Telling the story of geographic specificities: Inspiring cooperation and exchange

One of the ESPON BRIDGES goals is to create European storylines for each type of geographic specificity, These storylines help us to identify themes and issues of particular relevance for European-level exchanges and they also incorporate existing initiatives and identified good practices.

Storylines generally emphasize the existence of interlinkages between identified issues and challenges. They help us better understand how collective perceptions of common challenges and opportunities are structured around a shared sense of belonging to a geographically specific area. In this sense, those storylines set the scene for integrated territorial approaches at different territorial scales, from transnational to local.

Geographic specificities can be the basis for ‘soft forms of territorial cooperation’, as those that have previously been analysed by the ESPON ACTAREA project. Such cooperation is not limited by spatial delineations of geographically specific areas but includes all actors that can contribute to addressing identified issues. This is illustrated at the macro-regional scale by cooperation areas that extend well beyond the foot of mountainous areas in the case of the EU strategy of the Alpine Space, or coastal regions the case of the EU strategy for the Baltic Sea Region.

These are the key elements of the ‘storylines’ for each of the four types of specificities:

Mountain areas

The key challenge is to improve coordination and multi-level governance. The interdependence between mountain areas and their piedmonts, (e.g. with respect to ecosystem services, water provision, leisure, industrial value chains) require wider coordination of policies. Climate change is a particularly acute challenge in mountain areas, that needs to be approached in coordination with disaster risk reduction and renewable energy policies.

Another key challenge is to improve coordination between EU policies (such as Trans-European Networks) focusing on the main transportation and communication axes, national and regional measures aiming to develop and maintain secondary connections, and ‘soft’ initiatives targeting economic and social development in relation to available infrastructure.


The three key challenges for islands are to overcome disconnections, explore new horizons and strengthen governance. Affordable and sustainable transport services for islands are not adequately offered, particularly in islands where the size of the market is small. This calls for the provision of a Public Service Obligation* which is facilitated in instances where such constraints are identified in national transport policy documents.

New horizons to be explored in islands include the development of niche activities in culture, e-services, food production as well as the attraction of non-seasonal tourism. More generally, promoting more sustainable forms of tourism is a key issue for a number of islands.

In some islands, the strong social ties and community involvement has served as a catalyst for bottom-up initiatives to address such challenges. However, in other islands, particularly the small ones, the excessive proximity between elected representatives, senior officials and stakeholders may induce a degree of clientelism which impedes the proper implementation of policy measures. Improved multilevel territorial governance, also involving the European level, is part of the solution to address these issues.

Sparsely Populated Areas 

People are at the core of the definition of Sparsely Populated Areas, and also of their development opportunities. The key challenge is not the lack of economic opportunities, but the difficulty of organising a socially sustainable future.

Nordic sparsely populated are in this respect different from other sparsely populated areas in other parts of Europe. Sparsity in the Nordics is a regional and transnational phenomenon, with a number of established or emerging highly profitable economic activities and the perspective of acting as an interface between Europe and the Arctic region.

Sparsely populated areas in the rest of Europe can be described as extreme cases of inner peripheries, as characterised by the ESPON PROFECY project, with a particularly high degree of marginalisation from socio-economic development processes, disconnection from modern communication systems (transport and ICT) and a long history of demographic decline. However, in all sparsely populated areas, the revitalization of the urban-rural partnership between regional urban centers and the surrounding resource-based communities is an important factor to overcome their key challenges. 

Coastal areas

Improvement and extension of soft governance as a method to enhance resilience and prosperity is the main challenge for coastal areas. Coordination and soft governance arrangements are even more necessary due to diverging spatial claims. To this end, maritime governance requires governance arrangements that are significantly different from terrestrial governance, and coastal governance needs a framework to build on both. There is a need to provide platforms to develop soft governance arrangements that allow for regional rethinking. Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Maritime Spatial Planning can offer starting points to support new specialization strategies.

Read more about the Territories with Geographical Specificities in the Final report of our ESPON BRIDGES project

*more on Public Service Obligation in ESPON BRIDGES - Draft Final Report - Annex 1 - module reports.pdf page 86