The defects of European spatial planning

Guidelines for spatial development of the whole European Union territory, were first set out in the studies 'Europa 2000' and 'Europa 2000+'. They defined macro-regions - in fact categories, clustering existing national regions under names such as 'Atlantic Regions'. None of these studies was a complete 'plan for Europe'. In fact they all show the first basic defect of 'European' spatial planning. It is a sum of national plans and national scenarios, it is not specifically European at all. The first 'plan for all Europe' was approved by the Council of Europe's planning ministers committee CEMAT, in September 2000 in Hannover.

You can see the existing 'Europe of the Nations' in any atlas: all the roads and railways in France lead to Paris, in England to London. In thousands of less obvious ways, the spatial structure of Europe follows the nation states. The proposed plans are so vague, and so limited, that they do not affect this - if anything they reinforced it. After 'Europe 2000+' came the European Spatial Development Perspective - ESDP, approved at Potsdam in May 1999. All EU spatial plans, can only include goals approved by a committee of the national ministers responsible for spatial planning. The EU has no formal authority, to even discuss these issues, let alone to make a Grand Plan for Europe. (More on this in the article by Andreas Faludi). The CEMAT has no planning authority at all, and its 'Hannover Document' relies on the goodwill of national governments. So this is the first thing a visitor from Mars would notice about European planning: there is no European planning.

The west orientation

A second great problem with the spatial structures in Europe is the Atlantic orientation - only partly a result of the economic dominance of the USA. The Atlantic orientation, at its most extreme, exists in the dreams of Port of Rotterdam planners. Imagine all the production of Europe brought to Rotterdam on a radial net of roads and railways, and exported to China. In return all the consumption of Europe, would arrive on the same infrastructure, from China via Rotterdam. That is the extreme version, but there is a a real infrastructure bias in Europe - to the west, to the Atlantic, to the world via the Atlantic. If a container stands in the main square of a European city, it can be moved to the west easier than to the east, on average. On average faster, and on better roads and railways. This is the pattern if you subtract the effects of national infrastructures.

And this is exactly what does happen in reality, with a container in München or Bratislava, destination Shanghai. It will go via Le Havre, Hamburg, Rotterdam or Antwerpen, perhaps Genova or Marseille. But Shanghai is eastwards, through Rostov, Kazakhstan, Urumchi, Qashqar, and Xi'an.

The logic of the west-orientation is exactly the logic of the German political concept Westbindung. Europeans tend to associate 'West' with free trade, mobility, and global contacts, but it was Adolf Hitler who wanted to build a new railway, from Germany to Rostov. Those historical associations inhibit rational thought about spatial orientation. Any new railway project east from Germany will be associated with Hitler, Lebensraum, continental imperialism, anti-Americanism, closed societies, and totalitarianism. Any new railway westwards will be associated with democracy, internationalism, open society, liberalism and progress. Any spatial plan for eastern Europe, will probably be compared with Nazi planning for the 'Ostgebiete'.

This is a distortion with great consequences. Before '1989' it was cheaper to travel from London to New York, than to Kiev and Rostov. And now, after 1989, it is still the same. The enormous distortion in infrastructure has not been corrected. It is more fundamental and older than the Soviet Union. Between 1600 and 1800, western Europe turned its back to eastern Europe: the 'special relationship' Britain-USA is only an extreme case of a general pattern.

So the lack of land transport links to Asia, is a result of culture, not of economics. It is true that maritime transport is cheaper, but land transport has been faster, since about 1850. There are 5, perhaps 7, major land routes to Asia, but only two railways - the Trans-Siberian and the line through the Djungarian Gate. (A third route from the Fergana Basin to Qashqar, is now planned). High-capacity land transport is an alternative to maritime transport to Asia, but not to the USA. Two very different orientations are possible. A Europe trading by rail with China and India, would be different, from a Europe trading by sea with the United States. However, it would not necessarily be a prison camp.

Liberal fears

The suspicion of eastern spatial alignment is paralleled by the general suspicion of any large-scale planning. The dominant political tradition in Europe, the liberal tradition, is historically anti-utopian. That bias against utopian designs, or any large plan, has been reinforced since the Second World War. The text below illustrates, better than any other I have seen, the liberal worldview - in which 'plan', 'totalitarianism', and 'megalomania' are fundamentally related concepts. It is from a joint French-Russian atlas project (1992-1995), the Atlas de la Russie et des Pays Proches. In this section Vladimir Kolossov, Tatyana Nefedova, and Andrej Trejevich introduce a map of Soviet gigantism and give their 5 selection criteria for the projects shown on it:

Gigantism in Soviet Space

A fundamental trait in the spatial organisation of the USSR was the gigantism of construction projects, of regional economic development programmes for the new regions, or of reconstruction of the older populated regions.

This gigantism can not be explained by the size of the country, but rather by the organisational style of the USSR. An extreme concentration, in all areas of political and economic life, translated into a centralised organisation of production - and ultimately, of territory itself. The task of each new enterprise was seen in terms of the needs of the whole country: its products had to be sufficient for the whole USSR. This logically resulted in the creation of gigantically dimensioned factories and power plants, constructed by mobilising all the resources of the state. Official ideology continuously emphasised the giant projects under construction. Their glorification in the media illustrated the claimed "irresistible advance of Soviet science and technology". Propaganda presented these projects in all their spectacular glory, to the internal Soviet public and to the world outside. They became the heart of the ideological self-image, by which the regime legitimised itself.

In reality, this propensity to gigantism led at first to an extreme concentration of investment: ultimately it absorbed all investment, effectively freezing it....The implementation of these giant projects resulted in a significant extension of the network of settlement, with the accompanying mass migration to regions with harsh climatic conditions. The creation of giant production complexes, in places without sufficient local resources, often necessitated the movement of colossal qualities of raw materials, and caused an accelerated degradation of the environment......


1. completion [of the project] effected a radical change (economic, social, ecological, political) at macroregional, national or even international level

2. The projects in question were among the largest in Europe, or in the world - in terms of size, area, or production capacity.

3. The project is unique in its type, by reason of what is produced, or the objective of the project, or the extreme natural environment.

4. The completed or uncompleted projects are located in areas without any existing infrastructure: their construction is only possible with enormous investments, and intense and rigorous mobilisation of labour and resources - a mobilisation orchestrated across the whole USSR. This includes especially the use of "shock construction brigades". For such projects (for instance the BAM railway) intense propaganda was conducted by the youth organisation of the Communist Party. It was intended to encourage the Komsomols to spend several years of their life working on such a mega-project. And the use of political (and ordinary criminal) prisoners should not be forgotten.

5. the project has been exploited for ideological reasons: used for official propaganda, as proof of the superiority of the socialist regime. This implies it was of a spectacular nature, suited for publicity purposes.

Substitute 'Europe' for USSR here, and you have a good caricature of the probable eurosceptic response, to European-scale planning. The general assumption, in political culture in Europe, is that mega-projects are only construed by autocrats and totalitarian societies. These labels are easily applied to anything that threatens national identity, yet the assumption is completely false in itself. The largest single construction project in history, the US Interstate Highway System, is entirely the result of free-market liberal democracy, anti-Communism, individual choice, and the American Way of Life. However the negative image has political results in Europe. The combination 'euro', 'mega' and 'project' is politically taboo - most politicians would reject any 'euro-mega-project' out of hand, without even knowing what it was.

Non-migration and conservative planning

Another problematic spatial issue is immobility: Europeans are almost as immobile as trees. Despite the European Union, migration rates in Europe are very low. On average only 1,5% of the population in an EU state, is from the other EU states. There is simply no infrastructure for migration, there is no 'EU Bureau for Migration'. Apart from apartments in Brussel and Strasbourg, there is no housing in Europe constructed specifically for EU migrants. And the explanation is simple. Imagine the reaction in a German city to a housing project, with 10,000 units of housing - none of them available to Germans. So there is no migration, because there is no policy of migration. And there is no policy of migration, because that would be political suicide for any national government. So, for the individual, non-migration is a logical choice.

The planning process itself is a problem. Spatial planning in Europe has two characteristics: it is the work of an elite, and this elite has a tendency to reproduce existing spatial structures. The planning elite in Europe - a sum of national planning elites - is inaccessible, over-specialised, and dependent on academic snobbery. There is for instance no critical or radical publication: so far as I know, all planning journals in Europe are mainstream academic publications. The national planning elites tend to come from the most mainstream, culturally conservative, section of the middle class. (And usually only from the national ethnic majority). Planning education is nationally organised, and few students take more than one course in European aspects of planning. There are clear consequences of this: the passive reproduction of existing spatial structure is the worst. Why do planners in the Netherlands endlessly repeat low-density family housing? Because most planning students grew up in such areas, and as planners they reproduce their childhood environment. Similar patterns limit innovation all over Europe.

Europe planning principles

I will try to give some indication of a possible plan for Europe, but certainly not a map with The Euro-Plan - impossible for one individual anyway, because of size and complexity. Instead I suggest some abstract principles.

The distinctions between spatial planning, geopolitics, and the state, should disappear. Spatial planning should facilitate possibilities, and therefore goals should be identified. There should be processes for realising these goals, and a necessary infrastructure for these processes. Readers familiar with political philosophy will recognise these principles as contra-liberal. Less abstractly: this means giving much more choice to people to migrate to areas of their choice - areas in some way prepared for them to live in.

The usual idea is, that a territory first has a state, then a government, then a planning ministry, then a plan. There is no reason not to reverse this order. That would mean that what is now the planning process (typically lasting 3 months to 10 years), would assimilate the state formation process (lasting up to 1500 years). So although the reversal sounds simple, it would fundamentally alter geopolitical structure.

A second principle is that of facilitating possibilities. The inhabitants of Europe are used to living in states with one government, one parliament, one law and one army. The result is, inevitably, one spatial structure, with civil war as the only historical alternative. However, there is no reason to limit possible uses of territory to one national function.

That leads to the third principle: the identification of goals for these territories. The use of territory can be determined by philosophical, political, economic, or technological principles. (This is what liberalism would reject: liberal society is designed to include braking mechanisms, the 'checks and balances' of the US Constitution, for instance).

If a goal has been identified for territory, 'spatial planning' means the allocation of some territory to that goal. This principle leads to a fifth principle, linked to the first principle: some agency should provide the necessary minimum infrastructure to allow this allocation of territory. The absolute minimum is the ability to transport people from one area to another. In practice, most people will not relocate, unless they think the process facilitates their own ideals, or at least that they lose nothing by it. That also implies that the allocated territory must have a level of infrastructure close to the European average, so some agency must guarantee such minimum standards.

I think it would be necessary to provide more 'infrastructure', than just water and sewage. It should be possible to do this, without limiting the territorial possibilities (the second principle). What would be necessary to maximise movement and allocation of territory in Europe? In general, the same basic facilities, which European nation states provide:

Symbolic accessibility should not be underestimated. The first time I was in Berlin, in November 1990, road signs in the east pointed to 'Warszawa' and 'Praha'. The second time, in 1994, Europe had shrunk. German roads apparently went no further than Frankfurt a/d Oder and Dresden. That is a reminder of two things. First, that 'pro-Europe Germany' is a myth. Second, that even the most trivial of the principles proposed here, are outside the realm of the politically acceptable, in any European nation.

So, back to the starting point: the present reality of the Europe of the Nations. If national governments are reluctant even to admit on road signs, that the rest of Europe exists, then they will never produce any spatial plan for Europe. At least, nothing fundamentally different from the status quo.

Print sources

European spatial development perspective: towards balanced and sustainable development of the territory of the EU. (Final discussion at the meeting of ministers responsible for regional/spatial planning of the European Union, Potsdam 10/11 May 1999). Internal draft version, no EU document number.

Ruimtelijke Perspectieven in Europa. (Ruimtelijke Verkenningen 1999) Den Haag: Ministerie van Volkshuisvesting, Ruimtelijke Ordening en Milieubeheer. Recommended: with a historical survey of the predecessors of the ESDP, including Netherlands proposals in the 1950's. It also gives a summary of the spatial models and approaches, in present EU-scale planning.

European spatial development perspective: first official draft. (Informal meeting of ministers responsible for spatial planning of the member states of the European Union, Noordwijk, 9 and 10 June 1997) Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1997. CX-08-97-218-EN-C

Europees Ruimtelijk Ontwikkelings-perspectief: eerste officiële concept (gepresenteerd op de informele bijeenkomst van ministers verantwoordelijk voor ruimtelijke ordening van de lidstaten van de Europese Unie, Noordwijk, Juni 1997) No publication data, probably... Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 1997. CX-08-97-218-NL-C

Europees ruimtelijk ontwikkelingsbeleid op zoek naar evenwicht: een analyse van het EROP-proces. Bas Westerhout (Doctoraalscriptie Planologie, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1998). Recommended: apparently the only detailed source for the internal politics of the ESDP, and the conflicting national planning styles. The history of the ESDP emphasises yet again that the European Union is a union of nation states.

European spatial planning: Informal Council of Spatial Planning Ministers. Leipzig, 21/22 September 1994. Results of the meeting. 1995?. Bundesministerium für Raumordnung, Bauwesen, und Städtebau.

European spatial development policy in Maastricht III? 1997. Andreas Faludi. European Planning Studies, 5 (4), 535-543.

Towards a new European space / Aufbruch zu einem neuen Europäischen Raum / Vers un nouvel espace européen. 1995. ARL. Hannover: Akademie für Raumforschung und Landesplanung.

Perspectives in Europe: exploring options for a European Spatial Policy for North Western Europe. 1991. Verbaan, André et al. Den Haag: Ministerie van Volkshuisvesting, Ruimtelijke Ordening en Milieu.

European Union spatial policy and planning. 1996. R. Williams. London: Chapman.

Euro-megalopolis or Themepark Europe? Scenarios for European spatial development. 1996. Klaus Kunzmann. International Planning Studies, 1 (2), 143-163.

Europa op de plankaart. 1995. Wil Zonneveld, Frank Evers (red.) Den Haag: Nederlands Instituut voor Ruimtelijke Ordening en Volkshuisvesting / NIROV-Europlan.

Europese ruimtelijke ordening : impressies en visies vanuit Vlaanderen en Nederland. 1994. Wil Zonneveld, Frank D'hondt (red.) Den Haag: NIROV.

Europäische Raumentwicklungspolitik : Notwendigkeit einer vertraglichen Verankerung? 1996. Institut für Europäische Integrationsforschung / Helmut Karl, Wilhelm Henrichsmeyer (hrsg.) Bonn: Europa Union Verlag.

An urban ethic of Europa