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Reclaiming spatial justice in the quest for a resilient future

Author

Laura Galante

Dec 1, 2023

In a world where the future often seems uncertain, how do local communities navigate the complexities of European policies to build a more resilient and equitable tomorrow? This is the intriguing question at the heart of RELOCAL, an EU-funded Horizon 2020 research project that ran between 2016 - 2021.

In efforts to preserve the wellbeing of local communities, anticipating, preparing for, and adapting to economic, social, and environmental challenges and changes is key for civic resilience. In this context, Project RELOCAL wanted to explore the intricate relationship between local needs and European frameworks, aiming to enhance civic resilience through better accessibility and articulation of local demands. Imagine a tapestry of diverse cities and regions, each weaving their unique patterns of spatial justice. RELOCAL wanted to understand the trajectories these communities follow to transform European opportunities into local successes, how future trends could impact these trajectories, and where there could be areas of improvement.

 

“First, we were interested in exploring the concept of spacial justice,” says Petri Kahila, former project coordinator and Institute Director of the University of Eastern Finland. “Secondly, its relationship with cohesion as a key goal of the EU to target disparities across levels of development of various cities and regions.”

 

The consortium was also motivated by the need to concentrate on the challenges and opportunities that local areas face in the context of the globalisation, migration, and climate change. “Spatial justice should lead to fair and equitable distribution of resources and opportunities across different European spaces. We were keen to examine how these two concepts are interconnected and how they can be achieved.”

 

Civic resilience serves a dual role in the context of spatial justice: it not only identifies opportunities for transformative change, but also reveals aspects susceptible to resistance. On one hand, it acts as a response to spatial injustices, with communities mobilising their resources and capabilities to overcome challenges and enhance their living conditions. On the other hand, as communities adopt strategies to bolster their resilience, they may unintentionally reinforce existing power dynamics and inequalities, thus contributing to the very disparities they seek to overcome.

 

“Let’s take the case of the Stockholm Commission,” says Kahila. “It was established to promote sustainable urban development and to decrease social segregation in the city of Stockholm. But some critics stipulated that it had been dominated by elite interests and did not take into account the voices of the marginalised.” It was thus taken as a case study to analyse its effectiveness and areas for further development to overcome these limitations.

 

Through a place-based approach, RELOCAL examined 33 case studies across European regions and cities with specific challenges to be tackled, such as improving governance processes, counteracting isolation and remoteness, and renewing structures, to name a few. Through imagining different futures, and actions they might lead to achieve spatial justice, it further identified plausible changes in spatial justice across various locations for the medium term (2030). This was done through a combination of theory-of-change elements and scenario elaboration, whereby contextual conditions for every case study were identified and scenarios were defined according to different nexuses of change with varying degrees of uncertainty.

 

For example, one of the nexuses identified was ‘demographic changes’, which encompassed two opposing trends related to population dynamics (shrinkage-growth) and population distribution (urban vs. rural). Each nexus then generated four ‘states’, or combinations, which stakeholders were invited to use as a framework to define scenarios for each case study. The megatrend of demographic ageing, for example, has socio-economic implications such as reduced levels of economic activity and an increase in social exclusion, and the necessity to implement necessary policy responses.

 

“The purpose of these scenarios was to explore the complex ways in which spatial justice is influencing and can be influenced by different factors and contexts in various regions. It was also to provide a creative tool for the stakeholders to reflect their current situation and future aspirations,” says Kahila.

 

The project has produced recommendations on improving spatial justice and community wellbeing through place-based initiatives. For effective decision-making in specific regions, Kahila stresses the need for a comprehensive understanding of spatial justice at all levels of governance, not just locally. This requires a robust approach that emphasises participation and collaboration. Establishing various platforms for dialogue is crucial to facilitate this involvement. Some of these initiatives may take up to 10 years to fully realise, underscoring the commitment needed for long-term, sustainable change. Kahila wishes to see a stronger participatory and collaborative approach, not only with the public authorities, but also with civil society organisations, the private sector, academia, and most of all, residents and citizens.

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