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RELOCAL Policy Conference: insights on RELOCAL case studies and territorial development policy.

Petri Kahila and James Scott introduced us to this conference about the RELOCAL project, which consists on empirical analyses of actions related with local development in order to formulate effective solutions for a more cohesive European territory. There is the basic assumption that the local plays an important role in promoting spatial justice and well-being in Europe. Therefore, with the research on these case studies one can assess which aspects related to place-based knowledge and local cohesion have succeeded and which of them have not, as well as identifying future scenarios.

Péter Tackács (DG Regio, Territorial and urban development policy) followed explaining the role of integrated territorial and local development in EU Cohesion policy 2021-2027.

In relation with bottom-up initiatives in urban areas, he mentioned the New Leipzig Charter adopted by EU ministers in November 2020, which defines common principles to achieve the vision of green, just and productive cities. In addition, the Territorial Agenda 2030 adopted by EU ministers in December 2020 underlines the need for both a place-based approach to ensure inclusive and sustainable future for Europe and the cooperation between and across spatial levels. The Commission started to develop a long-term vision for rural areas, which can only be shaped locally.

In this sense, five objectives have been consolidated:

  • A more competitive and smarter Europe
  • A greener, low-carbon and resilient Europe
  • A more connected Europe
  • A more social and inclusive Europe
  • A Europe closer to citizens.

The fifth objective provides flexibility to integrated and bottom-up initiatives to foster economic, social, and environmental sustainability and resilience in all places. In the urban context, this implies two things: to benefit from agglomeration economies and positive spillovers towards the wider functional urban areas and rural areas close to cities, and to support green and digital transition and address negative effects of concentration. In other territorial contexts, it relates to building on the potentials and specific assets of remote rural areas and local communities, and overcoming the negative effects of low density and peripherality.

In addition, this objective involves the consolidation of multi-level governances on all member states. Partnership shall include (among others) regional, local, urban and other public authorities.

In order to accomplish objective nº 5, at least 8% of the ERDF budget should be allocated to sustainable urban development strategies in each MS, and voluntary commitment to support disadvantaged areas. This objective provides flexibility to integrated and bottom-up initiatives to foster economic, social, and environmental sustainability and resilience in all places.


Voices from the RELOCAL researchers

1)Judit Keller and Tünde Virág, from the Center for Economic and Regional Studies (Hungarian Academy of Sciences), presented the case studies of Rotterdam Zuid, György telep and Pata-Rat. The dimensions they analysed were: how and in which ways can the institutional environment provide capacities for local communities to engage in the policies and to build local alliances, and how can collaborative agency and local institutional arrangements start and support local action in order to reframe local issues, connect different logics, bring different actors together and involve in dialog-based relationships with upper tiers of government.

The following chart shows the analysis developed:

The conclusions and lessons obtained from this research are:

  • The commitment of the state to provide an institutional environment that enables local agents with capacities for coalition building is a key factor in the efficiency of place-based interventions.
  • A multi-annual planning for place-based interventions is hard to achieve in institutional environments that do not provide institutional and financial resources for the sustainability of place-based interventions.
  • There are limits of cohesion policy funded place-based initiatives in a multilevel regulatory framework of the EU (within the multi-level governance system of the EU, the effects of domestic institutional constellations can often be stronger than the catalysing role of place-based development).


2)Thomas Borén and Peter Schmitt (Department of Human Geography, University of Stockholm) presented their investigation on the role of knowledge in place-based developments, specifically in relation to networks of deep learning. They started by identifying the following hypothesis: including all relevant actors in local populations, and their knowledge, is part of ‘good governance’. In spite of this, the recurrent problem found is how to mobilize and include these actors and their knowledge.

They proposed that a distinction should be made between local knowledge and place-based knowledge. This way one can differentiate between lived and professional experiences of a place. The researchers also identified the complexity of the local development interventions, as many actors from different backgrounds need to work together towards the same goal. In this sense, the actors are related to each other in networks, where they learn from each other. There is little understanding of the links in these networks.

This investigation was based on 21 development actions and analysed differences in organisation and knowledge flows, as well as compared network solutions.

In terms of mobilising and incorporating local and place-based knowledge, they identified existence or nonexistence of local knowledge and place-base knowledge, and analysed if the actions included or excluded this knowledge.

Involving triggering learning loops, various elements were identified: learning from other places, the role of conventional and digital media, and external expertise (impartial participation).

Finally, their conclusions and policy recommendations involved:

  • The importance of making a careful distinction between local knowledge and place-based knowledge.
  • Networks of deep learning as a normative frame.
  • Networks of deep learning need that leading actors identify ways of mobilisation, cross-fertilisation and the incorporations of local knowledge and place-based knowledge with learning loops. There is a necessity of effectively incorporate place-based knowledge, as many times these interventions do not include channels for correctly incorporating the local actors.


3)Simone Piras and Margaret Currie, from the James Hutton Institute, presented their investigation, which was developed with the application of an innovative methodology. This allows assessing the current and long-term coherence and sustainability of place-based interventions tackling spatial injustice. The tool consists of, on one hand Theory of Change (ToC) and mechanism mapping (in order to analyse the logic of the intervention), and, on the other hand, scenario planning (this is used to analyse the impact of future uncertainty).

An overview of the methodology follows:

This was applied to the case study of the Isle of Lewis.

With this methodology, a more structured design of policy interventions is obtained. It also allows to disentangle the complexity of these policies and to identify strengths and weaknesses of an intervention’s logic. It too serves to analyse very different types of interventions, as well as to compare those interventions across space and time.

Some of the conclusions obtained were:

  • To mitigate territorial disadvantage, spatial justice objectives need to be decoupled from economic growth and efficiency.
  • In disadvantaged neighbourhood, improvements can cause relative injustices between beneficiaries and others, calling for higher-level frameworks on property rights and housing schemes​.
  • In disempowered places, macro-structural deficiencies are thought likely to prove resistant to local, bottom-up initiatives.

The RELOCAL scenarios highlighted a) pessimism about local, bottom-up initiatives, b) a need for integration vertically and horizontally, c) thought needs to be given to the longevity and succession of the actions.


4)Sabine Weck (ILS Dortmund) and Peter Schmitt (Stockholm University) explored the relationship between procedural and distributive justice. They investigated this in 22 RELOCAL case studies.

On one hand, for the assessment of justness of processes, they identified 5  empirically informed categories of local governance processes, such as ​forms of leadership​, forms of coordination​, and transparency​. This allowed the formation of various groups depending on the justness of their processes (just, fairly just, unjust or just as well as unjust processes).

On the other hand, they assess the justness of the outcomes understanding distributive justice in terms of redistribution (material or economic dimension) and recognition (social or cultural dimension). Then new groups are conformed depending on their outcomes: just, fairly just, unjust or just as well as unjust outcome.

Their conclusions and recommendations were:

  • Fair or just processes can make a difference.
  • Some promoters can even fade out some inhibitors and lead to fair outcomes.
  • Embeddedness into supporting multi-level governance arrangements is key to enable systematic learning “from below” in order to put the action on resilient base.
  • Robust mechanisms need to be installed.
  • The decoupling of incidences between procedural and distributive justice need more policy attention instead of focusing on them separately.


Voices from the localities

Various examples of local development projects were presented in this section.

1)Margaret Currie and Annie McKee, researchers at the James Hutton Institute, presented the case study of the Isle of Lewis: de HIE (Highlands and Islands Enterprise) is an agency that works towards the social and economic sustainability of these regions, and specifically this agency works in the area SC (Strengthening Communities). It aims to build capacity within communities offering development trusts and social enterprises grant and loan funding. Also mentoring, networking and strategic planning. On the Isle of Lewis case, the HIE is centred on seeking to purchase land or infrastructures, and applying the Account Management plan which offers financial assistance for community trusts and social enterprises to enable them to become sustainable.

This aimed to analyse the relationship between community land ownership and autonomy, as well as the role of SC in fostering place-based initiatives and new models of local governance, amongst others.
Some key findings indicate that though HIE has led to facilitating community land buy-outs and place-based responses, this does not happen equitably throughout the community.


2)Neil Mackinnon, from the Galson Trust, talked about the Galson Estate case, where, since the 1980s, the community developed a strong buy-out movement, also creating a land management company to purchase land from private ownership. This strategy has strengthened the community, as well as created new relationships with public agencies, and has developed a 20 years strategy centred on well-being, tourism, land use and community cohesion programmes. Its relation with the HIE has evolved towards a less financial relationship and more centred on the exploration of partnership working.

The HIE support has been essential for this empowerment, and the key factors have been the community ownership and the renewable energy income. However, this empowerment has not been homogeneous along the communities (ones found it more difficult than others have). In addition, the relationship with public agencies has become more challenging, this making the expectations on community leaders grow.


3)Finally, the Rabryka project was presented to us by Viktoria Kamuf, a researcher at the Research Institute for Regional and Urban Development in Dortmund. This is an interesting case of youth being fundamental for urban development. The project is located in Görlitz, and it is a centre for youth and culture located on a former industrial area. It organizes many projects, from music festivals and urban gardening to political education and neighbourhood projects. A group of young people who wanted to give local youth a voice and a place founded this space. Thereby, they reacted to spatial injustices, which they observed in town. They actively demanded participation and acknowledgement from local decision-makers. They appropriated the industrial building and used funds from the municipality, the state, the federal state and the EU to create offers for youth across generations, which did not exist in Görlitz beforehand.

Christian and Otto, members of the association Second Attempt, kept explaining the project, as they have been involved in the development of Rabryka. They indicated the importance of, amongst other things, establishing a good, transparent communication with all partners involved. In addition, both the physical area where the project takes place and the financial support they receive must be ‘safe’ for them, as this kind of projects cannot last if any of these dimensions stopped working. In this type of project, in order to uncover the effects of long-term commitment and voluntary work, it is necessary to be able to use free spaces that do not have too many bureaucratic obstacles.

The study of this case shows that these kind of initiatives should be integrated into local and regional networks and strategies, so that it enables long-term success and sustainable development. Informal, non-institutionalised projects play an important role because they mobilise and represent parts of the population that are not reached by traditional political processes.


RELOCAL Policy considerations

Sarolta Németh, from the University of Eastern Finland, opened a time for reflection and debate about some policy considerations developed by the RELOCAL project.

The discussed points, and its relation with the RELOCAL project, were the following:

  • The continuing challenge of territorial disparities and clustering of productivity. RELOCAL proposes the promotion of a greater understanding and appreciation of the role of local assets in economic development, as well as making the opportunity structures for development more accessible to local actors and citizens.
  • The challenge of EU’s legitimacy crisis could be long-term. For this challenge, it is vital the identification of actors that address social needs and help stabilise community cohesion. An integral part of development policies should be the promotion of community building.
  • The need to advance welfare and equity aims under pressures for growth and competitiveness. There is a need of including the role of the local in implementing integrated development policies and combat spatial injustices of a complex nature.
  • The need to recognise the political vicissitudes and vulnerabilities related to place-based development. It is important the informing of actions with realistic assessments of what can be done with which potential resources.​ In this sense it is important the perceptions of procedural openness and transparency at the level of concrete actions, as well as regarding the availability of salient information regarding the action’s potentials and achievements.
  • The existing challenge of matching public interventions with local needs. Some ways of achieving this are the following: 1) delivering place-based knowledge through multi-level governance​, 2) matching scales (bottom-up with top-down and detecting and addressing gaps​), 3) on a national level attention should be paid to structural and cultural specificities, austerity, MS commitment, etc.
  • The need to realise that perceptions and recognition count. Some key factors in this sense are: 1) more need for learning ‘from each other’, 2) vertical dialogues and horizontal platforms. Learning loops are a great opportunity. 3) The benefits of experimentation even at the risk of allowing mistakes or failure.

From the reflection on these themes and challenges, some conclusions were obtained in relation to formal policy:

  1. A holistic policy vision is required.
  2. As said before, in order to mitigate territorial disadvantage, spatial justice objectives need to be decoupled from economic growth and efficiency, particularly in the context of population decline.
  3. Promotion of stable state-level commitments to provide an institutional environment that enables local agency and capacity building.
  4. A source of EU Cohesion Policy innovation would be the provision and mandating of enabling frameworks as a conditionality that target, among others, inclusive implementation and the support of experimental governance modes.


This conference aimed to be a space for dialog, debate and reflection on the matter of local development allowing the direct participation of localities, and to explore on european policy. To sum up, there is a general impression that there is a need for long-term commitment to these local projects, and more attention needs to be paid to their sustainability, but it has been demonstrated that these interventions help to achieve local cohesion and spatial justice, and that fair and just processes are important and make a difference.

In relation to policy, the RELOCAL project relates to the european objective of making Europe closer to citizens, and in order to accomplish this place-based and bottom-up initiatives are vital.

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