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Recherche et développement régional durable

Corinne Larrue

Session 1. Les problématiques du développement regional durable / The key-issues of sustainable regional development

Spatial planning and sustainable development


Jacques Theys

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  • 1 Institut Français de l'Environnement et Centre de prospective, Ministère de l'Equipement, Paris.

1Note portant sur l’auteur1

2First of all, the paper highlights that, in France at least, regional policies are beginning to include serious and concrete measures for sustainable development . This is linked to the fact that regional development policies are now seen as part of an overall policy of sustainable development and that regional development is one of the cornerstones of future sustainable development. Moreover, there is a growing awareness among both scientists and the general public that no activity can go on ignoring the consequences for health or the environment.

3It is within this context of a historical break with the past that a new relationship between regional and sustainable development is emerging. The issues raised by sustainable development at least partly echo the new challenges facing regional development policies. However, this does not constitute an operational concept, and the central issues at the heart of sustainable development do not form a unique and ideal programme which can be prescribed and imitated, but a choice of good practice.

4The paper aims to show that a sufficient framework already exists on which to build effective action for sustainable development, in spite of theoretical gaps, and that this action must come first through institutional innovation and reformed public intervention.

5The dialectic between actions and research is examined through 4 points:

6First, can sustainable development shift the stakes of regional development ? The main virtue of sustainable development is its capacity to raise a number of issues in response to challenges currently confronting regional development policies. Sustainable development legitimises and enables the integration of previously ignored issues (e.g. the environment, risk management, and participatory democracy) into regional policies. It can therefore provide an acceptable framework and common language which allows environment-related objectives to be made compatible, or at least comparable, with safety, democracy, transparency. Sustainable development also enables three traditional issues of regional development to be looked at anew: creating a balance between different land uses (an old topic of regional development), the utilization of space, and the issue of fair spatial distribution and of local governance. Finally, sustainable development brings out three new issues: the patrimonial management of amenities; the interaction between ecological and socio-economic inequalities; and finally integrated regional development and the diversification of means of development.

7The second point concerns the paradox that sustainable development involves a normative principle without norms, or the weakness of current theoretical research in identifying practical normative rules for sustainable regional development.

8Looking at the theoretical knowledge or functional norms currently available to define sustainable development at a regional level, it is evident that this knowledge remains generally poor. It is possible to establish rules for managing resources, and to apply these rules to closed cycle productive systems (industrial ecology). Procedures, instruments and norms are also available for controlling the emission of pollutants, and it is possible to relate urban features to this emission of pollutants or energy consumption. We are also beginning to be able to define rules for regional equity, notably as regards the use of resources or the externalisation of pollution. But the situation remains relatively poor when we look at what remains unknown, or rather what we are not yet able to transform into functional rules. Notions of load capacity, the receiving capacity of the environment, optimal area environmental resilience, together with many concepts concerning urban ecology or environmental planning, the notion of critical capital, i.e. resources which have no substitute but which are indispensable for future development, all remain extremely abstract.

9In view of this limited theoretical base, the third point looks at the question of how public intervention can respond to the issues of sustainable development.

10Integrating sustainable development into regional development policies is first and foremost a question of mobilising actors on a decentralized scale. What is at stake is therefore the collective ability to modernise forms of government action. This involves four types of action: setting up a constitutive legal framework to enable negotiations between those involved to be incorporated into a set of long-term rules; encouraging decentralized development initiatives ; an active policy of institutional innovations in all areas ; and finally focusing the interventions of European States on the serious risks of non-sustainable development.

11This all requires that integrated policies be shared and carried out democratically and at the right level by local authorities, societies and markets, within a context of subsidiarity. By caricaturing the situation we can make a clearer distinction between the “how we live together”, which is the responsibility of the market and decentralized authorities, and the “how we survive together, which is the responsibility of the European level and the States. This of course implies good communication between all these different levels.

12This brings us to the fourth point which concerns the relevant levels of intervention. This question is extremely complicated due to the overlapping of administrative areas and areas of social or economic life, which has led to a proliferation of institutions at every level. Moreover, even those who promote sustainable development disagree over the correct level of decision-making. Three ideas can however be put forward: integrating regional and sustainable development must be carried out first and foremost at the local level for both democratic and efficiency reasons; this local responsibility can only be meaningful if it is based on a minimum of real autonomy, justifying a rebalancing of powers in favour of a limited number of basic authorities, sufficiently large to be able to deal with the problems and find solutions; and finally, this powerful political decentralization must be accompanied by the possibility for regions, States, the European Commission, the European level, to intervene in a subsidiary way to prevent non-sustainable situations. A continuum can therefore be considered to exist between the neighbourhood, the commune, the agglomeration, the area, the region, the environment... Spatial and sectoral horizontality is required between each level. In this context, regions could have a specific role to play, because it is at this level that the economic tools for regional development and physical planning can be reorganized, at least in those countries where the relationship between economic, physical and spatial factors has not as yet been organized.

13But there is still a long way to go. Researchers will have an enormous amount of work to do on all these points, provided of course that they themselves accept the notion of transversality, a multi-level approach, long-term considerations, the role of forecasting and thinking ahead.


1 Institut Français de l'Environnement et Centre de prospective, Ministère de l'Equipement, Paris.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2002

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