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Spatial Planning and Environmental Governance

Submitted by on 19 Sep 2011 – 10:53One Comment

Spatial Planning and Environmental Governance Claudia Carter and Alister Scott, Birmingham City University

Urbanisation and economic development are key drivers of land use change in Europe.  They depend and impact on the natural environment in direct and indirect ways, yet the planning response tends to consider the built and natural environments separately.  In England and Wales this divide goes back to the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.  This created two planning systems with the twin imperatives of controlling urban development through town and country planning whilst incentivising agricultural and forestry production through resource planning.  This shaped different paradigms, governance systems and cultures which, arguably, have hindered a better understanding of urban-rural dynamics, compounding tensions and contradictions in managing the built and natural environment.  This has led to a certain spatial order of acceptability in built and natural environments which has arguably stifled sustainable development.

Today, boundaries have become blurred between urban and rural land uses and associated socio-economic population characteristics.  New tree planting projects are taking place in (peri-)urban areas, promoted for human health and well-being as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits.  Formal and informal small-scale agricultural and horticultural activities, such as community and guerilla gardening, are sprouting up across public and neglected plots in a drive to encourage urban greening, community action, tackle obesity and reduce food mileage.  Those living in villages and rural towns no longer necessarily work in or provide services for those areas, but are likely to work for employers based in large conglomerations.  Recreational activities may take advantage of the rural settings, but residents’ values, interests and activities may be almost indistinguishable from those residing in sub-urban or city environments.  Zonal planning with its stark boundaries hence appears to have become outdated along definitions and regulations for land-based activities and environmental resources.  In the light of accelerated climate change, loss of biodiversity, pressure on basic resources (water, air quality) and having reached oil peak, policy agendas across Europe are beginning to pay more attention to the significance of better managing environmental resources and the wide range of ecological services.  We can no longer afford to have environmental considerations as an optional add-on but need to embed an environmental consciousness in research, policy and practice.  Consequently, we have reached a point where we need to move away from this historical divide in planning to consider new synergies and interrelationships between the built and natural environments and embrace a more joined-up approach to the environment[1].

Two paradigms that currently shape planning for the built and natural environment are spatial planning and the ecosystem approach respectively.  Spatial planning is often uncritically used as an overarching term for a panoply of planning approaches and applications yet, in theory, represents a transformation from traditional notions of planning driven by land use allocation and design emphasizing control and restraint, towards embracing more proactive and holistic visions involving multi-scalar and multi-sectoral perspectives to deliver positive social, economic and environmental outcomes.  This represents a major culture change in the art of planning and poses key challenges in integrating spatial policy between different sectors and breaking down departmental and organisational barriers.  The emphasis is as much on the networks and connectivity between places and people as on the places themselves.  For example, the concept and application of green infrastructure offers potential for a multi-scalar and multi-sectoral approach to planning.

The ecosystem approach, too, represents a fundamental culture change in the way we value, manage and economically account for environmental resources and ecosystem services.  It is defined by UNCBD (2011) as “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way”.  The transformation involves a move away from species- and site-based conservation to integrated land and water management for the benefit of people and protecting environmental integrity. This requires both scientific/technical and institutional/local knowledge and capacity.  Significantly, much of the ecosystem approach discourse has remarkable similarities with the rhetoric in spatial planning: the importance of holism, long-termism, complexity, thresholds, adaptive management, social inclusion and social learning.  Yet there have been limited attempts to fuse these together.

A more holistic perspective and the vertical and horizontal `rescaling’ of issue agendas dramatically increases the range and number of actors involved and the complexity of policy and delivery processes within new alliances, stakeholder partnerships, and consultative processes.  In addition, decentralization processes and localization goals aim to bring the level of governance closer to citizens.  Yet fundamental tensions and inconsistencies exist between the rhetoric and practice of collective versus individual action and between master plans and grassroots participation (e.g. Allmendinger and Haughton, 2009).  Achieving a balance and facilitating the ideal of communities being able to influence the planning process through participation requires adjusting power relations and scope for negotiation rather than purely consensus-seeking based processes.  Indeed, participation is all too often viewed as an inherent good without wider recognition of the problems of poorly thought through participation processes and outcomes (see e.g. Beierle and Koninsky, 2001).  This raises issues of devising more genuine, innovative and enabling projects that go beyond ‘the usual suspects’ and rhetoric.

Key principles for improving environmental governance thus include:

  • Allow flexibility and innovation in the planning system alongside clear overarching principles to guide sustainable planning and management.
  • Map and understand the relative strengths of connections and movements of resources, goods, services, people and decisions as they affect the area under consideration and its wider context.  Try to understand why certain incompatibilities and tensions might arise.
  • Consider longer time horizons (looking back and forward) and take a more pro-active approach to environmental change.[2]
  • Map and consider the different value positions and interests as part of consultation and deliberation processes within new governance agendas to improve transparency and legitimacy, appropriate to the scale under consideration (may need to be multi-scalar or bespoke to local areas).

References

Allmendinger, P. and Haughton, G. (2009) ‘Soft spaces, fuzzy boundaries, and metagovernance: the new spatial planning in the Thames Gateway’, Environment and Planning A 41: 617-633.

Beierle, T.C. and Konisky, D.M. (2001) ‘What are we gaining from stakeholder involvement? Observations from environmental planning in the Great Lakes’, Environment and Planning C 19(4): 515–527.

Tress, B. and Tress, G. (2003) ‘Scenario visualisation for participatory landscape planning – a study from Denmark’, Landscape and Urban Planning 64(3): 161-178.

UNCBD (2010) Ecosystem Approach [online]; http://www.cbd.int/ecosystem/ [accessed 5 September 2011]


[1] See for example work carried out under the UK-based project ‘Managing Environmental Change at the Rural-Urban Fringe’ (see http://www.bcu.ac.uk/research/-centres-of-excellence/centre-for-environment-and-society/projects/relu and http://twitter.com/#!/reluruf).

[2] For example, using scenario approaches to consider multifunctional landscapes involving both professional and public views to shape desirable future plans (see Tress and Tress, 2003 for their study of multifunctional landscapes in Denmark).