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499340

2013
PLT13310.1177/1473095213499340Planning TheoryOlesen

Article

Planning Theory
2014, Vol. 13(3) 288­–303
The neoliberalisation of © The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/1473095213499340
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Kristian Olesen
Aalborg University, Denmark

Abstract
Strategic spatial planning practices have recently taken a neoliberal turn in many northwestern
European countries. This neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning has materialised partly
in governance reforms aiming to reduce or abolish strategic spatial planning at national and
regional scales, and partly through the normalisation of neoliberal discourses in strategic spatial
planning processes. This article analyses the complex relationship, partly of unease and partly
of coevolution, between neoliberalism and strategic spatial planning. Furthermore, this article
discusses the key challenges for strategic spatial planning in the face of neoliberalism and argues
for a need to strengthen strategic spatial planning’s critical dimension.

Keywords
Depoliticisation, neoliberalism, strategic spatial planning

Introduction
Significant attention has been paid to the renewed interest in strategic spatial planning
spreading across Europe from the beginning of the 1990s. So far, this ‘revival of strategic
spatial planning’ (Albrechts, 2004; Healey et al., 1997; Salet and Faludi, 2000) has been
treated rather unproblematically in the planning literature and celebrated among plan-
ning scholars as a welcome opportunity to recover the lost ground of the planning scepti-
cism of the 1980s. Strategic spatial planning has been seen as a new way of transforming
planning practices, effectively breaking away from the neoliberal project–led planning
approaches of the 1980s, and the mid-20th-century welfare state planning based on land-
use regulation (Albrechts, 2004). In the planning literature, neoliberalism has often been
discussed in relation to large-scale urban development projects (Swyngedouw et al.,
2002) and more recently planning roles (Sager, 2005, 2009; Sehested, 2009), but rarely
been associated with strategic spatial planning.

Corresponding author:
Kristian Olesen, Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Skibbrogade 5, DK-9000
Aalborg, Denmark.
Email: kristian@plan.aau.dk
Olesen 289

Taşan-Kok and Baeten (2012) have recently called attention to the value of using
‘neoliberalism’ and ‘neoliberalisation’ as analytical tools within planning theory, arguing
that neoliberalism penetrates planning practices in many different aspects of planning.
Neoliberalism seems to be a topic that is receiving increasing attention within planning
theory (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2012; Purcell, 2009; Sager, 2013; Taşan-Kok and
Baeten, 2012), including analyses of strategic spatial planning practices (Allmendinger
and Haughton, 2010, 2012; Cerreta et al., 2010; Haughton et al., 2010; Waterhout et al.,
2013).
Empirical research from many northwestern European countries suggests that stra-
tegic spatial planning practices have recently taken a neoliberal turn. It has been
hypothesised that spatial planning practices are increasingly guided by narrow neolib-
eral political agendas, seeking to install economic growth and competitiveness as
common-sense policy objectives (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2012; Purcell, 2009).
While these policy objectives cannot exclusively be associated with neoliberalism, the
unquestioned nature of these objectives together with the normalisation of a growth-
first principle suggests a change in politics, promoted by neoliberal political agendas
(Peck and Tickell, 2002).
Currently, there is only limited empirical evidence to substantiate this hypothesis
when it comes to strategic spatial planning. At the same time, it is important to keep in
mind that actually existing neoliberalism(s) come in variegated forms mitigated by the
sociopolitical contexts in which they are being implemented (Brenner and Theodore,
2002; Peck and Tickell, 2002). The neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning in
Northwestern Europe will therefore follow different trajectories, according to each coun-
try’s specific context and planning culture. In the Nordic countries, strategic spatial plan-
ning often takes the form of a hybrid between traditional welfare state planning ideas and
growth-oriented neoliberal strategic planning approaches, with each country having its
national peculiarities (see, for example, Ahlqvist and Moisio, 2014; Andersen and Pløger,
2007; Galland, 2012; Mäntysalo and Saglie, 2010; Olesen and Richardson, 2012). Such
detailed comparisons of how neoliberalisation unfolds within each country are beyond
the scope of this article. Instead, the aim is to bring into focus the common broadscale
development trends, which seem to characterise strategic spatial planning in many north-
western European countries.
Recent research suggests that the neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning is
most evident in the United Kingdom (Allmendinger, 2011; Allmendinger and Haughton,
2010, 2012; Haughton et al., 2010) but also in countries such as Denmark, Belgium and
the Netherlands, and perhaps to a lesser extent in Germany and France, neoliberal politi-
cal ideologies seem to influence strategic spatial planning practices (Murray and Neill,
2011; Olesen and Richardson, 2011, 2012; Van den Broeck, 2008; Waterhout et al.,
2013). These developments have led to concerns that progressive strategic spatial plan-
ning approaches might be hijacked and misused to promote neoliberal models of spatial
development (Cerreta et al., 2010). Going a step further, Allmendinger and Haughton
(2012) have suggested in the UK context, that these normalisation processes of neoliber-
alism reinforce a post-political planning condition, in which conflicting views struggle
for recognition and are rarely considered to be meaningful in strategic spatial planning
processes. The critique raises an important challenge for strategic spatial planning, as it
290 Planning Theory 13(3)

suggests that the theorisation of strategic spatial planning ‘may be shifting our gaze too
far from the current realities of planning practice’ (Newmann, 2008: 1372).
The aim of this article is to bring the conceptual debate about strategic spatial plan-
ning back to the sociopolitical context in which it is often being implemented, that is, a
context characterised by neoliberal political agendas. Inspired by Taşan-Kok and Baeten
(2012), this article argues that bringing the analytical concepts of ‘neoliberalism’ and
‘neoliberalisation’ into planning theory and planning research offers a fruitful path for
developing our conceptual understanding of the future challenges for strategic spatial
planning. Here, I understand neoliberalism as a political economic ideology, which
assumes that ‘society functions better under a market logic than any other logic, espe-
cially a state-directed one’ (Purcell, 2009: 141), and neoliberalisation is understood as
the process by which neoliberalism is becoming an increasingly hegemonic discourse
(Peck and Tickell, 2002; Purcell, 2009). Bringing neoliberalisation into planning research
will help us to analyse the characteristics of a potential neoliberal turn in strategic spatial
planning, and what the consequence of such a turn might be.
Following Albrechts (2010, 2013) and Cerreta et al. (2010), I argue that there is a need
to strengthen the critical dimension of strategic spatial planning. In particular, we, as
planning theorists, need to develop a better understanding of the relationship between
neoliberalism and strategic spatial planning, and how neoliberalisation challenges how
we think about process and space in strategic spatial planning. This is the relationship
that I am concerned with analysing in this article.
The article proceeds as follows. First, I analyse the, at times uneasy and elsewhere
coevolving, relationship between neoliberalism and strategic spatial planning. Here, I
suggest that the different phases of neoliberalisation provide a helpful framework for
understanding the transformations in strategic spatial planning in Northwestern Europe
over recent decades. Second, I analyse the key challenges for strategic spatial planning
in the face of neoliberalism in relation to both the planning process and the interpretation
of spatiality. I argue that neoliberalisation forces us to think in different ways about
consensus-driven strategic spatial planning and the usage of a relational spatial vocabu-
lary. Third, with the point of departure in the preceding analyses, I discuss the need to
rethink strategic spatial planning and strengthen its critical dimension.

Neoliberalism and strategic spatial planning


The relationship between neoliberalism and strategic spatial planning is by no means
straightforward. In fact, state-led strategic spatial planning would seem to be in direct
contrast to neoliberalism, and something that neoliberalism would seek to ‘roll back’
(Taşan-Kok and Baeten, 2012). While this might have been the case in the 1980s, the
emergence of roll-out neoliberalism and the revival of strategic spatial planning seemed
to go somewhat hand-in-hand in Northwestern Europe in the 1990s. In the 2000s, how-
ever, strategic spatial planning ideas seemed to lose political legitimacy yet again. It is
important to stress that each country has its own particular sociopolitical context and
planning culture, which in various ways have mitigated or reinforced the influences of
neoliberalisation over time. The neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning in all
northwestern European countries will therefore not have followed the trajectory outlined
Olesen 291

above. However, for the purpose of this conceptual discussion, the different periods of
neoliberalisation provide a helpful conceptual framework for examining the complex
relationship, partly of unease and partly of coevolution, between neoliberalism and stra-
tegic spatial planning on a broader scale.

Understanding the neoliberalisation of urban policymaking


Neoliberalism as a political economic ideology has had significant influence across the
Western world in the last three decades. There is, however, a substantial difference
between neoliberal ideology in its pure theoretical form, and the ‘actually existing neo-
liberalism’ in practice (Brenner and Theodore, 2002: 2). We do therefore well to under-
stand neoliberalisation as the process by which neoliberalism is becoming increasingly
hegemonic, rather than an end-state (Peck and Tickell, 2002; Purcell, 2009). This also
implies that there is not a single neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning, but that
the processes by which neoliberal concepts and practices are being promoted in planning
processes take place very differently across time and space (Peck and Tickell, 2002).
There are some common trends, which are worth highlighting here.
Neoliberal political ideology has gradually been implemented through the govern-
ance model of new public management, which claims ‘that market and business
rationality can be made to operate as effectively in the public interest as it does in
securing private interests’ (Sager, 2009: 70). New public management entails, among
other things, making the public sector more efficient through processes of privatisa-
tion and outsourcing of former public tasks and services to various forms of quasi-
public bodies, as well as processes of devolution and decentralisation (Purcell, 2009;
Sager, 2009).
In terms of spatial planning, critics of neoliberalism stress that the installation of neo-
liberal ideology has led to a significant transformation in the core idea of planning, where
neoliberalisation can primarily be understood as the process of promoting a new mode of
socio-economic regulation, which entails

a gradual shift away from distributive policies, welfare considerations, and direct service
provision towards more market-oriented and market-dependent approaches aimed at pursuing
economic promotion and competitive restructuring. (Swyngedouw et al., 2002: 547–548)

Within planning theory, there is an emerging body of literature arguing that neoliber-
alism has developed into a dominant common-sense discourse since the 1980s, in which
market competition, including the creation of a business friendly environment, has
become a necessary (and at times the only) value in decision-making (Allmendinger and
Haughton, 2012; Purcell, 2009; Sager, 2009, 2013). Peck and Tickell (2002) refer to this
development as the normalisation of a ‘growth-first approach to urban development’ (p.
394). As a consequence, certain policy objectives have developed into the status of being
beyond discussion and have been depoliticised. In this article, depoliticisation is under-
stood as a discursive tactic of presenting a logic of no alternatives in order to shape
preferences and remove conflicting views and ‘politics’ from spatial strategy-making
(Flinders and Buller, 2006). In this way, depoliticisation can be used as a deliberate tactic
to hide or blur the realpolitik or the ‘politics’ of strategic spatial planning. However, this
292 Planning Theory 13(3)

does not imply that policymaking becomes ‘without politics’ (Olesen and Richardson,
2011: 360), but that political aspects of policymaking are displaced and delegated into
other arenas (Flinders and Buller, 2006; Metzger, 2011). Along these lines, we might
interpret depoliticisation as reinforcing a post-political condition in which imaginations
of radically different futures are rarely considered meaningful (Allmendinger and
Haughton, 2012). According to Swyngedouw (2010), we find ourselves in a post-
political condition,

in which a consensus has been built around the inevitability of neo-liberal capitalism as an
economic system, parliamentary democracy as the political ideal, humanitarianism and
inclusive cosmopolitanism as a moral foundation. (p. 193)

Three decades of neoliberalisation


After this brief discussion of the neoliberalisation of urban policymaking, I now outline
three phases of neoliberalisation. The neoliberalisation of urban policymaking (and spa-
tial planning) has taken place over the last three decades, which has broadly been consti-
tuted through three different (and constitutive) forms of neoliberalisation. The first phase
of neoliberalisation is usually referred to as ‘roll-back neoliberalism’ (Peck and Tickell,
2002: 388) or laissez-faire (let-do) neoliberalism (Purcell, 2009: 142). This period relates
to the elections of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the
United States in the 1980s, where neoliberal state policies were introduced in a period of
economic recession and increasing globalisation in order to promote market logics and
competition in the public sector, while reducing the role of the state to a minimum.
The second phase of neoliberalisation, also referred to as ‘roll-out neoliberalism’
(Peck and Tickell, 2002: 389–390) or aides-faire (help-do) neoliberalism (Purcell, 2009:
142), emerged during the 1990s. In this phase, the state played a more active role in
facilitating the accumulation of capital by intervening in the market, for example, through
among other things, generating public investments in infrastructure and urban develop-
ment projects in order to support market logics and competition. This softer form of
neoliberalism has also been associated with centre-left governments such as the former
New Labour government in the United Kingdom (Allmendinger, 2011; Haughton et al.,
2010; Peck and Tickell, 2002).
More recently, it has been argued that a third phase of neoliberalisation has emerged
in the 2000s, which Keil (2009) terms ‘roll-with-it neoliberalisation’ (p. 232). This period
is characterised by an increasing normalisation of neoliberal practices and concepts in
urban policymaking, in which depoliticisation plays an important role as a preference-
shaping instrument, for example, through the use of new public management tools such
as performance indicators and contracts. Here,

political and economic actors have increasingly lost a sense of externality, of alternatives (good
or bad) and have mostly accepted the ‘governmentality’ of the neoliberal formation as the basis
for their action. (Keil, 2009: 232)

So while the first two phases of neoliberalisation were concerned, respectively, with
dismantling and rebuilding the state, the third phase of neoliberalisation should not be
Olesen 293

understood in direct relation to the state, but rather as a period dominated by hegem-
onic neoliberal discourses across scales of governance (Keil, 2009). These different
typologies of how urban policymaking has undergone different phases of neoliberali-
sation provide a helpful framework for examining the neoliberalisation of strategic
spatial planning.

Two waves of neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning


In the mid-20th century, strategic spatial planning was mainly concerned with growth
management through the preparation of structure plans. It was widely recognised that a
strategic approach to land-use planning was needed to manage the rapid population
growth and urbanisation processes characterising Northwestern Europe at the time
(Healey et al., 1997). In this period of spatial Keynesianism (Brenner, 2004), spatial
planning played an important role in correcting market failures by distributing growth
and economic development evenly across state territories, providing services for a rea-
sonable quality of life.
In the 1980s, this core idea of planning came under pressure in the increasingly neo-
liberal political climate. The period was characterised by policies of roll-back neoliberal-
ism and suspicion of state-led planning, which was largely regarded as restricting
economic growth and competitiveness. This was particularly the case in the United
Kingdom but also in many other northwestern European countries, the state’s role in
planning was reduced compared to the mid-20th century, while planning tasks increas-
ingly were left to the private sector, or various forms of quasi-public or public–private
organisations. The new forms of governance were in many cases a response to the
restricted budgets of many cities at the time. As a consequence, planning was increas-
ingly directed towards the market and became more project oriented, focusing primarily
on large-scale urban development and infrastructure projects (Allmendinger, 2011;
Healey et al., 1997).
In the 1990s, Northwestern Europe experienced a revived interest in ideas of strate-
gic spatial planning. Here, strategic spatial planning was increasingly seen as an activ-
ity for positioning cities and city regions in the European competitive landscape of a
single market and a global economy (Albrechts et al., 2003; Healey et al., 1997), pro-
moting what Brenner (2004) refers to as the ‘competition state’ (p. 476). The role of
strategic spatial planning was now interpreted as facilitating economic growth and
competitiveness. Rather than focusing on expanding the welfare state by promoting
equal development across the state territory, public investments were prioritised in
major cities and urban regions, promoting a new set of spatial logics centred on major
cities and urban regions as key sites for economic activity. Examples from Northwestern
Europe include the Danish government’s attempt to rebrand Copenhagen as a Nordic
growth centre and build the Øresund Region in the 1992 national spatial plan (Jørgensen
et al., 1997; Olesen and Richardson, 2012); the introduction of European metropolitan
regions in Germany in 1995 as growth engines for the German economy (Brenner,
2000; Waterhout et al., 2013); the Fourth Planning Report in the Netherlands from
1988, which sought to rebrand the Randstad and promote Dutch competitiveness
through the spatial logic of ‘mainports’ (Hajer and Zonneveld, 2000; Waterhout et al.,
294 Planning Theory 13(3)

2013); and the 1997 structure plan for Flanders promoting the spatial logic of a Flemish
Diamond (Albrechts, 1998).
In line with Harvey (1989), we might interpret these changes towards a more pro-
active and entrepreneurial planning style, centred on competitiveness and economic
growth, as a shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism. In this understanding,
the new strategic spatial planning practices emerging from the beginning of the 1990s
represent an attempt to transform the core idea of planning to fit a political reality
characterised by Europeanisation, globalisation and roll-out neoliberalism. To some
extent the emergence of roll-out neoliberalism has played an important role in (re)
legitimising strategic spatial planning and paving the way for its revival. In a sense,
this period can be argued to represent the first wave of neoliberalisation of strategic
spatial planning.
The second wave of neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning relates then to
the normalisation of neoliberal practices and concepts, which results in an increasing
pressure on existing planning frameworks and practices. While roll-out neoliberalism
played an important role in supporting a new role for strategic spatial planning in the
1990s, the continued process of neoliberalisation, now entering the phase of roll-
with-it neoliberalisation, seemed in many northwestern European countries to result
in a decentralisation of planning tasks and a reduced role for the state. In northwestern
European countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, govern-
ance reforms were being implemented, which sought to reduce the scope of and in
some cases abolish strategic spatial planning at regional and national scales. As stra-
tegic spatial planning had mainly been brought forward by centre-left governments in
Northwestern Europe in the 1990s (Albrechts et al., 2003), these ideas struggled to
find political legitimacy in the increasingly neoliberal political climate in the 2000s.
In the former strongholds of strategic spatial planning such as Denmark and the
Netherlands, national spatial planning was reduced to a minimum with the most
recent national spatial plans only being shadows of their predecessors (Olesen and
Richardson, 2012; Waterhout et al., 2013). In England, the coalition government abol-
ished regional spatial planning as part of a new localism agenda (Allmendinger,
2011). In countries where strategic spatial planning practices continued, there seemed
to be an increasing awareness within academia that the good intentions of strategic
spatial planning often failed to live up to expectations in planning practice (Cerreta
et al., 2010; Newmann, 2008). At least academics found it difficult to point to clear
evidence of successful instances of strategic spatial planning (Albrechts, 2006;
Albrechts et al., 2003).
In this section, I have outlined the complex relationship, partly of unease and partly
of coevolution, between neoliberalism and strategic spatial planning. I have highlighted
two waves of neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning, concerned with developing
a more proactive and entrepreneurial planning approach, and normalising neoliberal
practices and concepts in strategic spatial planning, respectively. In the context of the
latter wave of neoliberalisation, the critique that strategic spatial planning processes
might be hijacked by neoliberal realpolitik and thereby fail to live up to its progressive
planning aims (Cerreta et al., 2010; Haughton et al., 2010; Olesen, 2011) seems to be
highly relevant for planning theory.
Olesen 295

The neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning


practices
The previous section highlighted how strategic spatial planning practices are increas-
ingly being threatened by a normalisation of neoliberal practices and concepts. It was
highlighted that strategic spatial planning practices are in danger of being co-opted by
neoliberal political agendas in a context of roll-with-it neoliberalism. This section dis-
cusses the key challenges of strategic spatial planning in the face of neoliberalism. The
section seeks to demonstrate how the context of neoliberalisation forces us to think in
different ways about consensus-driven strategic spatial planning and the usage of a rela-
tional spatial vocabulary.

Rethinking the planning process in the face of neoliberalism


Communicative planning ideas have had a significant influence on the theorisations of
strategic spatial planning, which have largely been conceptualised as collaborative social
mobilisation exercises with the aim of transforming planning discourses and practices
(Albrechts, 2004; Healey, 1997, 2007). As with communicative planning, the aim of
strategic spatial planning processes is often to build some form of consensus or design a
framing discourse around which actors can mobilise (Healey, 2007). Such a frame has to
combine both selective and integrative aspects to be persuasive (Albrechts, 2006; Healey,
2007). In practice, mobilisation around such a frame often entails the prospect of win–
win situations (Albrechts, 2001).
This expectation of win–win situations or consensus in collaborative planning
processes has recently been highlighted as highly problematic in the planning litera-
ture, as it implies that conflicting views and ‘politics’ are perceived as disturbing
elements, which either have to be filtered out or somehow adapted into a common
frame (Hillier, 2003; Mouffe, 2000; Pløger, 2004; Purcell, 2009). Following Mouffe
(2000), Pløger (2004) argues that collaborative planning processes struggle to deal
with (agonistic) pluralism, as conflict and strife are often viewed as counterproduc-
tive for planning.
Keeping politics in play is a key challenge for strategic spatial planning in the face of
neoliberalism. In a time where economic growth and competitiveness are being normal-
ised as common-sense policy objectives, there seems to be little scope for preparing
strategic plans that counter these objectives. Allmendinger and Haughton (2012) have
noted how British spatial planning processes increasingly are characterised by

the superficial appearances of engagement and legitimacy, whilst focusing on delivering growth
expedited through some carefully choreographed processes for participation which minimise
the potential for those with conflicting views to be given a meaningful hearing. (p. 90)

Collaborative strategic spatial planning processes might not produce substantially dif-
ferent planning outputs. Monno (2010) has criticised the built-in limitations of imagining
what is ‘possible’ in strategic spatial planning. She argues that current strategic spatial
planning approaches might ‘function as a governing paralysing meta-cultural frame’. (p.
162) restraining our imagination of a radically different future, perceived as the
296 Planning Theory 13(3)

‘impossible’ (Monno, 2010). In a context of neoliberalisation, it is not difficult to imag-


ine that roll-with-it neoliberalism would act as such a governing paralysing frame.
The depoliticised nature of strategic spatial planning processes in the face of neolib-
eralism raises important questions about whether the concern with developing common
frames in fact limits our ability to imagine radically different futures. How many exam-
ples can we think of where strategic spatial planning processes have allowed for a cri-
tique of economic growth and competitiveness as the prime virtues of strategic spatial
planning? If we do not allow for strategic spatial planning to constitute spaces of both
deliberation and strife, where radically different futures can be imagined and discussed,
strategic spatial planning processes can do little more than support and legitimate neolib-
eral practices and concepts as superior in strategic spatial planning.

Rethinking spatiality in the face of neoliberalism


A relational understanding of space and place has played a dominant role in shaping
European strategic spatial planning discourses since the beginning of the 1990s. Here, a
new spatial vocabulary of networks, webs, flows, nodes and hubs has been introduced as
new, more up-to-date organising principles (Davoudi and Strange, 2009; Healey, 2004,
2006). The new relational conceptions of space and place set out to break with the
Euclidean and absolute view of space, which dominated spatial plans in the mid-20th
century (Davoudi and Strange, 2009; Healey, 2007). Instead, a relational understanding
of spatiality draws into focus the multiple webs of relations or ‘spaces of flows’ (Castells,
1996: 412) that intersect or transect urban areas. Rather than seeing space as an empty
container into which human activity simply can be poured, a relational perspective
understands space as socially and culturally produced, thereby opening up for multiple
ways of understanding or getting to know an urban area (Amin and Thrift, 2002; Healey,
2007; Simonsen, 2004).
Embracing the new planning vocabulary, cities and urban regions have constructed
their identities from their position in various networks since the beginning of the 1990s.
As a consequence, positioning cities and urban regions in a European or global space has
developed into one of the core exercises and main objectives of strategic spatial planning
(Albrechts et al., 2003). Such a planning approach fitted nicely into the growing com-
petitiveness agenda, ‘forcing’ cities and urban regions to adopt a more entrepreneurial
approach to strategic spatial planning by turning local strengths into global opportuni-
ties. In this way, the new spatial vocabulary was used to support the first neoliberalisa-
tion wave of strategic spatial planning.
More recently, a relational understanding of space and place has led to great concern
with how to manage the fluidity of space (Nyseth, 2012), both in terms of representations
of space (Davoudi and Strange, 2009) and spatial governance (Haughton et al., 2010). In
terms of spatial representation, planning practice has tried to see the world through webs,
flows and networks in what Davoudi and Strange (2009) refer to as ‘fuzzy maps’ (p. 38).
Rather than relying on Euclidean geometric accuracy, these fuzzy maps depict the
planned territory as fluid with fuzzy boundaries (Davoudi and Strange, 2009). On the one
hand, fuzzy spatial representations might play an important role in distancing strategic
spatial planning from the regulatory characteristics normally associated with land-use
Olesen 297

planning and Euclidean geography, thereby supporting the discourse of a new core idea
of strategic spatial planning.
On the other hand, empirical evidence suggests that fuzzy maps might just as often be
the result of attempts to broker agreement or build consensus in strategic spatial planning
processes (Davoudi and Strange, 2009; Jensen and Richardson, 2003; Olesen and
Richardson, 2011; Zonneveld, 2000). Olesen and Richardson (2011) suggest that repre-
sentational vagueness can be deployed as a conscious political strategy to blur or camou-
flage the spatial politics of strategy-making. In such cases, fuzzy maps can be interpreted
as attempts to depoliticise strategic spatial planning. Along the same lines, Haughton
et al. (2010) have found that fuzzy boundaries create a ‘useful uncertainty’ (p. 159),
speeding up planning decisions and transferring politically difficult issues to lower lev-
els, instead of getting lost in detail at a higher planning level. Heley (2013) highlights
that the uncertainty associated with fuzzy boundaries might be productive for strategic
spatial planning, as fuzzy boundaries might give ‘voice to the value of cross-disciplinary
and multi-directional formulations for public service delivery in increasingly difficult
times’ (p. 1340). Here, fuzzy boundaries seem to be a way to manage uncertainty in stra-
tegic spatial planning.
The neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning underlines the need to adopt a criti-
cal approach to the analysis of strategic spatial planning. Analysis of whether strategic
spatial planning processes have adopted a relational spatial vocabulary or have made use
of a certain spatial representation technique (Healey, 2004) says little about the rationali-
ties behind the spatial representation, or the process through which the spatial representa-
tion was produced and legitimised. In order to evaluate the progressiveness of strategic
spatial planning processes, we need to dig below the surface to identify the motives and
rationalities behind a given spatial representation or concept. While fluidity might allow
us to respectfully include different perspectives and keep future trajectories open, fluid-
ity might just as easily be deployed as a convenient depoliticisation tactic reinforcing a
post-political planning condition.

Rethinking strategic spatial planning


The previous sections examined the complex relationship between neoliberalism and
strategic spatial planning, both in terms of the evolution of strategic spatial planning and
the current challenges for strategic spatial planning in the face of neoliberalism. With a
point of departure in these analyses, this section discusses the need to rethink strategic
spatial planning and develop its critical dimension.
The concept of strategic spatial planning played an important role in breaking the
planning impasse of the 1980s by adjusting the core idea of planning to fit the increas-
ingly neoliberal political environment. Throughout the 1990s, strategic spatial planning
was promoted as a substantially different practice than traditional land-use planning
(Albrechts, 2004), paving the way for a new set of planning practices primarily con-
cerned with positioning cities and city regions in a European competitive landscape
(Albrechts et al., 2003; Healey et al., 1997). Within these strategic spatial planning prac-
tices, economic growth and international competitiveness evolved into common-sense
policy objectives, reinforced by political agendas of roll-out neoliberalism.
298 Planning Theory 13(3)

As neoliberalisation entered the phase of roll-with-it neoliberalism, political support


for strategic spatial planning declined across Northwestern Europe. This resulted, partly
in governance reforms aimed at reducing or in some case abolishing strategic spatial
planning at regional and national scales, and partly in a neoliberalisation of strategic
spatial planning practices where these continued to exist. In the mid-2000s, it became
clear that strategic spatial planning was not being implemented as it had been envisaged
in the planning literature (Albrechts, 2006; Cerreta et al., 2010; Newmann, 2008). While
the concept of strategic spatial planning was instrumental in transforming the core idea
of spatial planning in order to regain legitimacy in an increasingly neoliberal political
climate, its key theoretical underpinnings never sought to bridge planning and neoliber-
alism. As neoliberal concepts and practices became increasingly normalised in urban
policymaking and spatial planning, the gap between strategic spatial planning in theory
and practice widened. This has led critics to argue that the theorisations of strategic spa-
tial planning are too theoretical (Newmann, 2008), too naïve (Bengs, 2005) and too far
from the current realities of the sociopolitical contexts in which strategic spatial planning
takes place.
Current theorisations of strategic spatial planning have not dealt with neoliberalism as
explicitly as in this article. Recent work by Allmendinger and Haughton (2009, 2010,
2012) has sought to conceptualise spatial planning as a form of neoliberal spatial govern-
ance reinforcing a post-political planning condition. But there seems to be scope for
more scholarly reconceptualisation of strategic spatial planning in a context of neoliber-
alism, post-politics, complexity and uncertainty.
Haughton et al. (2010) have noticed how a range of functional strategic spatial plan-
ning initiatives have emerged in between and above formal scales of planning, which
tend to be ‘softer’, network-oriented and entrepreneurial in their form. These ‘soft
spaces’ (Haughton et al., 2010: 52) often seem to be guided by an explicit neoliberal
agenda aimed at facilitating development by moving beyond the rigidities of statutory
planning and short-circuiting formal planning requirements (Haughton et al., 2010). In a
sense, soft spaces can be understood as an attempt to adjust strategic spatial planning to
neoliberal political climates in a period of roll-with-it neoliberalism (Olesen, 2012).
Others have highlighted how softer or more fluid forms of spatial planning might be
productive for breaking planning impasses or lock-in in planning contexts characterised
by complexity and uncertainty (Balducci et al., 2011; Healey, 2007; Nyseth, 2012).
However, even here, concerns have been raised about how fluidity might destabilise
planning, leading to planning situations beyond control. As Nyseth (2012) argues,

Too much fluidity, or fluidity going ‘wild’, would mean not only losing control, but also, in a
sense, giving up the ambition of steering, which would certainly give other forces more room
to maneuver. Questions about power must be raised. Who gains and who loses in situations of
fluidity? What forms of power dynamics are played out when a planning process is ‘opened up
to the unknown’? Fluid conditions may marginalize civil society, giving too much power to
private investors. Therefore, there must be limits to fluidity. (pp. 41–42)

In the previous section, I discussed the need to rethink the planning process and
interpretation of spatiality in the face of neoliberalism. In the context of roll-with-it
neoliberalism, the key challenges for strategic spatial planning revolve around the
Olesen 299

question of fixity versus fluidity. How to manage the increasing fluidity and uncertainty
of spatial planning without giving up on planning? How to allow (multiple) radical dif-
ferent futures to be imagined in spatial strategy-making, which ultimately aims at pre-
paring a single common frame? As illustrated in the previous section, where there is
fluidity, there is always a risk that neoliberal discourses will dominate strategic spatial
planning processes.
Strategic spatial planning practices seem, on one hand, to be increasingly fluid, and,
on the other hand increasingly governed by neoliberal agendas. While spatial
strategy-making increasingly takes place in governance networks (Sørensen and Torfing,
2007), blurring the boundaries between public and private, and between traditional levels
of planning (Sørensen et al., 2011), the rules of strategy-making are still to a large extent
stipulated from above. Strategic spatial planning processes constrained by the govern-
mentalities of roll-with-it neoliberalism will have limited transformative potentials, and
instead contribute to reinforcing the status quo. This will especially be the case when
existing structures are being reproduced unreflectively. Spatial strategies prepared
through legitimiting such processes will only contribute to existing practices.
Instead, we must demand more of endeavours in strategic spatial planning. Strategic
spatial planning exercises that seek to improve the quality of life for present and future
generations have to engage with and seek to upset the structures, which produce, for
example, environmental problems and unacceptable social inequalities. This demands a
lot from the actors involved in spatial strategy-making, not least an awareness of the
processes through which the practice of strategic spatial planning is being neoliberalised.
Strategic spatial planning has to find a way to engage with the neoliberalisation of its
concepts and practices, if it is to remain a meaningful exercise. This involves finding an
appropriate balance between fixity and fluidity. For spatial strategies to have long-term
effects, they need to challenge and upset existing structures. A strategy might emerge as
a loose idea, born out of fluidity, but to have an effect, it has to solidify (Metzger and
Schmitt, 2012) and gradually become an institutionalised part of strategic spatial plan-
ning practices (Healey, 2007).
Albrechts (2010, 2013) has recently called for a more radical style of strategic spatial
planning, which is able to deal with the many structural challenges of contemporary
society, and able to mobilise attention around ideas and concepts calling for radical
change. Just like communicative planning, strategic spatial planning seems to have lost
its critical edge over time, as its ideas have been translated into practice and become
mainstream (Sager, 2013). Perhaps it is also time for planning theorists to revive the criti-
cal dimensions of strategic spatial planning, and position strategic spatial planning
against the current neoliberalisation of spatial planning practices.

Conclusion
Strategic spatial planning is currently experiencing a neoliberal turn in many northwest-
ern European countries. Although changes in planning systems, spatial logics and plan-
ning practices vary nationally, a profound planning scepticism seems to be (re)emerging
across Northwestern Europe. This neoliberalisation of strategic spatial planning has
materialised, partly in governance reforms aimed at reducing or abolishing strategic
300 Planning Theory 13(3)

spatial planning at national and regional scales, and partly through the normalisation of
neoliberal concepts and practices together with the use of depoliticisation tactics in stra-
tegic spatial planning processes. As a result, contemporary practices and discourses of
strategic spatial planning have moved further and further away from the theorisations of
strategic spatial planning that helped to pave the way for the revival of strategic spatial
planning in the 1990s.
This article has sought to outline the overall development trends of strategic spatial
planning in Northwestern Europe, seen through the analytical framework of phases of
neoliberalisation. It goes without saying that each country has its own unique sociopoliti-
cal context and planning culture, which in various ways mitigate or reinforce the influ-
ences of neoliberalisation over time. Here, the aim has simply been to examine the
complex relationship, partly of unease and partly of coevolution, between neoliberalism
and strategic spatial planning on a broader scale.
Developing an understanding of the relationship between neoliberalism and strategic
spatial planning and the different neoliberalisation waves of strategic spatial planning is
important, if we are to revive the critical dimension of strategic spatial planning and
rethink strategic spatial planning processes and interpretations of spatiality in the face of
neoliberalism. The current theorisations of strategic spatial planning have not explicitly
analysed the relationship between neoliberalism and strategic spatial planning. The theo-
risations do not take the sociopolitical context in which strategic spatial planning is to be
implemented into account. What seems to be missing in contemporary theorisations of
strategic spatial planning is a critical understanding of how discourses of neoliberalism
shape strategic spatial planning practices. Building up such an understanding is crucial if
we are to move beyond the ‘more of the same’ thinking on strategic spatial planning that
Albrechts (2010: 1124) has recently criticised. In the further conceptual development of
strategic spatial planning ideas, planning theorists will do well to take Sager’s (2005)
warning into account:

The saying goes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Planning theorists should
therefore not ignore critique suggesting that their well-intentioned reforms are being transformed
and perverted by economic-political forces only to end up making society less rather than more
democratic. (p. 7)

How can strategic spatial planning begin to counter neoliberalism? The answer is not
straightforward. The first step has been to examine the relationship between strategic
spatial planning and neoliberalism. The hope is that this conceptual work will inspire
theoretical debate on the need for a critical approach to strategic spatial planning, as well
as provide some of the conceptual foundation for future empirical studies examining
transformations of strategic spatial planning in the face of neoliberalism.

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Author biography
Kristian Olesen is Assistant Professor at the Department of Development and Planning at Aalborg
University in Denmark. His research and teaching interests are in transformations of and new
approaches to strategic spatial planning and planning theory. In 2011 he completed the PhD thesis
entitled Strategic Spatial Planning in Transition: A Case Study of Denmark.