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.

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