Regional Development Concepts and their inherent contradictions

A landscape of wind turbines in the Niederlausitz. In the background, the chimneys of Jänschwalde powerplant

A landscape of wind turbines in the Niederlausitz. In the background, the chimneys of Jänschwalde powerplant

by Ares Kalandides

Every planning process has its own logic, which depends both on the culture it is embedded in and the particularities of the project. Today, I would like to reflect upon a process I have been involved in for the past 15 months or so, which is now coming to a close: a Regional Development Concept (REK) for a part of the Niederlausitz area in northeast Germany. An  interdisciplinary team of almost ten people worked in identifying new development potentials for an area with serious structural issues. After analyzing  several aspects of the region, demography, economy, culture, environment,  the group proposed a strategic development plan to foster growth potentials that included economic, touristic and leisure-oriented activities*.

My aim here is not to give a detailed acount of this work, but to point out several issues that turned out to be serious challenges in the process, hoping that I can share my concerns with others:

The project area on a map of Germany

The project area on a map of Germany

1) One of the most complex issues in most assignments is the relationship between client and consultant. The former employs the latter to fulfill a clearly defined task, in our case, to design an expertise and strategy for the development of a region. Out client in this project was a the common planning authority of the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, who were themselves representing ten different municipalities in the area. During the process, we were in a constant and very fruitful dialogue with the client, exchanging views, deciding about next steps etc. Yet, one of the most difficult tasks turned out to be independecy. How do you stay independent if your pay depends on the client’s satisfaction? If we were to question our client’s work or even if we produced results that were politically problematic for the planning authority, would we jeopardize our consultant fee? There is a relationship of dependency there that deeply questions the posibility of neutrality. By definition, almost every consultant usually confirms the client. The second problem in this relationship is that we had two sets of clients: the ten municipalities and the central planning authority. While the former focussed on their own local and sometimes contradictory projects, the latter’s job was to design in terms of region. This made the participatory process, as it was designed to be from the beginning, particularly challenging. It had to hold the tension between sometime very diverse angles and vested interests.

An articificial lake where coalfields used to be

An articificial lake where coalfields used to be

2) The second issue is more of a conceptual challenge. Exactly what is a spatial project? While working on the different aspects in the area we were constantly reminded by our client that neither economy nor culture could be central issues in our proposal. The argument was that there existed other administrative bodies responsible for them: a ministry of culture and a ministry of the economy. But then exactly how are we supposed to think of space? Purely in terms of physical properties, e.g. distances, landscape, roads etc.? What strange understanding of space is this, that reduces it to its purely physical two dimensions. Space becomes almost equal to a map. The same problematic understanding of space was obvious in the definition of our region. This was arbitrarily cut out of the administrative region (for several practical reasons that I will not get into here) and we were told to look only at that – as if space can be contained inside borders. Looking at the interactions between different areas inside the region was possible, but between the region and outside places (e.g. neighbouring Poland, Berlin or Saxony) impossible. This is an inherent difficulty of regional planning processes that think of growth as purely endogenous, forgetting its strogly relational nature.

A deserted industrial building right on the river Neisse, at the border between Germany and Poland.

A deserted industrial building right on the river Neisse, at the border between Germany and Poland.

3) Finally a third set of problems stems from the ambiguous status of the Regional Development Concept (REK) in the German planning system. An REK belongs to what we call “informal planning”, i.e. those instruments that are not legally binding, but are rather a conceptual framework for future work. This of course questions the power of such a project, so that all the involved communities will be right to ask “so what”? A team of 10 consultants works for 15 months to produce something that remains just a plan? Some have understadably suspected our work of being just an alibi, for the lack of any real investment policy for the area. Several people have aired their dissatisfaction at the large number of plans produced – that in the end all ressemble each other. Behind the dissatisfaction lies a deep fear that the region has been abandoned by official policy. The political mantra now (in a centre-left coalition that governs Brandenburg) shifts away from redistribution and the attempt to eradicate huge regional disparities, towards the idea of “strengthening strengths”, i.e. regions of high performance.

The question for me remains unanswerable: What are we to do as planners? What is our responsibility in this project? Are we legitimizing bad policy-making through our work? I must admit that I don’t have a clue. This short blog entry is just an attempt to air my thoughts and maybe share them with others who are bothered by similar issues.


We had written about the project in two blog entries:

Niederlausitz: from coal mining to water skiing 

Regionalization and Place Identity 

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1 Response to Regional Development Concepts and their inherent contradictions

  1. Pingback: COBRA: Looking for Opportunities in Weak Rural Areas « Places.

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