The Culture of Spatial Planning

Spatial Planning is often thought of as a technical, highly regulated and institutionalised activity. However, one can also conceive spatial planning as a much more cultural activity. In solving spatial problems and in developing spatial plans, one often needs to bridge the different, partly culturally determined, interests of stakeholders. At the same time also policy regulations and institutionalised procedures usually leave a lot of space for interpretation and for different ways of dealing with the issues at stake. Therefore, one can distinguish many different, personal, local, regional or national styles and cultures of doing spatial planning. Looking spatial planning as a cultural activity might very well contribute to more effective ways of doing spatial planning. For a number of years, I participated in a working group of the Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (ARL) addressing the ‘Cultures of Spatial Planning’.

However, many Spatial Planning scholars are traditionally rather reluctant to take this more cultural perspective. Only under circumstances in which the hitherto ways of doing become less effective anymore, one is willing to look for new culturally informed forms of spatial policy making. Demographic shrinkage in times of austerity are circumstances, which make traditional forms of spatial policy less effective.

A former PhD students of mine, Dr. Marlies Meijer, focused her research on spatial planning under these new circumstances, and investigated what she called ‘more informal’ ways of doing spatial planning. Of course informal ways of policy making, are well known from many countries in the global South, where it sometimes is the only way of getting things done and problems solved under the condition of more or less failing states and failing governance. Traditionally these were practices which some spatial planners in Western countries, such as the Netherlands – as the traditional ‘best practice’ country with respect to spatial planning – looked down at. One might say that this is almost a kind of post-colonial reflex. Under these new circumstances, however, this could radically change. All of the sudden, one could also turn it around, and ask one self, what we in the Netherlands can learn from these informal practices. It is revealing to reflect on this change of perspective, but of course it is also not that black or white, and there are many nuances in between.

In a recently published article, Marlies Meijer and myself address the role of informality in Dutch planning practices.

Click on the abstract to view the full text version.

What the hell are exemplary hermeneutic didactics?

Geography is a broad discipline. Everything in this world has its own spatiality. Geography as THE discipline, which studies the spatiality of these phenomena deals with almost everything you could think of. Geography is also often described as an integrative discipline bringing together what is otherwise often studied in isolation. But then, as a small, though very fine, geography department, how do you teach geography within the limitations of a regular bachelor or master programme? That seems to be a sheer impossibility and thus in sharp contrast to the comprehensive ambitions of our discipline. One just cannot address everything, and certainly not if one also seeks to provide in depth knowledge of it. Time to do so would never be sufficient, and also the expertise of the team of our extremely competent lecturers would be totally overstretched.

How to be selective without being reductive?

For this I coined the term ‘exemplary hermeneutic‘ didactics. This is not a totally new idea, but firmly founded in constructivist and critical thinking learning strategies, going back to the philosophy of John Dewey (Richardson, 2003). It is this same constructivist didactical approach, which also forms the basis of Problem Based Learning (Allen, Donham & Bernhardt, 2011) and the Aalborg didactical model (Barge, 2010). Without going in all the details of these approaches, in short, the exemplary hermeneutical method, focusses on developing the constructive meta-skill, with which students can independently explore new fields of knowledge. This is not done by traditional transfer of existing knowledge on all possible topics but by guiding students in experiencing, analysing and critically assessing an exemplary topic, in a number hermeneutical interpretative steps. It thus does not matter which topics are selected to learn how to construct knowledge about and insights in specific (sub)fields of geography. Maybe the student in their later professional life will never be confronted with the same issue again, and will be confronted with totally different problems, but when they have the analytical skills to disclose these new topics and deepen their knowledge about them.

Applied to the design of a curriculum or a course this implies that in a first step we try to provide a general overview of all the elements, streams of thought, theories, approaches, methods or empirical fields which could be relevant without going in details. In the following steps, we select one specific example, and in a number of hermeneutical steps,  students are challenged to deepen the knowledge and understanding of that specific example. The focus on the analytical meta-skills allows students to deal with other topics themselves and allows to leave certain topics out of the curriculum. In this way setting up a high quality geography curriculum becomes feasible without attempting, the impossible, namely to be fully comprehensive. It allows to have the courage to leave gaps…

See further also my general vision on teaching.

References and further reading

Aktan, S. & Serpil, H. (2018) Didactic in Continental European pedagogy: An analysis of its origins and problems. Uluslararası Eğitim Programları ve Öğretim Dergisi. Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 111-134.

Allen, D. E., Donham, R.S. & Bernhardt, S.A. (2011) Problem-Based Learning. New Directions for Teachings and Learning. Vol. 2011, No. 128, pp. 21-29.

Barge, S. (2010) Principles of problem and project based learning: The Aalborg model. Aalborg University, Aalborg.

Dewey, J. (2004) Democracy and Education. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. Aakar Books, Delhi. But see also:

Reich, K. (2012) Konstruktivistische Didaktik: Das Lehr- und Studienbuch mit Online-Methodenpool. Belz, Weinheim.

Richardson, V. (2003) Constructivist Pedagogy. Teachers College Record. Vol. 105, No. 9, pp. 1626-1640.

Familiarity with the cross border ‘other’

Even in  a seemingly borderless world, differences do not disappear. To cross a border needs more than just getting rid of the physical and institutional barriers at the border. It requires that one is interested in what is offered or what is to be found at the other side of the border, or that there is a real need for that what is available at the other side of the border. Especially in cases where borders have a long tradition, people often seem to have accommodated themselves in these situations, and have no intrinsic needs or interests in exploring the opportunities at the other side of the border, when borders get easier to cross. This dis-interest is sometimes also denoted as a threshold of indifference. Only when this threshold is surpassed cross-border interaction will substantially increase. Of course this subjective threshold can differ from person to person. The one’s with a low threshold will probably also be among the cross-border pioneers, when barriers at the border are torn down. Through their presence and through their cross-border interactions, also for others, as an unintended consequence, the situation slowly but surely changes, and they become more familiar with the border and the cross-border opportunities, and at a certain moment they also surpass that threshold of indifference.

See also: Ernste, H. (2010) Bottom-Up European Integration: How to Cross the Threshold of Indifference? Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie (TESG). Vol. 101, No. 2, pp. 228–235.

Dr. Bianca Szytniewski, successfully defended her PhD-thesis on Dec. 7, 2018, on exactly this topic, focusing on cross-border shopping behaviour.

On the back cover of her book it says: ‘Borderlands can be perceived as sites for encounters with both differences and similarities. When crossing a state border, we move from one state to another, come across different people and cultures, hear different languages, notice different characteristics of our surroundings and submerge in otherness. At the same time we might find out that locals in restaurants or shops speak our language or sell known brands and goods. Our border experiences, local narratives and regional histories colour our perceptions of a borderland and enable us to give meaning to the differences and similarities we encounter. Some of these may be known and expected, but many others can be new and unfamiliar. According to various scholars not only familiarity but also unfamiliarity can encourage cross-border practices. Unfamiliarity resulting from differences in, for instance, culture, landscape or facilities between the two sides of a state border can trigger interest and curiosity, and consequently lead to cross-border mobility. This dissertation further unravels this notion of familiarity and unfamiliarity in relation to encounters with differences and similarities in European borderlands, by offering theoretical reflections on familiarity and unfamiliarity, and examining cross-border mobility, shopping practices in particular, in the Dutch-German, German-Polish and Polish-Ukrainian borderland.’ If you are interested in reading more, click here.