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Strategic spatial planning as the key to guiding the development of urban areas in Europe?

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The numerous urban areas in Europe have, despite all their differ­ences, one thing in common: They are all becoming larger. This apparently unstoppable process is mostly at the cost of natural and semi-natural landscapes. As a consequence, new residential areas are replacing fields and meadows; and new motor­ways, airports and industrial plants are dissecting the habitats of rare plant and animal species, as well as recreational landscapes.

How far is it possible to steer these developments in a positive direction? This is what researchers have been investigating in the research project CONCUR, which was started in the year 2016 and which is financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation through its funding line “Consolidator Grants”. WSL’s landscape researcher, Anna Hersperger, and her international team want to find out how strategic spatial planning is changing Europe’s urban regions. Even though planning is taking place everywhere at local, regional and national levels, we still know little about how strategic spatial planning really affects the spread of residential areas and transport infrastructure. The results of this large project should shed light on the jungle of steering options for urban development in Europe.


The WSL team has investigated during the past two years strategic spatial plans and planning processes in 21 regions between Barcelona and Stockholm and between Vienna and Edinburgh. The researchers interviewed more than one hundred specialists in strategic spatial planning across Europe from research and practice. At the moment, the project team is analysing how the different urban regions approach strategic spatial planning and how well the administrations in particular regions are in a position to implement the plans. On the basis of this comparison, the researchers are developing a generalised understanding about which actors and processes in administration and politics shape strategic spatial planning. In the second half of the five-year project period, the researchers will introduce strategic spatial planning as a factor into a land-use model that takes into account all forms of built, managed and natural uses. Up until now, planning activity has rarely been included in the large-scale modelling of land use, which is so important, for example, for improving worldwide climate models. The researchers will then test the model extensively in three case studies: In the Zurich region, where the political and planning context is similar to that in the 21 regions studied; in a post-communist context, namely, the urban region of Bucharest; and in a US-American context in Austin (Texas). These last two case studies should give clues about the extent to which the model, and specifically the operationalization of strategic spatial planning, can be applied worldwide.


Politics and the administration – or investors

The results of the research project to date indicate, for example, that strategic spatial planning in urban regions is approached differently: In northern and central European cultures, politics and the administration generally develop overall guidelines for a large region together with private actors. In Anglo-Saxon countries, however, it is the investors who have considerable negotiating power in implementing, for example, new housing projects. Where large strategic urban projects, such as a new harbour city or a new housing area, are setting the course of development, new questions arise: How compatible are such projects with the implementation of the overall guidelines? And are large regions with several smaller centres really better suited for sustainable landscape development than mega-centres such as London, Madrid or Paris?

With the basic knowledge arising from the research project about the effects of strategic spatial planning in urban regions, large-scale land-use models can be improved. They can then provide a useful basis for deciding on planning. (Reinhard Lässig, Diagonal 1/18)