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.

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!