Spatial Planning Unbounded: Transboundary Spaces of Environmental Governance

On 19th September I will present a paper at a AESOP Symposium on Transboundary Spaces, Policy Diffusion and Planning Cultures, hosted by the Technical University of Kaiserslautern.

My paper will focus on transboundary spaces of environmental governance and the potential application of spatial planning approaches within this field. I deliberately seek to challenge and provoke spatial planning researchers to think outside the box of the traditional spatial planning field to engage with the emergence of transboundary spaces within the environmental governance field. In this sense, a double unbounding of spatial planning is called for: moving beyond nation-state boundaries, and moving beyond the traditional domain of the planning profession  – urban and regional development. The paper provides an explicit link between my ongoing research interest in strategic spatial planning and soft spaces and my more recent engagement with environmental governance at the Wadden Sea coast. In part the paper draws on a previous conference paper presented at the German Geographers’ Conference in Berlin in September 2015.

The abstract of my paper is reproduced below:


European spatial planning, from the European Spatial Development Perspective (1999) to the Territorial Agenda of the European Union 2020 (2011) constitutes a statement of high-level commitment to the importance of place-based and spatially-sensitive approaches to governance within the European Union. In recent years, however, it appears that the distinctive spatial dimension at the core of territorial cohesion and governance has become increasingly elusive (see Stead 2014). Considerations of spatiality continue to be marginal within mainstream academic debates on multi-level governance and European integration.

At the same time, spatial approaches are coming to the fore in European environmental governance, accompanied by the emergence of transboundary environmental spaces at multiple spatial scales. Prominent examples of the recent spatialisation of EU environmental governance include the deployment of international river basin districts under the Water Framework Directive, biogeographic regions under the Habitats Directive and the adoption of eco-system based approaches to marine spatial planning. Transboundary environmental spaces, however, have a longer history in Europe. International commissions for the protection of the Rhine and Lake Constance date from the 1950s. In practice transboundary environmental spaces constitute complex multiscalar institutional arenas involving the negotiation of territorial and functional, soft and hard constructions of space (cf. Walsh et al 2015). Their boundaries may be understood as the product of political negotiation and the socio-spatial construction of environmental problems at particular scales.

This paper explores the construction of transboundary environmental spaces and their implications for spatial planning and territorial cohesion through a case study of the trilateral Wadden Sea cooperation, an intergovernmental cooperation space, extending from Den Helder in the Netherlands to Esbjerg in Denmark and incorporating the full North Sea coast of Germany. The case study focuses, specifically, on the challenges of negotiating across distinct governance cultures and national framings of society-environment relations and the potential role of processes of spatial strategy-making in the transboundary coordination of spatial development objectives within the Wadden Sea region.

The paper is thus concerned with the environmental dimension of territorial cohesion and the application of strategic approaches to spatial planning and governance within the environmental policy field (EEA 2012). Placing transboundary spaces of environmental governance within the context of a territorial cohesion agenda constitutes a challenge to the mainstream narrative of territorial development and cohesion with its focus on the economic growth and economic competitiveness. The paper calls for a return to the cross-sectoral policy integration ambitions at the root of European spatial planning and a broadening of critical analytical focus within spatial planning to scholarship to adequately respond to the emergence of transboundary governance spaces within the environmental policy field.

Keywords: transboundary, soft spaces, environmental dimension, spatial planning, Wadden Sea.



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:


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?


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]

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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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.