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The Corona crisis from the perspective of European spatial planning

2020-03-19 09:16 by Christian Lüer

The global Corona outbreak is among the most severe health threats – maybe the most severe health threat – European societies had been facing over the last 100 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic (also known as the ‘Spanish flu’). The authors of this short article do not want to exploit the Corona virus for making a case for the Territorial Agenda 2030. Nevertheless, both the spreading of the Corona virus and many policy responses implemented to decelerate the spreading have a strong territorial dimension. Maybe, no policy measure addressing a global challenge in the recent past, had a stronger territorial dimension. Hence, looking at what is currently going in Europe and the world from a spatial perspective is perhaps the only meaningful contribution we can make. The crisis forces us to reflect on many aspects relevant for our daily life, from the opportunities of digitalisation for the world of employment and education to our risk and disaster management systems and the resilience of critical infrastructures. It might hence also offer access points for better understanding the need for a stronger territorial dimension in policy making. The root cause for this need stems from (i) increasing interconnectedness and interdependencies between places as a consequence of globalisation, which leads to (ii) an increasing misalignment between territorial-administrative delineations and spatial impacts of overarching developments, and consequently to (iii) a need for more cooperation and coordination across, between and within places and sector policies.

‘Viruses travel fast’ – increasing interconnectedness and interdependencies between places.

First and foremost, we currently experience how interconnected and interdependent places are from one another in their development perspectives and mutually affect concrete long-term local living conditions. This concerns all scales, from global and transnational to local and neighbourhood. Endogenous processes within a place, e.g. local mobility patterns of inhabitants within a district, and exogenous developments outside this place, e.g. global business travel or supply chains, are highly interwoven and have significant repercussions between places and across the different scales. How people act locally affects the spreading of the virus at regional, national, European and global scale. In a network society, the so-called space of flows, places are defined through their position, function and specialisation within various networks. At European and global scale, major cities can be business (e.g. trade, stock exchange), knowledge (e.g. innovation activities), transport (e.g. aviation, sea transport) or attraction (e.g. tourism, sports, culture, leisure) hubs. Smaller cities and towns can be national and/or regional gateways with a particular focus on accessibility to international transport networks or services of general interest, for example. Nevertheless, not entire cities and towns are such gateways but only certain places within them. This one can see when airports, exhibition centres, trade fairs, sport arenas, universities, schools and day care centres have to shut down and are among the first addressees of policy responses. Here, social interaction – at very different scales – contributes to accelerating the spreading of the virus.

‘Viruses do not care about borders’ – increasing misalignment between political-administrative delineations and spatial impacts of policies and developments.

When public authorities make and implement policies and decisions, they are bound to the respective jurisdiction and its territorial delineations. Only here, they have the competence and are in charge. How competences are divided between government levels is a key characteristic for the internal structure of modern nation states. In contrast to public authorities, the Corona virus does not respect geographical delineations, which also holds true for many other (expected and unexpected) developments and phenomena such as climate change, demographic change or digitalisation. Almost reflexively, people and decision makers call for the nation state. Shutting down national borders and introducing border controls seems to be the obvious way forward. It remains unclear though why this might be more effective than closing borders between neighbouring regions or municipalities within the same country, for example. In this regard, many governments still trust their citizens to be sensible enough and refrain from inland trips, for example. Imposing curfews (e.g. Spain and France) or cordoning off single municipalities (e.g. Austria and Italy) are considered the last resort and are (so far) only implemented in single countries. So, we can conclude that administrative and government systems are rather static and follow well-established routines whereas challenges and threats are more dynamic and move freely. The eventual question therefore is what European, national and sub-national authorities can generally do to overcome this misalignment.

‘Together we are strong’ – increasing need for cooperation and coordination.

Within the given political-administrative context of the EU, there is no way around the EU Member States as the key players. They are in the driver’s seat when it comes to finding responses to tackle transnational, European and global challenges. At the same time, unilateral national responses are no appropriate means for coping with cross-cutting and dynamic threats. Flexible approaches that consider the limitations of clear-cut jurisdictions but also respect territorial delineations and the specific situation in different places are needed. They need to bring together various players from different territories, policy sectors and other societal groups. Such approaches should not be limited to addressing the issue at stake within a certain context or territory (internal dimension) but also need to reach out to other players and places (external dimension). This would allow decision makers to better reflect interdependencies between places and misalignments between the artificial geography of decision making and the actual geography of spatial realities. In the current situation, the external dimension is considered, e.g. when border commuters are still allowed to cross national borders. However, cooperation matters on all scales, not only between nation states. Cooperation and coordination in polycentric networks within a country at national or regional level or in cross-border regions is another relevant element. A more decentralised and polycentric spatial structure implies better access to public services in general, and to health care services in particular. This can also benefit the current situation and help overcome challenges to the health care system brought about by the Corona virus.

In short, we see that especially in times of disruptive challenges, (territorial) cooperation and multilevel governance as advocated in the draft Territorial Agenda 2030 remain important. The common reflexive response to re-orientate to spatial fragmentation and national responses is just second best to finding a joint response to a disruption affecting all of us.

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