This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 24 October 2011.
The idea of polycentric development has been a cornerstone of European spatial planning for over a decade. But what does it mean? What does it imply for practice? How can we measure it? Is it now past its “sell-by date”?
The European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) that was published in 1999 has been an enduring influence on thinking about spatial planning across Europe. The idea of polycentric development was at the heart of the ESDP. To recap’ polycentricity was the antidote to the dorsale, or less elegantly the “Blue banana”, the 18% of the area of the then 12 EU countries (plus Austria and Switzerland) which in those days produced about half of the EU’s GDP.
The argument was (and remains) that polycentric development could create critical economic mass by combining efforts of smaller urban centres, while also delivering more balanced development between regions and more co-operative and functional urban-rural relations. It was a way of growing “zones of global economic integration” across Europe, and beyond the “pentagon” demarcated by London, Paris, Milan, Munich and Hamburg.
The Territorial Agenda and Cohesion Policy
The case for polycentric development was reiterated as the first priority in the EU’s Territorial Agenda 2020 (TA2020) that was agreed by ministers of the 27 member states in May 2011. It states “We stress that polycentric and balanced territorial development of the EU is key element of achieving territorial cohesion. Where the most developed cities and regions within Europe cooperate as parts of a polycentric pattern they add value and act as centres contributing to the development of their wider regions.” The statement reflects the adoption of territorial cohesion as an area of EU legal competence, which spatial planning is not.
So has the European Commission embraced this notion that polycentric development is a vital stepping stone towards territorial cohesion? The signs are that the Commission is now cool towards the idea. The recent announcement of the framework for EU Cohesion Policy 2014-2020 makes no reference to polycentric urban development. On territorial cohesion it says that there will be a focus on “sustainable urban development” with at least 5% of the ERDF resources earmarked for “integrated actions” (with investment from different programmes) in this field by each Member State. The Commission also promises to launch calls for innovative actions in urban areas. Furthermore, and in line with the paragraph on territorial cohesion in the Lisbon treaty, particular attention is to be given “to areas with specific natural or demographic features, with a specific additional allocation for the outermost regions and sparsely populated areas.”
Thus the strong and highly focused lobbies for support to regions with special geographical or demographic characteristics have won the day, not surprisingly. Similarly, the case for more attention to integration of policies within urban areas has been forcefully made and has a clear logic. Polycentric development, a much more elusive concept, may survive as a rationale in cross-border regions, but more generally seems to have lost political momentum.
A reality check
While polycentricity promises a win/win situation, it is also problematic. Attempts to define the degree of polycenticity of any urban system lead to sterile exercises in demarcating urban hierarchies. Such descriptive league tables, by concentrating on readily available data, can easily miss the importance of network connections to competitiveness to day. Nor are such seemingly esoteric exercises of much help to practitioners or, more crucially, of interest to politicians.
Furthermore, moves towards a more polycentric Europe may well be at the expense of less balance between regions within a country. This trend has been very evident in the strong growth of the capital cities of countries that joined the EU in the last decade. Furthermore, I strongly suspect that the austerity measures being urged across Europe to save the banks (again) will further tip the internal balance within a country in favour of the capital city region.
Last but not least, it is hard to find measures that allow for monitoring of trends towards or away from polycentricity. The broad urban geography inherited from Europe’s past basically determines for the long-term the degree of spread of settlement size and functions. Such “stocks” as population size or employment concentration are easier to measure than the “flows” that should really be the litmus test. In other words, if polycentricity is to be meaningful it must be about the functional linkages between the places, and not just the sum of the activities in the places themselves.
In short, polycentric urban development is not an easy idea to sell to policy makers who are increasingly keen to see measureable outputs that demonstrate the success of Cohesion Funds.
Can polycentricity be rescued?
The prominence given to polycentric development in the TA2020 may sustain the idea at pan-European level. The “catching up” achieved by the countries of central and eastern Europe has been a strong story to tell, and has delivered a more polycentiric Europe, though just how much territorial policy interventions can claim credit is open to debate.
However, for spatial planners the more interesting question is whether the polycentric model can offer new insights into how to deliver regional development? One of its strengths is that it points to the need to overcome traditional governance cultures steeped in inter-urban and urban-rural rivalries. Functional administrative units can help in this respect, but do not guarantee harmony, and may even inflame antagonisms. An alternative is to use the narrative of polycentricity to forge non-statutory actions, like building strategic visions that mobilise a range of stakeholders around the idea of advantages can be gained by working across boundaries.
In spatial development terms, polycentric development will require more focus on development corridors and linkages between urban centres. Transport interchanges are critical in building connectivity, and widening the range of labour markets. But other kind of functional connections need to be looked at – e.g. between centres of higher education, networks of firms’ suppliers and customers, and the scope to regionalise and grow cultural and media activities, or the tourist attractions and facilities that are spread across a number of different towns.
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