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 and the Spatial Separation of Nature and Culture

As sociologists of science such as Bruno Latour (1991) and critical political ecologists have persuasively argued, the separation of nature and culture is an artifact of modern society which does not hold up to closer scrutiny. In a forthcoming workshop paper, I argue that nature protection practices are implicated in the creation and perpetuation of a spatial separation of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ which may hinder the development of adaptive approaches to the management of socio-ecological systems.

I will present the paper (abstract below) at the forthcoming workshop of the German working group on landscape research (Arbeitskreis Landschaftsforschung). The workshop is organised by Kira Gee (University of Liverpool) and Martin Döring (University of Hamburg) and will take place at the Institute of Geography in Hamburg. The workshop focuses on sea, coast and river landscapes and aims to explore theoretical, methological, planning and empirical aspects. (The German title is: Meeres-, Küsten- und Flusslandschaften: Theoretische, methodische, planungspraktische und empirische Zugänge für die Analyse von Wasserlandschaften). My own paper represents the first, conceptual output of my new reseach focus on metageographies and spatial frames in coastal management which will focus empirically on the trialteral Wadden Sea region extending from Esbjerg in Denmark to Den Helder in the Netherlands abd encompassing the North Sea coasts of Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony in northern Germany.

Wadden Sea

Figure: The Wadden Sea, Common Wadden Sea Secretariat (2010) Wadden Sea Plan, p. 57,

The role of culturally embedded metageographies in the socio-spatial compartmentalisation of nature and culture: Insights from the Wadden Sea Region

Cormac Walsh

Our understanding and perception of the social world is underlain by culturally embedded spatial structures or metageographies which help us at an unconscious level to order our knowledge of the world. Research in political geography and spatial planning has pointed to the dominance of state-centric ‘container space’ metageographies in shaping the underlying geography of both the social sciences and planning practice. This paper examines the role of such metageographies in the construction of another form of container space; that of the trilateral Wadden Sea as a bounded space located in front of the dyke-protected coastline. In this context, a sharp spatial distinction has been established between a natural landscape in front of the dykes and a cultural landscape behind the dykes. This distinction, although in practice contested, continues to play a significant role in the institutional-discursive construction of the Wadden Sea Area and Region. The paper argues for greater attention to the ways in which nature and culture become separated in the discursive construction and institutionalisation of landscapes and the role of underlying metageographies in the production and reproduction of the socio-spatial compartmentalisation of nature and culture.

Soft spaces across the Fehmarnbelt: Territorial Re-shaping and Cross-border Region-building

The following abstract was submitted to the Regional Studies Association European Conference: Shape and be Shaped: The Future Dynamics of Regional Development, Tampere, Finland, May 2013:

Soft spaces across the Fehmarnbelt: Territorial Re-shaping and Cross-border Region-building 

This paper examines the role of soft and hard spaces in processes of region-building across the Fehmarn Belt between northern Germany and Denmark. Recent contributions to the spatial planning and new regionalism literatures highlight the role of non-statutory, soft spatialities and unusual geographies in processes of sub-national and transnational regionalisation in Europe. Indeed, the recent promotion of transnational regional spaces in Europe may be interpreted in terms of the emergence of a qualitatively distinct aspirational territoriality based on explicitly European normative objectives and policy aspirations. Territorialist spatial imaginaries, nevertheless, continue to inform the politics underlying processes of soft space strategy-making and governance at multiple scales, potentially undermining their capacity to break of existing state-centric, ‘container space’ metageographies. From a critical perspective, however, transnational soft spaces raise significant accountability and legitimacy issues and highlight the need to reconsider contemporary models of democratic governance and their application in post-national contexts where the traditional, spatial congruence of state, society and economy no longer holds.

According to its promoters, the Fehmarnbelt fixed link, scheduled to be operational from 2021, will provide a critical impulse for cross-border regional development with potential game-changing significance for the economic geography of northern Europe. This expectation and positive interpretation is, however, not shared by all interested parties and critical uncertainties and value judgements regarding environmental costs and the balance between local, regional and European costs and benefits make any objective economic evaluation difficult. At the local level negative impacts are anticipated as other trade and passenger routes become less competitive and potentially cease operation. There are also serious environmental concerns relating to the ecology of the Fehmarnbelt (an important meeting point between the Baltic and North Seas) and the impacts of the proposed transport connections in Northern Germany. Within this context, cross-border cooperation initiatives involving political, administrative and business actors in various constellations are concerned with the development of the ‘mental bridges’ required for the formation of a new cross-border region.

This meta-regional cooperation space, stretching from Hamburg to Copenhagen and Öresund is characterised by a plurality of soft spatial concepts at multiple scales and with variable boundaries, constructed through elements of territorial, scalar, network and place-based geographies. Drawing on the analysis of qualitative interview data and policy documentation, the paper will examine the soft spaces of cross-border cooperation, as one element of a complex spatial governance landscape where territorial and relational, hard and soft forms of space interact in the socio-political construction of the cross-border region at multiple scales. The paper will furthermore critically examine the (post)politics of this transnational regional-building process, and in particular, the pervasive influence of dominant neoliberal discourses of international competitiveness.

The paper is co-authored with Marta Jacuniak-Suda, Frank Othengrafen and Jörg Knieling (all HafenCity University Hamburg) and draws on case study research conducted under the Soft Spaces, Spatial Planning and Territorial Management in Europe research project. It will hopefully be presented under Gateway G: Territorial Politics and Policy, chaired by Gordon Macleod and John Harrison.

Territorial Cohesion and Inter-regional Financial Transfer Payments

A system of  financial transfer payments is employed in the Federal Republic of Germany as a means of compensating for substantial differences in the financial power of the federal states (Länder). For the year 2012, only three federal states, all located in southern Germany were net contributors while the remaining thirteen states were net recipients of funds under this mechanism. Two of the contributor states (Geberländer), Bavaria and Hessen have announced their intention to mount a consitutional challenge, arguing that the receiving states are not doing enough to cut back on public expenditure. This assertion is of course viewed very critically by the other state governments making it a topic of heated debate.


(source: Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk 5.02.2013, Notes: Federal states shaded ‘red’ are receivers of funds under this mechanism whereas those in blue are contributors. Mio = million, Mrd = thousand million – German Milliarden)

This debate raises issues of inter-regional solidarity and unity -what at the European level is referred to as territorial cohesion. Perhaps, not surprisingly, however, the current debate in Germany does not make reference to the concept of territorial cohesion and employs predominantly simplistic state-centric concepts of spatiality in its discourse. The prime minister of Saxony-Anhalt, however, pointed to the methodological territorialism of the current debate, noting that the simple black/white binary of contributing and receiving states obscured the reality of economic flows, which are substantially influenced by cross-boundary commuting flows (in different words, of course).

There has, been signficant debate and policy development within specific academic and policy communities on the role of spatial policy and planning in contributing to territorial cohesion and the German constitutional principle of equality of living conditions. Here, the concept of supra-regional partnerships of responsibility introduced in 2006 is particularly noteworthy. These large-scale cooperation areas,  each cross the boundaries of a number of federal states and are in part an attempt to identify functional partnership areas of cooperative responsibility or solidarity. Indeed, they may be viewed as counterbalance to the previously dominant focus in German spatial policy on metropolitan regions as the motors for economic growth and regional development. John Harrison and Anna Growe provide a detailed English-language account of these specific elements of federal spatial policy in Germany, focussing on the extent to which they embrace relational concepts of place.

German metropolitan regions and to a lesser extent supra-regional partnerships include some financial measures, often in the form of development funds which can support the development of infrastructure or networking capacity development projects. These measures focussed on cooperative regional development and in effect, territorial cohesion, in recent years have tended to play a secondary role, in comparison with the dominant economic profiling and competitiveness agendas of the metropolitan regions.

It is evident that mainstream debates concerning inter-regional financial statements lack spatial nuance and suffer from (federal)state-centric methodological territorialism.  The concept of territorial cohesion, has influenced federal spatial policy but the link with debates and policies regarding imbalances in the economic strength of German regions and federal states and associated compensatory financial transfers, appears to be missing.

Creating a Space for Cooperation: Soft spaces, spatial planning and territorial cooperation on the Island of Ireland

The following abstract was submitted yesterday to the AESOP/ACSP Conference at University College Dublin, which will take place in July:

Creating a Space for Cooperation: Soft spaces, spatial planning and territorial cooperation on the Island of Ireland

Cross-border and multi-jurisdictional institutional contexts present particular challenges for spatial planning and add to the complexity of spatial planning tasks (see Weith 2012). Given the constraints of working beyond the territorial boundaries of a nation-state, processes of spatial planning in transnational contexts often work with soft instruments and a tentative, politically sensitive approach to the representation of cross-border spaces in policy documents (Faludi 2010). This paper demonstrates that spatial strategy-making can, however, play a key role in the process of shaping and reshaping the spatial imaginaries underlying public-policy and thus the framing of government responses to the challenges and opportunities of cross-border cooperation.

 This paper examines the role of soft spaces of cross-border cooperation and spatial planning in evolving processes of spatial governance on and for the island of Ireland.  The concept of soft spaces refers to non-statutory spatialities. They are specific social constructions of space which lie outside the political-administrative boundaries and internal territorial divisions of the nation-state (Allmendinger & Haughton 2010). Processes of strategic spatial planning, working through soft spaces at multiple scales have played a significant role in the renegotiation of the spatial relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the period of relative political stability since the cessation of armed conflict in Northern Ireland in the 1990s (Murray 2004). Drawing on the analysis of qualitative interview data and policy documentation, the paper will examine the role of spatial planning in reconfiguring territorial spatial imaginaries and developing a new policy vocabulary of functional and relational geographies. The paper also highlights the complexity of the spatial governance arrangements in this cross-border context and reflects on the implications of a continued dominance of territorialism among local scale actors (see also Walsh 2012).

The paper will hopefully be presented under Track 10: International Planning, Cross-border and Inter-regional Cooperation, chaired by Andreas Faludi (Delft) and Neema Kudva (Cornell).

The paper draws on case study research conducted under the Soft Spaces, Spatial Planning and Territorial Management in Europe research project, led by Joerg Knieling and Frank Othengrafen at HCU Hamburg. It also, however, builds on previous work conceptual and applied research work conducted at UCD, NIRSA and for ICLRD.