The persistence and exacerbation of territorial disparities in the European Union, coupled with the insecurity that the economic crisis and austerity policy have generated, threaten the vision of cohesion underpinning EU policy in the past decade(s). Spatial justice lies at the centre of the RELOCAL project, taking a decidedly bottom-up approach within a multilevel context. It departs from the basic premise that localities and their functional spaces represent the contextual nexus where the relationship between individuals and spatial justice unfolds. Thus, a core rationale of the RELOCAL project is to contribute to conceptually and empirically expanding the knowledge base on spatial justice and territorial inequalities, identifying the policies promoting spatial justice and socio-economic well-being at various levels of governance.
At the onset, the RELOCAL project undertakes a critical review of the literature about spatial justice associated with territorial cohesion, sustainable development and solidarity in order to develop a theoretical framework that includes these concepts and an analysis of the variety of European territorial models. One challenging aspect in this regard is linking the European Cohesion Policy debate more directly to ethical questions that have been raised in political and social theory regarding “fairness” and “justice”. As an element of spatial justice in territorial cohesion, fairness would require greater social understanding, more targeted engagement with different groups and their specific needs, and sensitivity to questions of access, opportunity and local capabilities. An important step in advancing current debate regarding the role of place-based development, local strategies and sustainability within broader understandings of cohesion, would be to elaborate notions of locale and the significance of the local in terms of theoretical conceptualisations, development scenarios and potential policy options.
With its localities approach, RELOCAL conceptualises research and policy tasks at hand as centred around three perspectives that link the local to the wider European context:
- a focus on local capabilities as a means to understand spatial justice and thus design possible strategies conductive to its promotion. RELOCALwill undertake a critical review of the literature and develop a theoretical framework for the project examining the links and tensions between territorial cohesion, sustainable development and spatial justice in Europe at times of crisis and the role of regionalism and localism in this context. It seeks to measure and describe possible regional inequalities across Europe and over time in order to provide a better understanding of the linkages between regional conditions and socio-economic outcomes and the spatial (in)justice. Moreover, the project will explore socio-economic disparities at the regional level making use of existing data sources with the aim of providing an overview of patterns and changes in spatial inequalities at the level of EU regions. The findings will thus allow cross-country comparison of different concepts of local/regional development and territorial governance across Europe to address challenges related to spatial justice, territorial cohesion and solidarity.
- a focus on case studies that situate localities and local development trajectories within larger territorial and policy contexts. The project will analyse the present and potential role of municipalities and other local-level actors in the development and implementation of cohesion policies. Comparative case studies allow to investigate spatial justice and fairness at local-regional level. Based on concepts, hypothesis and macro- and micro- analyses in previous stages, the selected cases focus on understanding and explaining, through a bottom-up perspective, how social needs and equality demands are articulated and pursued on the local-regional level and how factors on local, regional, national and European level condition goal achievement.
- a focus on scenarios of what could work, and what needs to be done. To integrate results achieved in previous stages by linking theory, empirical quantitative and qualitative research to policy debates, different scenarios for spatial justice will be formulated for specific typologies of European regions. The scenario elaboration for all case studies is central to the locality approach. Scenarios will build on past experience as well as more general good examples of local development practice in order to target prospective actions based on assessments of spatial justice deficits, local development aspirations and realistic goals of stabilisation and/or growth.
Thus, the localities approach is based on comparative case studies that will allow to investigate spatial justice and fairness as they have been defined and pursued at the level of urban and rural communities. This involves reconstructing trajectories of local strategy development and their links with EU policies, Cohesion Policy in particular. The focus is therefore on the local definition of social needs and articulation of equality demands on the one hand, and the ways in which these needs and demands have been pursued in conjunction with EU opportunity structures, on the other. Comparatively assessing the experiences of localities in achieving their objectives will thus bring to fore conditioning factors at the local, regional and national levels and their respective roles in goal achievement.
The main ambition behind RELOCAL is an evidence-based advocacy of localist approaches to cohesion and other spatial development policies where the EU plays a key role. New conceptual frameworks as well as policy models are needed in order to promote the development of Cohesion and other EU policies into more locally sensitive opportunity structures, both in terms of participation and the more effective inclusion of local concerns and social needs. At the same time, arguments of fairness and justice need to be developed more broadly and place-specifically in order to meet the very different needs that are articulated by different localities. Finally, another methodological issue at stake is RELOCAL’s ambition to further the cause of qualitative policy indicators based on in-depth case studies utilising local knowledge and interaction with stakeholders.
The Relocal project is coordinated by University of Eastern Finland and includes other 12 partners: ILS – Institut für Landes- und Stadtenwicklungsforschung (Germany), University of Newcastle (United Kingdom), University of Stockholm (Sweden), Nordregio (Sweden), The James Hutton Institute (United Kingdom), Hungarian Academy of Sciences – Research Centre for Economic and Regional Studies (Hungary), Delft University of Techonology (the Netherlands), Mcrit S.L. (Spain), University of Luxembourg (Luxembourg), University of Lodz (Poland), University of Thessaly – The South and Eastern European Development Centre (Greece) and Desire Foundation in Cluj, Romania.