Are European planning systems up to the task to implement the New Urban Agenda?

by Frank D’hondt, ISOCARP Ambassador
* pictures taken during the Delft session by Daniel Radai

European cities are in general well planned and developed, at least compared to many other cities outside Europe. Many popular planning models and concepts stem from European planners and cities, such as Athens, Rome, Venice, Paris, London, Barcelona and Randstad Holland. Britain, as the first country seeing its centuries-old cities and towns being rapidly transformed by an unprecedented industrialisation and urbanisation, was one of the first countries to introduce housing and planning legislation, as well planning education – all resulting in a strong planning culture and planning community – e.g. the Royal Town Planning Institute with its 23,000 certified planning members.

With industrialisation and urbanisation spreading all over Europe, many other countries and cities developed strong governance and planning systems, albeit heavily impacted by wars and ideological fights between political left and right, as was the case in e.g. Belgium, but much less in its neighbour the Netherlands, where the collective struggle against the inundation threats of the North Sea vested strong powers in public authorities to regulate land and housing markets for the sake of safety and resilience. This resulted in one of the best developed ‘top-down-bottom-up’ planning systems and one of the strongest planning cultures with world-wide renowned planning schools and experts.

As ISOCARP ambassador it was my pleasure and honour to engage in a series of planning professional discussions on the implementation of the new Urban Agenda, with lectures and workshops throughout the world and Europe in particular during the first weeks of 2017.

Initiated by the Chair of Spatial Planning and Strategy of the Delft University of Technology, one of the many respected planning schools in The Netherlands, a debate was organised on 17 January to discuss the Handbook that I am currently drafting to localise the International Guidelines on Urban and Territorial Planning; and whether the Dutch planning system and practice is up-to-task to co-implement the Sustainable Development Agenda, the Climate accord and the New Urban Agenda with the related UN-Habitat Planning Guidelines. Not claiming any scientific justification or representative consultation, the overall feedback from the participating Dutch planning professionals was that the Dutch planning system would probably fail the ‘sustainable planning’ stress-test, both in theory and in practice. Initiated by the Flemish Planners Association (VRP), a similar feedback came out of a debate with Belgian planners in the European capital of Brussels on 24 January, despite the incremental powers and interest for planning vested in the three Belgian regions and its cities. Planners in both parts of the Low Countries vowed to hold their national and local governments accountable for their (tacit) endorsement of the SDGs and NUA.

A third European encounter of similar nature, accompanied by ISOCARP colleague Sebastien Goethals, took place in the Greek capital of Athens – not only the cradle of modern democracy but also of urban planning and public placemaking – e.g. Hippodamus’ design for the port city of Piraeus in the 5th century BC. Organised by the Horokopiou Athens University on 27 January, the debate on the New Urban Agenda, the related Guidelines and the New Urban Mobility approach in particular revealed the need for entirely new planning agencies and capacities at both city-wide and metropolitan level. The Olympic Games (2004) and related big infrastructure projects have largely failed to put Athens on a more sustainable and economic shock/stress resilient path, partially due to the lack of integrated strategic planning approach and leadership. As a result of the debate, the City of Athens will engage in an ISOCARP policy workshop to review and reform outdated planning approaches and practices, with the guidelines as international benchmark. Watch out for a first announcement soon!

While these anecdotal examples cannot speak for the rest of Europe, it can be assumed that reflective planning audits will likely reveal some or many deficiencies in current European planning systems – both in terms of (legal) obstacles and (institutional) shortcomings – to deliver more compact, better integrated, more inclusive, better connected and more climate and hazards resilient cities and territories as a well-balanced European system of cities connecting and integrating peripheral regions with the core and spine. This thesis can be supported by ISOCARP’s ‘International Manual of Planning Practice’ and some related studies on European planning systems, including the 1997 EU Compendium on Spatial Planning Systems [1]. A recent TU-Delft doctoral script by Jan Vogelij – ex-president of the European Council of Spatial Planners, concluded – based on five European planning cases – that there is a need to shift from static and rigid governmental planning systems to more responsive and co-productive territorial planning and governance [2]. The ongoing ESPON [3] project ‘Compass’ [4] will describe and explain changes in territorial governance and spatial planning systems across the European Union since 2000, and the cause of these changes with particular reference to EU directives and policies – including the European New Urban Agenda. The study will identify good practices for the cross-fertilisation of spatial and territorial development policies with EU Cohesion Policy. Its final report is due for June 2018.

A RTPI-report, Planning as ‘market maker’: How planning is used to stimulate development in Germany, France and The Netherlands, illustrates that only strong planning institutions, where planning professionals are well resourced, empowered, and both culturally and societally supported can routinely deliver expected development outcomes for places. While in the UK planning is often held accountable for poor or limited development outcomes. Taking a wider international perspective on the possibility of outcomes enhancing economic performance through the creation of great places, more – but different – planning may be required, rather than less planning.

The bottom line is that European planning systems not only hugely differ from each other, but most countries struggle to integrate and coordinate the different components of their planning systems to produce outputs and outcomes in line with their respective overall planning objectives and more specific development policies, let alone with common EU objectives and policies.


[1] This study provides an interesting comparison between the European planning systems, however did not assess the systems against an international benchmark such as the NUA or IG-UTP.
[2] ‘Effective strategy making: co-designing scenarios as a tool for effective strategic planning’, J. Vogelij, Architecture and the Built Environment, #07, 2015
[3] ESPON: European Spatial Planning Observatory Network
[4] Compass: Comparative Analysis of Territorial Governance and Spatial Planning Systems in Europe, Applied Research 2016-2018

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar