Found in Translation? Crossing language divides in spatial planning research

A paper I co-authored with Simone Allin of Nottingham Trent University and originally published as a working paper of the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis in Ireland in 2010 has been reproduced in Turkish translation in the journal Planlama, one of the leading urban and regional planning journals in Turkey (thanks to a translation by Dr. Savaş Zafer Şahin of Atilim University).

The paper ‘Strategic Spatial Planning in European City-Regions: Parallel Processes or Divergent Trajectories?‘ drawing on a comparison of the Dublin and Erfurt city-regions called for a grounded, context-sensitive approach to comparative research on spatial planning in Europe, recognising the role of distinct planning cultures but also the need to engage with the different schools of planning thought found in the Anglophone and German language literatures. Indeed a subsquent much revised version of the paper, published as a peer-reviewed article in International Planning Studies, made further specific reference to the challenges of working across language divides. From this perspective, it is fitting that the paper has found its way into a Turkish journal  where it may go on to inform approaches to comparative spatial planning research in a wider context. Coincidently I have also had the pleasure to welcome a Turkish planning professor as a sister-in-law over the Summer, which will undoubtedly help to further my (very limited) knowledge of planning and urban development in this rapidly changing country.

The English-language abstract is reproduced below:

Abstract

Drawing on recent experiences of strategic spatial planning in two city-regions  in Europe, the paper seeks to challenge dominant narratives of the emergence  of strategic spatial planning as a uni-dimensional process of policy  convergence. Recognising a need for fine-grained analysis of practices of  spatial planning in diverse territorial and institutional contexts, the paper presents a framework for contextualised comparative analysis, identifying multiple levels of differentiation. The application of this comparative framework is subsequently illustrated with reference to the two city-regions of  Dublin and Erfurt. The paper concludes with an outline of an agenda for further research.

The Turkish title is Avrupa Kent-Bölgelerinde Stratejik Mekânsal Planlama: Paralel Süreçler mi Farklılaşan Yörüngeler mi?

 

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Sustainable Land Management as a Research Priority

The 2013 Status Conference of the German research programme: Sustainable Land Management (Nachhaltiges Landmanagement) took place between 17th and 19th April in Berlin. The ambitious research programme seeks to develop new innovative approaches to address challenges of sustainable land management in Germany, from an integrated, transdisciplinary approach. It is funded to the tune of approximately €100 million by the Research for Sustainable Development programme (FONA) of the Federal Ministry for Education and Research over the period 2010-2015. Although the conference was internal to the research programme participants numbered approximately 500, representing the full range of funded projects, spanning the physical and social sciences as well as practitioner stakeholders, who play a key role in the transdisciplinary research approach.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the precise meaning of sustainable land management is the subject of significant debate, with multiple disciplinary perspectives and varying stresses on each of the three elements, sustainable, land and management. The objective, however is to develop approaches which are broader than existing practice in the individual disciplines of  land-use planning, property surveying and management, landscape, spatial and environmental planning and directly engage with stakeholder groups.

The research programme itself includes projects based both within Germany and internationally and aims to develop global as well as regional scale perspectives. I was involved, (with Prof. Jörg Knieling, HCU Hamburg) in moderating one session on international perspectives on governance which included papers/presentations from work in Namibia and Brazil as well as northeastern Germany (Session 40 in the official programme here). The international perspectives served to question Eurocentric perspectives concerning ideas of land use and in particular land ownership and highlighted the often complex relationships between customary and statutory legal traditions and practices. The German presentations, brought to light significant contradictions and ‘asymmetries’ in the institutional frameworks governing land-based resource management and protection in Europe. Such asymmetries are found to be particularly pronounced where user groups and stakeholders seek to introduce new sustainable management practices involved closed loop material and energy flows and where ‘use’ and ‘protection’ rationales are combined through multi-functional approaches.

Directly following this session, we delivered an interactive discussion section focussed on the topic of sustainable energy planning at the regional scale, provocatively asking the question of whether energy planning should be considered a task of spatial planning or a form of sectoral planning. A presentation on selected international approaches to sustainable land management (which we are sub-contracted to prepare an ‘expertise’ on) with potential relevance to the question of energy planning provided the key input to the discussion. From this international review it was clear that there are no ‘golden bullets’ and that governance and management approaches need to be developed within the context of the specific region in question, with regard to actor constellations, power relations, knowledge resources and framework conditions set at other scales. Of course this is what the research programme is in a sense trying to achieve with its transdisciplinary integrated approach. It will be very interesting to continue to follow the progress of the research programme and see what lessons are learned regarding both sustainable land management and transdisciplinary approaches to research. At some point it may be fruitful to compare the approach developed here to other experiences of practitioner involvement in applied research programmes, whether within Germany or elsewhere in Europe. Priority 2 projects under ESPON (2007-2013 Programme) come to mind as well as the vast and varied experience amassed under INTERREG to date.

The current proposals regarding the introduction of a planning regulator in Ireland have the potential, as Gavin Daly suggests to insert a much need level of oversight into the Irish planning system which has been missing to date (notwithstanding the signficant role of An Bord Pleanala as a national appeals body). The question of the relationships between the proposed regulator and existing institutional structures are critically important. Perhaps more fundamental, however, are the implications for how we understand the role of local and regional democracy with regard to planning in Ireland. Given past experience, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a tendency to move a away from a local democratic model of planning to a more hierarchical, technocratic one, but it is important that both the positive and negative aspects of this shift in approach are fully considered. See the comments from Cllr Dermot Lacey on this issue here. The possibility for Regional Authorities to have a role in determining key aspects of spatial strategies at this regional level would seem to me to be worth maintaining and enhancing. A key element here is ensuring buy-in from the local and regional levels of governance. Maybe, an explicit acknowledgment and recognition of the contested and political nature of spatial planning is also needed? It may be helpful to consider the reasons why Northern Ireland is putting in place a major process of reform to decentralise planning powers and competences from the national/regional level to the local level.

Ireland after NAMA

Yesterday, Minister Jan O’Sullivan appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to outline her Department’s proposals to legislate for the introduction of a Planning Regulator in 2013. The introduction of an Independent Planning Regulator was a key recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal Report published last year. The Tribunal recommended that the Minister for the Environment’s planning policy enforcement powers be transferred to an Independent Planning Regulator who should also be charged with carrying out investigations into systemic problems in the planning system as well as educational and research functions.

The introduction of an independent Planning Regulator, which the Minister has publicly committed to, does not entail a simple ‘bolt-on’ addition to the planning system. It will profoundly alter and transform the entire way in which planning policy has to-date been implemented in Ireland. It is clear from the text of the Minister’s speech that…

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Unsustainable land management and economic crisis: Insights from Spain

In a previous post, I outlined some key similarities and differences between thecurrent housing crises in Ireland and Spain. Many of the underlying economic and socio-demographic structural factors would indeed appear to be striking similar in both countries. A recent paper by Professor Juan Romero (Inter-university Institute for Local Development and Department of Geography, University of Valencia) and co-authors published in Environment and Planning: C, provides further insights from a new institutionalist political science perspective into the governance failures leading to the speculative property bubble and subsequent crash in Spain.

The authors highlight the importance of ‘informal rules’ in institutional processes related to land management and spatial plannning. Following Ostrom (1998) they refer to a ‘second order collective action dilemma’, where shared expectations of foul play on the part of other actors, influences the behaviour of rational actors to the extent that each individual has something to gain from acting corruptly or turning a blind eye to certain practices. Clear parallels to the Irish case, are of course, evident here.

More concretely, the authors note that the official designation of land as ‘fit for development’ through formal planning processes had immeadiate economic as well as legal implications for the landowners and local and regional property markets. Again the parallels to the Irish case, where specualtion over land-use zoning led to serious corruption are strikingly clear. In both cases, the politics of planning and urban development has been significantly influenced by soft institutional factors which have undermined the capacity for land management processes to effectively serve the public interest.

Academic and policy debates on the causes and consequences of the current economic crisis need to consider the soft institutional aspects which have contributed to serious governance failure in land management at local regional and national scales in Europe. The search for and development of new approaches to sustainable land management furthermore requires a critical, comparative evaluation of the faiures of exsiting governance models. These cases can often prove as insightful as cases of good or best practice!

Ireland is not Unique: Learning from the Spanish Housing Crisis

First published on Ireland After Nama

Commentary on the current housing crisis in Ireland has placed significant emphasis on what are often perceived as peculiarly Irish problems of clientelism, cronyism, localism and poor regulation leading to the overextension and subsequent collapse of the property market and a massive oversupply of housing. Comparison with the parallel experience of overinflated housing markets and subsequent collapse in Spain may in this context prove insightful.

The bullet-points summary below is adapted from an article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research published in December 2010– Garcia, M. (2010) The Breakdown of the Spanish Urban Growth Model: Social and Territorial Effects of the Global Crisis.

  • Europeanisation and globalisation led to an average yearly growth rate of GDP of 3.5% between 1994 and 2007;
  • This period of economic boom was accompanied by a high rate of in-migration, with foreign migrants concentrated in Madrid and along the Mediterranean coast, where the labour market was expanding;
  • EU funds supported the modernisation of transportation infrastructure, improving accessibility across the country and reducing disparities between richer and poorer regions;
  • Population increase due to a 1970s housing boom, coupled with high net in-migration, trends of declining average household size and increased disposable incomes,  contributed to a high demand for housing, particularly owner-occupied housing in suburban locations;
  • The housing boom was fuelled by the unprecedented availability of cheap credit from international markets;
  • Optimism combined with fear of future price increases encouraged housing acquisition and led to a rapid rise in the level of private debt;
  • The rate of housing development exceeded the rate of population growth in many Spanish cities throughout the 2001-2008 period;
  • The housing boom was facilitated by government incentives for both developers and house buyers;
  • Second homes and speculative investments accounted for a very significant proportion of the housing market;
  • A segmented housing market developed strengthening social inequalities with problems of affordability for young aspirant home owners in particular;
  • Local and regional administrations actively made land available for development, irrespective of spatial plans, with a view to increasing the local tax base;
  • The level of oversupply in 2010 amounted to approximately 1 million housing units, 600,000 of which are newly constructed;
  • Levels of unemployment in the construction sector are around 30%;

While there are striking similarities, there are key differences in the response to the crisis by government and the banking sector. In particular, Spanish banks have taken an active role in the property market, selling houses at discounted prices and developed innovative mechanisms to restructure the mortgage debt of households whose employment circumstances have deteriorated.

It would appear that there is significant potential for cross-national learning between Ireland and Spain, both in terms of disentangling local, European and global causal factors (in as much as this is possible or useful) and in terms of coming up with solutions and ways forward. We cannot fully understand post-crisis Ireland without an appreciation of similar experiences elsewhere.