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Recherche et développement régional durable

Corinne Larrue

Session 3. L'innovation institutionnelle pour le développement régional durable / Needs for social and institutional innovation in relation to spatial planning

Effective spatial planning for sustainability : combining the regulatory and the constructive approaches

Barrie Needham

Texte intégral

  • 1 Professor of Spatial Planning, University of Nijmegen – The Netherlands.

1Note portant sur l’auteur1


2The project SPECTRA (sustainability, development and spatial planning : supported by the EC Environment and Climate RTD Programme) is based upon a premise, which it is useful to make explicit, namely :

spatial form can influence actions in such a way that the outcome (development) is more sustainable or less sustainable

3The following question is : how can we, as society, shape the spatial form in such a way that it helps to achieve those sustainable outcomes  ?

  • 2 A. van Diepen, 2000, Households and their spatial-energetic practices : searching for sustainable (...)

4SPECTRA gives the following answer to this : spatial planning can be used to shape spatial form in the desired way. Or, as Van Diepen put it : 'After all, if urban form can contribute to the availability of opportunities for reducing undesirable and adverse environmental effects, then planning can help to shape a more sustainable society'2. But SPECTRA gave that answer as a hypothesis : is it true  ? You might think, of course it is true : that is what spatial planning is for, by definition ! But we are not naive : we know that in many cases spatial planning has little effect on what happens on the ground. It can be no more than a paper game !

5So in this contribution, I reformulate the question :

how must spatial planning be carried out if it is going to shape spatial form in such a way that it helps to achieve sustainable outcomes  ?

6That is what the project SPECTRA is about. We have not assumed that spatial planning helps to achieve sustainability. We have investigated how spatial planning can be used to achieve sustainability.

7In this contribution I emphasise one of our main findings on this point : combining the regulatory and the constructive approaches. But first the premise.


8The argument is :

  • moving towards sustainability requires changes in many different types of activities (e.g. construction methods, choosing locations, water use, transport, production methods) ;
  • many of the desired changes have consequences for (the spatial disposition of) land use (e.g. development forms which lend themselves to the use of public transport are more sustainable than forms which can be used only with private cars) ;
  • moreover, it is important for sustainability how the various land uses are located relative to each other (e.g. housing next to a nature reserve is less damaging to the ecological qualities of that reserve than intensive agriculture).

9So the conclusion is : what comes on the ground is important for sustainability !


10Let us assume, for the moment, that we know which type of spatial form is most favourable for sustainability. Then we can make spatial plans and spatial policy which show the desired spatial form. So we say, taking examples from the SPECTRA study : there should be no further development in the Laganas Bay (Greece) because it is a breeding ground for sea turtles. Or that the road through the Glen of the Downs (Ireland) should not be widened because this area is ancient woodland. Or that in the sand dunes of Schouwen-West (the Netherlands) agriculture should be stopped and the level of the ground water allowed to rise. Or that polluted soil should be put to good use (as in Drachten, the Netherlands). Making those plans is relatively easy : paper – as the Dutch say – is patient !

11And then  ? The difficulties are well known :

  • many different sectors of the public administration : spatial planning, transport, housing, agriculture, nature protection, etc affect the spatial disposition of land use. It is not just spatial planning which as a sector of public policy influences urban form and land use, but many other sectors as well. And those latter think : why should we be subordinate to spatial planning  ?
  • all these policies and actions (e.g. transport, water, housing) are pursued at different levels of the public administration (e.g. national, regional, local). And each of those various levels of government thinks : why should I let myself be subordinated to another level of government  ?
  • moreover, it is not just government departments of all sorts and at all levels which want to go their own way, but citizens, firms, organisations as well.

12So the conclusion is : spatial planning policies are not enough. They need to be translated into effective actions. And that is difficult !


13We must have the knowledge of the (technical) connections between (the spatial disposition of) land use and sustainability. Otherwise spatial planning is blind ! With that knowledge, it is possible to produce policies which show the spatial form which it is desired to achieve in order to move towards sustainability (e.g. healthy and vibrant city centres). That is, as we have said, relatively easy.

14And now the actions !

15In spatial planning we tend to assume the following relationship between policy and actions : that first we make the policy, then the corresponding actions will follow automatically. For the actions must be in conformity with the policy : that is what we have the whole system of planning permissions for. This is what I call here regulatory planning : a plan is made, and nothing may be built which is not in conformity with the plan. So all actions will necessarily be in conformity with the plan !

16Actually, this is a planning lie (what the Dutch call : 'the big lie'). And we know it : but we still propagate it. We know that in practice it doesn't work like that. All sorts of things happen on the ground that are not allowed in the plan. But we regard these as unfortunate and incidental deviations from the one true path.

17What became apparent during the SPECTRA project is not only that this is a lie, but that it is not a good way of using spatial planning to achieve sustainability. That is, if the approach to spatial planning is : "make a plan (or a policy), and then leave it to others to take the necessary actions, using the plan to ensure that no actions are taken against the policy" ; then the outcome for sustainability is not the best that could have been realised.

18The reason is partly that it is based on a lie, which results in compromises in which no one can be proud and which do not further sustainability. But also, this way of planning is too passive and it produces old and tired results. That explains the often disappointing results found in the SPECTRA study : spatial planning was not realising its potential for sustainability. So we looked, in the SPECTRA research, especially carefully at those case studies where sustainability was being achieved. What was the secret  ?

19What appears to be much better for achieving sustainability is a different approach to the relationship between policy and actions, what I call here constructive planning. Here the role of the planning authority is much more direct. Policy is made in interaction with others, and actions flow out of policy but also influence policy. Spatial planning is not so much making plans, but making things change on the ground.

20(It will be seen that this conclusion fits in with some of the recommendations in the publication 'Regional pathways to sustainability' published by the European Commission, Research Directorate-General/D – Environment and Climate RTD Programme, 2 000. In particular with the recommendations for strengthening programme partnerships and capacity building at the local/regional level.)

21In order to work this out further, we explore in more detail the two approaches to planning just mentioned.


22The approach is :

  • a body of the public administration makes a plan (in the form of a map) or a policy (in the form of a verbal document) about the sort of spatial development which it is desired to achieve in order to move towards sustainability (e.g. compact urban form). This plan/policy can be expressed in several forms, (e.g. no housing in that location, or no housing in that location unless it is at high density, or no housing in that location unless public transport there is first improved) ;
  • no proposed changes (or no proposed major changes) to the spatial form may be carried out without prior permission ;
  • the plan or policy is used as a framework for testing intended changes. Approval is given to the intended change if this satisfies the plan/policy, otherwise it has to be refused.

23In summary, this is making a plan and checking planning applications. It is passive planning, the public administration takes no initiative after it has published the plan.

24The strengths of this approach are :

  • the citizens know where they stand : the plan gives ‘legal certainty’. They can adapt their intentions to the plan/policy, and they know in advance what their chances are of getting approval ;
  • the citizens know also what the relation is between their intentions and other aspects of the land use (e.g. if someone is considering building 100 houses in a particular location because that location is next to a park, then he can expect that the park remains a park and is not changed into an industrial estate) : the plan/policy gives a certain spatial framework for investment decisions ;
  • the plan/policy is (should be) drawn up to take into account of the interactions between the various locations and the various sorts of development (e.g. between the location of housing and the location of workplaces) : that is, it embodies spatial coherence and spatial connections ; these interactions can be important for sustainability ;
  • the plan/policy incorporates ideas about the relationship between spatial form and sustainability : it spreads information about this and can be used as a source of inspiration, it is a means of communication ;
  • the plan/policy can be used to say NO ! This gives the legal possibility of preventing development which is undesirable (e.g. that would be unsustainable). But it can also be used informally as a 'stick behind the door' in order to instigate negotiations.

25The weaknesses of this approach are :

  • knowledge is embodied in the plan in a static way : when the plan/policy is made, the makers cannot know with certainty what at the moment of the planning application is the most sustainable form of development, nor that this will always be the same (technology changes, knowledge changes, every situation is different) ;
  • solutions tend to be generic (uniform) and not location-specific ;
  • there is no stimulus to find better solutions. If you do what is allowed, then you will get planning permission. If you try to do something different, you won't ;
  • there is no interaction beforehand between those who want to take actions and those who made the plan/policy. That interaction could lead to better solutions. Instead, someone works out a proposal, submits it, and it is then checked for admissibility ;
  • it does not stimulate the development of knowledge for better (more sustainable) solutions. Grey solutions are produced grudgingly, or uninspiring compromises arise ;
  • other policy fields do not necessarily allow themselves to be regulated by the spatial planning system.

26The necessary conditions for exploiting the strengths and avoiding the weaknesses of this approach are :

  • very good knowledge of the sort of spatial development that promotes sustainability ;
  • willingness of other policy fields to work with the spatial planning system.

27So the conclusions is : this kind of planning is useful, but limited.


28The approach is :

  • be actively involved in the design and implementation of projects which should contribute to a spatial form that is (more) sustainable ;
  • actively combine the technical and professional knowledge of planners with the knowledge of local actors and the technical / professional knowledge of others involved in the project, in order to find the best solution for that project ;
  • use all available means to get that solution adopted and implemented (e.g. issuing or refusing permits, if necessary changing existing plans and policies – ‘no plan is sacred’, getting people to do what they have promised, getting other policy sectors to act in co-ordination, perhaps even bending the rules) ;

29In summary, this kind of planning is : making things happen

30The strengths of this approach are :

  • it can find a solution which is best adapted to the local circumstances and which incorporates the latest knowledge and knowledge of local conditions ;
  • the chance of implementation / realisation is increased, because the local people and other actors have been actively involved in producing the solution.

31The weaknesses of this approach are :

  • it contains no mechanism for taking account of the links (which are relevant for sustainability) between the one project under consideration and other projects which might come along (e.g. one new housing development might not threaten the viability of a national park, but a number of such developments will). There is therefore the danger of ad hoc decisions ;
  • it gives no certain spatial framework for investment decisions (e.g. you negotiate with a developer about a redeveloping shopping centre in the town centre, that developer agrees on the assumption that no other shopping centre will be built in the town, the next week you negotiate with another developer about a shopping centre on an adjacent site !). That can deter investment ;
  • it gives no legal certainty, the possibility for arbitrary decisions, the possibility for treating some people better than others, conditions for bribery, etc.

32The necessary conditions for exploiting the strengths and avoiding the weaknesses of this approach are :

  • the possibility for instigating negotiations (a stick behind the door). Otherwise people are inclined to take the easy way out and apply tried and tested solutions ;
  • flexibility to be able to deviate from plans, policies, ordinances, etc to the extent that these are in force ;
  • much professional knowledge of 'process architecture' (i.e. designing processes for coming to good solutions) ;
  • much technical and professional knowledge ;
  • a big and continuous input of committed public officials and others : it is labour intensive planning ;
  • planners and politicians with high ambitions and much self-confidence ;
  • good contacts with other (related) policy fields and with other levels of the public administration ;
  • the willingness of those in other (related) policy fields and in other levels of the public administration to work with those in the spatial planning system.

33So the conclusion is : this kind of planning is effective, but demanding.


34It is clear that the regulatory approach is limited. It is clear also that the constructive, pro-active approach cannot work effectively without the possibility of being able to say NO and to instigate negotiation : the regulatory approach gives this possibility. It is clear also that both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. The conclusion is obvious : use a mixture of both. In other words : be pragmatic, use what works !

35But what sort of mixture  ? Each approach has its own necessary requirements if it is to work well. And the presence of those requirements will vary between countries and possibly between locations within one country. The question has to be answered, therefore, by looking for a match between the conditions which are present and the requirements which are necessary. There is no one best 'mixture'.

36For example, if the people who are responsible for operating the spatial planning system do not have good technical knowledge nor are they good at instigating negotiations, then it can be dangerous to rely on the constructive approach : more powerful actors will take advantage of those weaknesses. It might be better to place rely more on the ability to say No (the regulatory approach). Another example : if the law or the administrative practices do not allow effective regulation, then it can be better not to wait but to start negotiations to try to find win-win-solutions. The conclusion is : choose a form of spatial planning which is highly ambitions, committed, professional, and well informed.


37Drachtersvaart and Morra Park, in the municipality of Smallingerland, the Netherlands

38These have become very well known in the Netherlands, but also in other countries, as an example of innovative urban planning which meets many sustainability criteria.

39The projects in outline are as follows.

40Drachtersvaart is a redevelopment area, combining the functions of housing (800 dwellings), employment (300 workplaces), recreation and tourism. At the moment there is a waste disposal site : this is to be excavated and used for building a noise barrier bordering directly on the industrial area. This means that the vacant land within the town can be used for housing, thus preventing urban sprawl into the unbuilt countryside.

41Morra Park is a residential area with about 125 houses in the town of Drachten. It has been designed and developed on what is called the life-cycle philosophy : closed cycles of water and building materials, and use of solar energy.

42One of the working principles is particularly interesting : that a problem is not solved by preventing it from arising (e.g. separating two functions which get in each other's way), but by treating it as a challenge to be solved by a creative solution !

43How did this project come about  ?

44It was not because of regional (provincial) or national policies for sustainability. The most that can be said of these is that they posed no obstacles to this project. And even that is not completely true, for some of the environmental norms (e.g. for water, for the placing of wind turbines) are so strict that they have prevented desirable innovations. And other environmental norms (e.g. for noise) would have got in the way of sustainable solutions, were it not for the fact that the national and provincial governments gave exceptional permission for those rules to be waived ! Moreover, the project included the policy that no tropical hard woods were to be used for building, and this cannot be enforced by law !

45The project came about because of the enthusiasm and hard work of a few people in the municipality. They had a vision, and they worked to make it come about. They did not follow the formal planning procedures, and they obtained permission to break some national environmental norms. They got the involvement of the important local actors : all municipal departments, the local housing corporation, the province, the water board, commercial developers, architects offices, consultants3.

46Laganas Bay, Greece

47This also is a case famous not only in its own country, but abroad as well. Laganas Bay is a breeding place for a type of sea turtle, which breeds there and in very few other places. Tourist development in that bay is threatening the existence of the turtle. This is regarded so seriously that the EU and other international organisations have put pressure on the Greek government to protect the bay from further development. There were even moves, when the Greek government delayed doing this, to get foreign tourists to boycott Greece.

48Finally the protection has been put in place, with a National Sea Park, environmental zoning, and a management agency.

49That is fine, but that is not much more than passively putting into place policy and institutions : in itself, that makes nothing desirable happen. Moreover, it is not even effective in stopping undesirable things from happening : the local pressures to continue and even expand tourist development are strong, and the will locally to enforce the protection with sanctions is weak.

50It is a classic example of regulatory planning, which is being ineffective in moving towards sustainability.

51Could spatial planning there be pursued differently  ? It is arrogant for an outsider to give a definite answer to that : but to an outsider it is striking that the constructive approach outlined above has not yet been followed. It is no use negotiating with the turtles to see if they will choose another breeding ground ! The negotiations have to be with the local interests, looking for the famous 'win-win-situations'.


52The conclusions can be summarised as follows :

  • what is needed are not so much better policies but better actions ;
  • therefore, attention should be paid to changing laws and other rules only insofar as they get in the way of better actions ;
  • do not expect very much from new regulatory procedures (such as stricter EIA's), except when they allow you to stop effectively really damaging changes. (This is a very important conclusion for the EU, for so much EU policy is of this type. A shocking example of the weakness of this type of policy is the EU guidelines on birds and wildlife habitats. The Dutch signed this about 20 years ago : and have ignored it until very recently !) ;
  • attention should instead be paid to ways of making things happen effectively, in the interests of sustainability. These include :
  • the exchange of best practices ;
  • better ‘process architecture’ ;
  • making it possible for the inspired enthusiast to influence others ;
  • experiments in relaxing laws which are so rigid that they prevent innovation.

53The implications for the EU Structural Funds and for related research are :

  • carry out research into the successes and the failures, and try to understand what led to success and what to failure ;
  • investigate the relationship between actions and policies. Where the policies necessary for successful actions  ? ;
  • which processes were followed for designing and implementing actions, and did these lead to successes or to failures  ?


1 Professor of Spatial Planning, University of Nijmegen – The Netherlands.

2 A. van Diepen, 2000, Households and their spatial-energetic practices : searching for sustainable urban forms, Netherlands Geographical Studies, Utrecht.

3 For more information see

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2002

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