Transition towards urban sustainability through socially integrative cities in the EU and in China


1. Purpose(s)

The planning systems and their formal structures vary in different countries. Generally, there is a hierarchy of planning instruments. The governments use spatial planning to manage their spatial development by participating with different stakeholders. Urban development is managed with spatial planning instruments at the local level. Normally, at least two types of planning instruments exist: Most local spatial planning instruments are statutory (formal plans), but they're also a lot of strategic-visionary instruments with informal character (ESPON 2018).

The local planning authority normally is in charge to prepare the formal plans while the municipal council is in charge to adopt them (with some exceptions like Bulgaria or Latvia). The character of the instruments is strategic or framework-setting. Most plans are regulatory. Overall, there is a slight variation in the precise arrangements of instruments all over Europe which reflects the legal and administrative structure of governments, but there are no other significant patterns in the variation of systems (ESPON 2018).

According to Mazza, planning systems fulfil at least four functions (Mazza, 2003, 2004):

  1. strategic function: definition of goals and of policies to achieve them, and the construction of (spatial) frameworks for action

  2. regulative function: steering the land-use with regulations

  3. design function: regarding the definition of policies and projects for spatial development

  4. informative function: production and circulation of information

Formal plans should be seen as a prerequisite for land management, which implements the planning ideas (see regulative function). They usually consist of the graphic land-use plan (with different levels of detail) and corresponding written provisions. A formal plan often defines rules (rights) of spatial development. It steers the spatial strategy and has the ambition to implement projects being conform with this strategy (Rivolin 2008). The formal plan provides a certain structural framework, which provides planning security for the developers and their project plans.

Land use plans, as the most common type of formal plans on municipal level, have different names in various European countries, e.g. master plans in the UK, ‘Bestemmingplans’ in the Netherlands and ‘Bebauungsplan’ in Germany. The content and regulatory options differ between the individual European countries: The Urban Task Force (UK) defines a spatial master plan as a set of proposals for a movement strategy, buildings, spaces and land use. These proposals must be supported by financial, economic and social policy documents. Instructions for the preparation of a master plan are presented clearly and comprehensively by CABE (2004) (Chartered Institute of Housing / Joseph Rowntree Foundation). The Building Code in Germany formulates which claims a binding land-use plan must have to gain a legally binding effect. The ‘Bestemmingsplan’ in the Netherlands is comparable to the German ‘Baubauungsplan’ (Fischer and Foißner 2002; Fürst and Schmidt 2012).


Key Words: Land development, steering instrument, legal spatial planning, planning approaches, Europe

2. Relevance and Impact

Objectives usually included in formal plans reflect the needs of the municipality. These needs include socially integrative land use, protection of the human environment, protection and development of the natural basis of life through sustainable urban and spatial development creation and order of urban development. Furthermore, they can improve social interaction through the structural mix of population groups.  Plans can promote access to services and economic attractiveness.  Moreover, inhabitants have the opportunity to have their say in their future. Box 2 summarizes the main points of formal plans to support socially integrative cities.

The instrument is almost always used in China as well as in European countries. The instrument provides planning security for both the investor and the municipality. In discussions within the project, it became clear that a variety of social aspects can be integrated into formal plans.

Formal plans are an essential prerequisite for land management. The implementation of planning requirements through land management instruments must adhere to the formal plan. Formal plans are often used in combination with other instruments such as urban contracts, land reallocation and development contributions.

The plans assume an enormous (strategic) importance for urban development. Objectives usually included in formal plans reflect the needs of the municipality. These needs include socially integrative land use, protection of the human environment, protection and development of the natural basis of life through sustainable urban and spatial development creation and order of urban development. Formal plans must clarify the added value and convey the message to local decision-makers why a certain challenge like socially integrative land use can be tackled better by means of functional cooperation, despite the costs and political contexts (ESPON 2018).

3. Strenghts

Most spatial planning systems in European countries are structured in several hierarchical levels. Usually, there is a national level, a regional/sub-national level and a municipal level. Often the subordinate planning authorities have to comply with the specifications of the higher level. Nevertheless, the planners at the municipal level have leeway for action and can orient their urban planning according to the needs and concerns of the city.

Strategic planning is often based on national development goals that do not take local conditions into account. Formal plans drawn up at municipal level take the needs of the municipality into consideration, such as urban growth, housing and infrastructure. Formal plans promote the realisation of rational land use according to predefined characteristics, based on the needs of the municipality. If planning has a moderate to strong influence on physical development, there often is a well-established planning system, mature governance processes and relatively stable economic and social conditions in the country (ESPON 2018).

In this case, a formal plan is drawn up by planning authority. The plans support the professional planners in the implementation of the project plans and in promoting and regulating the development of the neighbourhoods. Formal plans, which, as mentioned above, serve the purpose of future urban development, offer planning security and legal protection (Mattsson and Mansberger 2017). It can be advantageous because formal plans provide a framework to ensure that cities are ordered and developed.

Formal plans, with particular emphasis on active planning approaches, can provide a service for socially integrative cities. Through the broad discussion in the planning process and the integration of political will, they support the raising of awareness of the participating actors for the challenges in urban development. This, in combination with other land management instruments proves to be very effective. Formal plans can support the reduction of urban sprawl, balanced land conversion and access to urban land. They can also influence and strengthen (technical and social) innovation in cities and neighbourhoods and support appropriate institutional and urban finance mechanisms.

4. Weaknesses

Planning instruments such as master plans or zoning have proven inflexible in dealing with urban change. The rigid and inflexible formal plan is being replaced by innovative and cooperative strategies such as planning agreements between local stakeholders and negotiable development rights (Brown 2015).

The legally required and additional voluntary participation of citizens in the planning process and the formal plan itself can create potential for conflict. Of course, various stakeholders use the opportunity of citizen participation to voice and promote their interests. Proposals for reviewing sustainability assessments and environmental assessments must also be included. This can sometimes result in long planning periods.

The spatial planning is only an offer for development. If no stakeholder can be found to develop the area according to the planning aims, the development cannot be implemented. Only, if it is comprehensive planning preferably in combination with other land management instruments like an urban contract (in negotiation with the developer), municipal interim purchases or concept awards the implementation can be secured.

5. Good practice examples

Land use plan and zoning plan, Germany

In Germany, both the land use plan (the entire municipal territory) and the zoning plan (individual parts of the municipality) are formal plans by means of the German Building Code. In the zoning plans, the type and extent of building use can be specified as well as the area that may be built over. In addition, the zoning plan provides information on traffic areas. An urban development contract must first be concluded for this purpose. However, the zoning plan may contain provisions on parking spaces (above or below ground), green spaces, public spaces for sports facilities or the height of buildings.

Bestemmingsplan, Netherlands (map

Dutch land-use planning reaches beyond the "passive planning" that is common in most countries. Active planning in the Netherlands means that both citizens and politicians play central roles in the process. The Dutch see active land-use planning as the only way to shape cities and landscapes up to their preference. Citizens want to see politicians invest time, effort and money in planning. The typical approach to land use planning in the Netherlands is referred to as 'planning by projects', where project stakeholders are known and involved from the beginning of the planning process. The plans are created to manage an already planned construction project, while passive planning involves creating a land-use plan to manage the goals of unknown other building projects for an indefinite period of time.

6. Further helpful study material

Further information related to the abovementioned case studies as well as to additional European case is provided in the following documents:

7. References

CAHILL, N. 2018. International Approaches to Land Use, Housing and Urban Development. NESC Secretariat Papers. 14, 1-28.

ESPON. 2018. COMPASS – Comparative Analysis of Territorial Governance and Spatial Planning Systems in Europe. Final Report.

FISCHER, R. and FOIßNER, P. (2002). Raumordnung, Stadtentwicklung und Städtebau in den Niederlanden. STANDORT – _Zeitschrift für angewandte Geographie. 4/2002, 153-158.

FÜRST, D. and SCHMIDT, P.I. (2012). Niederlande: Provinz Zuid-Holland und Metropolregion Rotterdam-Den Haag. In: Vallée, D., ed., Strategische Regionalplanung, Hannover: Verl. d. ARL. 71-85.

MATTSSON, H. and MANSBERGER, R. (2017). Land Governance / Management Systems. A Conceptual Discussion. In: HEPPERLE, E., DIXON-GOUGH, R., MANSBERGER, R., PAULSSON, J., HERNIK, J. and KALBRO, T., eds, Land Ownership and Land Use Development. The Integration of Past, Present, and Future in Spatial Planning and Land management Policies. Zürich: vdf Hochschulverlag, 13-24.

MAZZA, L. (2003) Appunti sul disegno di un sistema di pianificazione, CRU—Critica della razionalita` urbanistica, 14, pp. 51–66.

MAZZA, L. (2004) Piano, progetti, strategie (Milan: Franco Angeli).

RIVOLIN, U. J. 2008. Conforming and Performing Planning Systems in Europe: An Unbearable Cohabitation, Planning, Practice & Research, 23:2, 167-186, DOI: 10.1080/02697450802327081

TRANS-URBAN-EU-CHINA. (2020). Land management instruments for socially integrative urban expansion and urban renewal in China and Europe. D 3.3 Report.

8. Author(s) of the article

Julia Süring