Breaking through rigid administrative boundaries - synergies in 'soft' spaces of cooperation.

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Abstract Summary
Following the necessity for spatial planning to focus on ‘what works’ in terms of implementation and policy delivery, the notion ‘soft’ spaces of cooperation has been in the spotlight of many academics working on territorial cooperation units. ‘Soft’ spaces concepts, in this context, have been introduced in the pursuit of capturing the reality of cooperation practices, marked by continuous attempts to promote new policy scales, initially through the device of fuzzy boundaries. Nevertheless, despite the necessity to address interests beyond existing rigid administrative boundaries through cooperation, issues related to financial power, infrastructure coordination and investment, ecological and environmental concerns, among others, are situated within hierarchical structures of government and governance. Within such a challenging context - where interests overlap but administrative units do not - the interaction of actors in these areas often remains weak. The study focuses on exploring cooperation motives and implications arising among stakeholders in these ‘soft’ spaces of interaction. Herein, two main case studies serve as a first basis to formulate the propositions upon which the research operates. The first case study has been carried out in the Dutch-German border area, focusing on a common natural linkage and asset such as the Rhine river. While coordination between different sectoral policies exists in both sides of the border, different social context, planning modes and different legal and political conditions make the implementation of common projects a challenge. This case study aims on defining points of interests that can foster the cooperation between governmental institutions and, more specifically, the main challenges that non-governmental actors face while trying to cooperate due to cultural differences and institutional set-up in a ‘soft’ territorial cooperation. The second case study analyzes the Karelia cross-border cooperation programme and its activity under the theoretical framework of ‘soft’ spaces, exploring the processes through which it overcomes the administrative and political boundaries of the Finnish-Russian ‘hard borders’. The ability of these cross-border areas to cooperate may appear to conflict with the geopolitical context in which they are embedded. The historical path, however, reveals a process where conflicts over changes of borders and political scenarios coexisted with the sharing of spatial identities and development challenges. The study demonstrates how stakeholders are motivated both by functional needs of cooperation towards regional development, as well as desires to change existent practices in the Russian side. Thus, it is argued that the cross-border cooperation program constitutes a soft space in-between regional, national and supranational levels, as well as an enabler of other soft spaces in the local cross-border level. In both cases the research investigates ways in which governmental institutions and bureaucratic planning procedures influence the interaction between interested stakeholders from both sides of the border. Through informal and semi-formal processes of negotiation employed by several relevant actors, the regions attempt to overcome the clashes between local, national and supranational political and administrative discourses. We see our research as highly relevant to the Urban governance track where we want to give our contribution on what we consider as functional territorial cooperation in a global scene with overlapping administrative boundaries and interests. Furthermore, our empirical research can be an added value to discussions on new urban governance systems and the necessity to shift to soft and more flexible decision making powers, to mobilize interested stakeholders coming from different levels of governance, sectors and territories.
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ISO562
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Research and project assistant
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ISOCARP Institute

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