Urban and Regional Strategies: RSA Conference Session

I have been asked to chair one session of three papers at the Regional Studies Association European Conference in May. The session goes under the slightly obtuse title: Shaping and Reshaping Europe 3: Urban and Regional Strategies and Conceptualisations

The papers, (all from English universities) are as follows:

The rise of non-state urban and regional strategies, by  John Harrison, Loughborough University,

Critiquing the contemporary relevance of ‘Assemblages of Power’, by Sarah Ayres, University of Bristol,

Austerity and the new Landscape of Urban Governance, by Gordon MacLeod, Durham University.

Each of the papers are concerned with critical reflections on the politics of contemporary processes of urban and regional strategy-making, and in particular the role of private sector economic actors in processes of collective governance. While Harrison and Ayres focus primarily on new conceptualisations of processes of regional and local governance in the UK, MacLeod takes a broader perspective and makes a plea for a rethinking of established analytical frameworks of urban governance in light of the current experiences of austerity politics in Europe. It promises to be a stimulating, theoretically-rich session with high level of critical debate (provided it is not scheduled for 8:00 am on the final day!).


Note this session now contains just two papers (by (Harrison and Ayres). It will take place on Tuesday (07/05) at 16:30.

Spatial Justice and the Crisis of Regional Development Theories

A Blogpost for the Regional Studies Blog
The 2012 Regional Studies Association Early Career Conference took place on 1st and 2nd November at HafenCity University in Hamburg. The conference under the title of Times of Change: Future Directions in Geography, Urban and Regional Studies examined the implications of the current economic and financial crisis for future of regional studies.  Individual sessions covered a wide range of specific topics including finance, innovation, place branding, resilience and sustainability, territorial inequalities and regional governance.
 RSA ECA Conf Hamburg
Enrique Garcilazo (OECD) , Costis Hadjimichalis and Pedro Marques, Final Plenary Session, RSA Early Career Conference, Hamburg 2nd November 2012.

The conference ended with a provocative final keynote address from Professor Costis Hadjimichalis (Harokopio University, Athens) who argued for the need to evaluate the contemporary crisis from the perspective of urban and regional studies. He highlighted in particular the underlying geography of spatially uneven capitalist development at the root of the current economic and financial crisis in Europe.  His contribution challenged the conference participants to re-examine the politics of mainstream neoliberal economic theory and its spatial implications. He suggested that we need to ask ourselves if we are satisfied with uneven development and social and spatial injustice.

 Prof. Hadjmichalis further claimed that there is an evident crisis of regional economic theory, as many of the models of the pre-crisis period have been found to be wanting. Significantly, however, he argues that there has been a notable silence from the proponents of such models and as yet, the required re-evaluation and critical re-appraisal has still to occur. For the author of this blog post, his talk provided a very important reminder of the need to constantly critically reflect on the silences within our research and the need to address critical questions of uneven development and social and spatial injustice. His talk was in part based on a recent paperpublished in European Urban and Regional Studies.
The  Early Career Conference was attended by 60 early career researchers (mostly PhD students) from 18 countries. Together with the journal Regional Insights and Early Career Grant Scheme, the early career conference is a key element of the RSA’s strategy to support researchers in the early stages of their careers.  Indeed we hope to see papers based on some of the conference presentations in future issues of Regional Insights. The conference was organised by Dr. Tim Heinemann of HafenCity University, Hamburg and Dr. Pedro Marques of Kiel University.

Ireland is not Unique: Learning from the Spanish Housing Crisis

First published on Ireland After Nama

Commentary on the current housing crisis in Ireland has placed significant emphasis on what are often perceived as peculiarly Irish problems of clientelism, cronyism, localism and poor regulation leading to the overextension and subsequent collapse of the property market and a massive oversupply of housing. Comparison with the parallel experience of overinflated housing markets and subsequent collapse in Spain may in this context prove insightful.

The bullet-points summary below is adapted from an article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research published in December 2010– Garcia, M. (2010) The Breakdown of the Spanish Urban Growth Model: Social and Territorial Effects of the Global Crisis.

  • Europeanisation and globalisation led to an average yearly growth rate of GDP of 3.5% between 1994 and 2007;
  • This period of economic boom was accompanied by a high rate of in-migration, with foreign migrants concentrated in Madrid and along the Mediterranean coast, where the labour market was expanding;
  • EU funds supported the modernisation of transportation infrastructure, improving accessibility across the country and reducing disparities between richer and poorer regions;
  • Population increase due to a 1970s housing boom, coupled with high net in-migration, trends of declining average household size and increased disposable incomes,  contributed to a high demand for housing, particularly owner-occupied housing in suburban locations;
  • The housing boom was fuelled by the unprecedented availability of cheap credit from international markets;
  • Optimism combined with fear of future price increases encouraged housing acquisition and led to a rapid rise in the level of private debt;
  • The rate of housing development exceeded the rate of population growth in many Spanish cities throughout the 2001-2008 period;
  • The housing boom was facilitated by government incentives for both developers and house buyers;
  • Second homes and speculative investments accounted for a very significant proportion of the housing market;
  • A segmented housing market developed strengthening social inequalities with problems of affordability for young aspirant home owners in particular;
  • Local and regional administrations actively made land available for development, irrespective of spatial plans, with a view to increasing the local tax base;
  • The level of oversupply in 2010 amounted to approximately 1 million housing units, 600,000 of which are newly constructed;
  • Levels of unemployment in the construction sector are around 30%;

While there are striking similarities, there are key differences in the response to the crisis by government and the banking sector. In particular, Spanish banks have taken an active role in the property market, selling houses at discounted prices and developed innovative mechanisms to restructure the mortgage debt of households whose employment circumstances have deteriorated.

It would appear that there is significant potential for cross-national learning between Ireland and Spain, both in terms of disentangling local, European and global causal factors (in as much as this is possible or useful) and in terms of coming up with solutions and ways forward. We cannot fully understand post-crisis Ireland without an appreciation of similar experiences elsewhere.

Rethinking Planning and Development in Ireland After NAMA

First published on Ireland After Nama

Earlier posts on this blog pointed to the current period of crisis as an opportunity for rethinking accepted ideas, policies and practices in relation to future planning and development in Ireland (for example here and here). The introduction of a new Government with a fresh mandate and (potentially) fresh ideas (see here for a critical perspective!) provides a further opportunity to critically reflect on the role of spatial development policy and practice in the current context.
Understood in its broad sense, spatial planning refers to a state-led interventionist activity that seeks to pursue particular objectives for society through a focus on the diversity and specific qualities of individual places and social and economic relations across space. In contrast to traditional forms of land-use planning, strategic spatial planning claims to provide a focus for the coordination of the spatial impacts of other sectoral policies and public sector investment decision-making processes. In this way the National Spatial Strategy and Regional Planning Guidelines should be expected to inform the proposed new National Development Plan (2012 – 2019) and the decision to progress a new technical university for the Southeast in agreed Programme for Government.

The ‘governance capacity’ of spatial planning strategies is however critically dependent on their capacity to steer the geographical distribution of development and provide a reliable indication of the intensity, quantity and type of development anticipated occurring over the period of the plan. If this capacity is absent then higher level objectives in terms of providing a spatial dimension to sectoral policies will remain aspirational. Unfortunately the record of the past decade indicates that the governance capacity of spatial plans in Ireland, at national, regional and local levels has been rather weak indicating a need to fundamentally rethink some of the basic premises of planning and development thinking in Ireland.

The pointers outlined below are intended as an initial contribution to progressing the debate rethinking planning and development in the current context:

1.    Future planning and development policy and practice needs to make a clear distinction between development in its socioeconomic sense and spatial development. Potential economic benefits in terms of employment generation or commercial rates revenue cannot be the overriding factors in decision-making on spatial development, i.e. the future development of the built and natural environment.

2.    Spatial planning needs to be founded on realistic assessments of projected future growth (or decline) in population, numbers of households, numbers in the labour force and of the economy more generally. Spatial planning decision-making should therefore be needs-based and forward looking, thus reducing the risks of both undersupply and oversupply as we have witnessed recent years.

3.    Spatial planning policy and practice needs to be founded on acceptance that significant areas of the country most likely will not witness significant levels of development or employment creation and may need to plan for continued decline and population loss due to emigration. In this respect, Ireland has much learn from other parts of Europe and in particular parts of eastern Germany, where post-reunification expectations of rapid development have gradually given way to an acceptance of a need to plan for declining population, ‘shrinking cities’ and reduced economic circumstances.

4.    Spatial policy needs to balance normative vision with a pragmatic orientation. The NSS and Regional Planning Guidelines have provided a valuable frame of reference in terms of outlining desirable future spatial development objectives and patterns. The laudable policy goals of balanced regional development and ‘physical consolidation’ of the Dublin metropolitan area need to balanced with an explicit recognition and readjustment of future spatial development prospects in light of the experience of recent development trends. These development trends are well documented and include extensive peri-urban development, ghost estates and a markedly variable performance of Gateway cities.

5.    Spatial strategies should attempt to create a space for shared understanding and agreement among key stakeholders, including political representatives planning professionals, community development and environmental interests. Whether the proposed ‘democratically decided Regional or City Plan’ (Programme for Government, p. 27) with a significantly reduced role for City/County Managers is the best approach to this is of course another question.