The effects of territorial governance on urbanization and land-use development

Numerous interventions provide suggestions for promoting sustainable urbanisation and land use, as witnessed by myriad declarations and manifestos on good spatial planning practices: the European Spatial Development Perspective, the Territorial Agenda of the European Union, the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable Cities, and the Charter of European Planning among many others. However, many suggestions are theoretical, rather than based on actual practice.

In order to give an account of the variety of ways in which territorial governance and spatial planning in Europe affect urbanization and land use, the SUPER project carried out a survey on the interventions actually being implemented in 39 European countries. These data were used to compile a database of interventions in Europe that affect, or try to affect, urbanization and land use. A total of 232 interventions were identified and classified according to type (containment, densification), instrument (regulation, strategy), territory/scale, and other dimensions.

The analysis of success and sustainability (see figure below) revealed that they were highly context-dependent: one type of intervention (e.g. a growth boundary) could be successful in one region and unsuccessful somewhere else.

Further investigation discovered over 40 different factors, grouped into 7 categories, that could determine success and sustainability.

Overall, the most commonly cited positive factors are:

  • coordination,
  • collaboration,
  • long-term perspective,
  • reusing resources and
  • inclusion of private partners

while the most negative ones are:

  • market orientation,
  • liberalization,
  • neglecting local context and
  • one-dimensionality

With respect to sustainable land use goals, coordination also topped the list (successful/almost successful). The next factors were different: a long-term perspective, reusing resources, collaboration, the inclusion of private partners and multidimensionality, which fits the aims of sustainability.

Interestingly, centralization and decentralization received an equal number of positive and negative scores, indicating either complete disagreement or that in some contexts centralization is an advantage, but in just as many other contexts it can be a disadvantage.

The information in the database suggests that decentralization (mentioned more frequently than centralization) is sensitive to the local context, circumstances and needs, it provides flexibility and it can increase commitment to achieve sustainable land use goals.

On the other hand, the flexibility achieved by decentralization may be also viewed as a  pathway towards deregulation/liberalization, and in specific political cultures, where little political or institutional support exists for sustainability, it may lead to non-implementation, corruption and generally sacrificing environmental and social goals for economic aims and profit.

The SUPER project did not discover a magic recipe for success. But provided many individual examples of interventions and that can be used as a source of inspiration for policymakers. Examples include a national infill development programme in Luxembourg, permission to add extra floors to existing buildings in Malta, urbanization caps in coastal Spain and fiscal rules in Italy and Estonia.

The analysis also revealed that EU policies can and do have an impact on urbanization and land use. Interestingly, the most relevant policies use softer instruments, while more powerful policy areas in terms of budget (e.g. cohesion policy, common agricultural policy) and legal weight (e.g. environmental and competition policy) have a more indirect effect.

Factors for (un)successful interventions

More Information

  • Authors: David Evers, PBL – Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Netherlands
  • Edited: Nikos Lampropoulos, ESPON Press and Media Activities
  • Header photo: BBSR 2018