for the Dublin Region. In total 35,845 workers are recorded as commuting from beyond to the GDA to places of work within the GDA. This figure, however, represents only 5.5% of the total workforce in the GDA.

Region of residence of GDA workforce, 2006 Data Source: Census of Population 2006, POWCAR dataset

Williams, B. Walsh, C. & Boyle, I. (2010) The Functional Urban Region of Dublin: Implications for Regional Development Markets and Planning, Journal of Irish Urban Studies, vo. 7-9, p. 5-30.

Please reference the published version!

Note: the research was conducted as part of the Urban Environment Project, hosted by UCD Urban Institute Ireland and funded by the Environment Protection Agency. The author’s access to the Census of Population POWCAR dataset was possible by kind permission of the Central Statistics Office.

[1] If mobile workers are assigned to their region of residence, this figure increases to 84.0% for the Dublin Region with a corresponding figure of 81.4% for the Mid-East Region.

Undersupply and Oversupply in the Irish Housing Market: A Closer Look at the Greater Dublin Area

Originally Published on Ireland After NAMA

The NIRSA Working Paper, A Haunted Landscape’ provides an analysis of the current situation of oversupply in the Irish housing market, focussing in particular on the uneven geography of housing development and so-called ghost estates as a very visible and tangible manifestation of the housing crisis.

Ronan Webster of CB Richard Ellis, speaking at the Irish Planning Institute Autumn Conference last week characterised recent trends in housing development in Ireland in terms of a shift from a perception of undersupply to a perception of oversupply. Indeed the Bacon reports of the late 1990s and much official and academic commentary since have pointed to a situation of very significant undersupply in the Dublin Region in particular. It has been widely argued that the undersupply in the Dublin market has contributed to the displacement of urban-generated residential development to the Mid-East region and further afield in ‘Outer Leinster’ (see Society of Chartered Surveyors Housing Study).  A Haunted Landscape, in the contrast, finds that residential development in Dublin City and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown (and Cork City) was far in excess of demand, while housing in Fingal, Kildare, Meath, Wicklow and South Dublin was ‘in line with demand’.

Clearly different notions of undersupply (and by inference optimum supply) are at play here. From a social equity or planning policy perspective it is evident that there was an undersupply of suitable residential development in Dublin City and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown. This undersupply coupled with highly inflated and unaffordable prices inevitably contributed to the displacement of housing development beyond the boundaries of the Dublin metropolitan area. The characterisation of the housing situation in Dublin as one of oversupply betrays the influence of reductionist economics thinking but also reflects a spatial blindness. Housing supply in Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown cannot be understood in isolation from the analysis of housing supply in the Mid-East Region and wider Dublin housing and commuter catchment areas.  The high demand for housing in the Mid-East Region and associated unprecedented pace and scale of development over the housing boom period may in large part be understood as the consequence of the undersupply of appropriate (i.e. family friendly and affordable) housing in the Dublin Region. Planning policy as articulated at national, regional and local scales in fact strongly supported the concentration of residential development within the Metropolitan Area of Dublin and the designated development centres in the surrounding hinterland area (see map below). It is the failure of the State (central and local government) to provide the necessary infrastructure, services and regulation to support socially sustainable residential development within the Dublin Region that has led to the perverse situation of reported oversupply in the Dublin City and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown and supply in line with demand in neighbouring Hinterland counties. In order to fully understand the social, economic and political geography of Ireland After NAMA, we need to move away from interpretations of statistical data which serve to reinforce the fallacies of methodological territorialism (see Neil Brenner – New State Spaces…), where counties and other administrative units are understood as distinct spatial entities.

Constructing a geography of flows and functional relationships creates challenges in terms of data gathering and analysis but must be seen as a neccessary step in highlighting the evident deficits in dominant aspatial and terrritorial interpretations.


Regional Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area (2004) Settlement Strategy