Essays in strategic spatial planning and governance in Ireland’s city – regions

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Brady, William M.
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University College Cork
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The aim of this PhD project is to develop an understanding of how strategic spatial planning is expressed and delivered as a specific mode of governance, in response to the particular challenges facing Europe’s second-tier cities. It is concerned with how planning, as a particular form of public policy and a form of governance-in-action, materialises at certain spatial scales and how it is influencing patterns of territorial development. In addition, the research interrogates the ways in which planning practice applies its basic principles through planning policy, decision making, and by exploring the normative basis of the profession’s activities. The connecting theme relates to an interest in how planning is governed, how it is expressed as a specific mode of governance in urban settings and how decision-making around planning projects navigates through a variety of social, political and economic filters. These phenomena are explored in this thesis using a series of thematic empirical pieces, which relate broadly to the field of strategic spatial planning at city-region/metropolitan level. The PhD is presented as a series of discrete articles, submitted under University regulations as a publication-based thesis. These essays are concerned primarily with developing insights into the nature of contemporary strategic spatial planning and place-making as a mode of governance. The empirical work, which uses episodes of strategic spatial planning in Ireland and Cork as a master case study framework, addresses four core themes. Firstly, it confronts the issue of central-local dynamics as part of strategic spatial planning at the national scale, using the experiences of Ireland’s second-tier cities as part of the national spatial planning agenda. Secondly, it is concerned with understanding how strategic spatial planning frames policy and practice for metropolitan areas and the way in which it operates as a framework for articulating urban governance strategies. The third theme explores the transformative capacity of strategic spatial planning as an instrument for the promotion of sustainable development practices. The fourth theme addresses methodological concerns around the particular challenges associated with scholarly inquiry within the realm of strategic spatial planning. The thesis outlines four sets of main findings relating to the core themes, which in different ways characterise the nature of change in strategic spatial planning in Ireland. First, there has been an important shift towards place-based approaches under Ireland’s national planning regime, whereby the city/metropolitan region emerges as a spatial unit with the potential to integrate a variety of spatial and sectoral policy strands. This however has not created new territorial governance patterns or a rescaling of power within the state and around city-regions. Although the case of Cork presents a case whereby strategic spatial planning has emerged as a clearly recognisable form of territorial management with distinctive governance dimensions, this proves to be an exceptional case. The move towards placed-based spatial strategies in Ireland has been limited to new frames of reference rather than new forms of governance, and place-based spatial strategies largely emerged within the soft spaces of governance. The research has established an absence of clarity about governance needs at the city-region and metropolitan scales, particularly at the second-tier city level. Second, the analysis of these episodes of spatial planning illustrates the dynamic nature of governance as part of a rapidly evolving economic and social global order, which is characterised by flexibility, speed and innovation. Conversely, these episodes also illustrate the stability of established institutional and administrative structures and norms, and a degree of resistance to those emerging governance changes - particularly those expressed at the regional and metropolitan scales. In the absence of strong sub-regional or metropolitan governance structures, the rollout of spatial strategies at this scale in Ireland’s second-tier cities was generally fragmentary and the kind of unified territorial, placed-based approach advocated in the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) never materialised. However, Cork exists as a particular exception in this regard; its experiences reflect a restructuring and rescaling of planning at metropolitan and sub-regional levels, where a mix of top-down and bottom-up forces are combining to produce a semi-formalised, nonstatutory planning regime. Third, the analysis of the post- NSS landscape in Ireland demonstrates clearly the limitations of strategic spatial planning as a transformative framework, with evidence of a divergence of economic and settlement patterns - with long-term sustainability implications. Recent experiences in Ireland’s key gateway cities would suggest that although the ‘soft spaces of governance’ are a necessary feature of the urban decision-making landscape, they are not conducive to making hard decisions. However, the kinds of strategic planning initiatives deployed in Cork certainly resonate with the concept of transformative practice as outlined in the planning literature. The rail strategy, for example, can be interpreted as an attempt to transform completely the economic and environmental trajectory of development in the city-region, using a series of arguments around environmental and social quality based on what can be considered a grand place-making concept. However, such projects are unlikely to acquire socio-spatial transformative characteristics unless established modes of governance are moderated and if public policy considers more actively the political-institutional landscape in which these efforts are situated. Fourth, in the examination of national and sub-regional episodes of strategic spatial planning in Ireland, which evolved over the course of the four essays, it was necessary to adapt and extend the methodological framework. This involved extending the empirical investigations beyond the confines of an instrumentalist perspective, and engaging in a more comprehensive analysis of governance narratives. The research also relied on a mixed conformance-performance analytical mode of inquiry, based on the ‘Dutch model’ of planning assessment. Because of the complex and stratified research terrain, the analysis combined an instrumentalist conformance-based analysis with an assessment of its performance as mode of strategic spatial planning in practice. The evolution of analysis during the research process would suggest that a full understanding of the operation and impact of strategic spatial planning projects cannot be conducted without combining an assessment of both conformance and performance. In conclusion, the case of strategic spatial planning in Ireland and in Cork demonstrates the ways in which strategic spatial planning has penetrated policy and practice discourses, and has served to deliver a comprehensive transformation in planning as a discipline and within the broader arena of public policy. Overall, we can see a remarkable consistency in how planning episodes articulate their basic premise, which relates to an enduring focus on the arrangement of development in territories and with the idea of spatial order. Although there has been a general reluctance to institutionalise planning units like city-regions or metropolitan areas as formal government entities, they are being deployed increasingly as containers for strategic spatial planning. The research has also indicated that long term, coherent strategic spatial planning across administrative boundaries, based on consistent ideas about governing/planning spaces, can produce what may be understood as a metropolitan consciousness. This may be understood as a tacit project around an informal spatial construct, which, over time, gains legitimacy as a strong governance space (in which decisions are brokered) and as a metaphor (for articulating a collective vision for the urban area’s long-term future). Strategic spatial planning also involves dealing with complexity, and as a result, deploys methods that encourage what may be termed spatial-thematic selectivity. This can be translated as the prioritisation of a limited number of high profile interventions that are spatially and sectorally integrative – manifesting in large-scale, geographically expansive and symbolic projects that are designed to reorient territorial trajectories and produce symbolic-political support across broad coalitions. The research would also suggest that in Ireland’s post-economic crisis period, and in a broader neoliberal political setting in which the state appears to have shirked its responsibility for managing and sponsoring urban affairs, we see the emergence of strategic spatial planning as a proxy for urban governance. As formal urban governing competencies are reduced as part of a clear centralisation agenda, and with city-regions assuming greater economic responsibilities, strategic spatial planning becomes an arena in which urban governance capacity is exercised. Consequently, strategic and fundamental decisions about urban development, infrastructure programmes and public investment are increasingly considered within the realm of strategic spatial planning – which performs as a substitute for traditional urban government, and in turn, as a proxy for urban governance.
Spatial planning , Urban governance , Strategic spatial planning , City-regions , Metropolitan governance , Territorial development , National/regional planning , Urban development , Territorial governance , Land use planning , Second-tier cities , Regional development , Urban regeneration
Brady, W. M. 2018. Essays in strategic spatial planning and governance in Ireland’s city – regions. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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