Research often misses the influence that territorial factors can have on socio-economic inequalities. Additionally, as solutions exist within regulatory and institutional frameworks, studies often consider location issues from the standpoint of administrative entities. But understanding the subtleties of local traditions, demographic characteristics, and communities, requires detailed knowledge of specific interactions. The EU-funded project COHSMO (Inequality, urbanization and Territorial Cohesion: Developing the European Social Model of economic growth and democratic capacity) grew from an acknowledgement that research about the impact of locality on life chances lacked empirical evidence. It has developed a new location-sensitive methodology, informed by social capacity and the meaning that people attach to places. “It’s important to look at how policies impact the lived lives of local communities, changing the collective conditions of social and material well-being,” says project coordinator Hans Thor Andersen from Aalborg University, the project host. “We found that territorial cohesion results from the interplay between capital, collective action and governance. It needs both social innovation from below and the mobilisation of assets from above, to match increasingly complex needs with resources.” COHSMO is now developing an evaluation framework to identify good policy practices.
COHSMO documented and compared territorial inequalities across seven countries: Austria, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland and the United Kingdom. Case studies were conducted in three municipalities in each country – representing urban, suburban and rural communities – providing an overview of the most important resources, alongside entrepreneurial initiatives. Each municipality included was responsible for key policies related to childcare, vocational and educational training, labour market policy, area regeneration and economic growth. The team conducted around 75 interviews in each country with governance, community and business actors, alongside a stakeholder survey. The research was augmented with document analysis as well as regional and national Eurostat data. “Interestingly, we found that ‘spatial narratives’ are key to territorial cohesion and policies. In Denmark, local narratives about a sense of belonging can mobilise communities. In Lithuania, the dominant narratives identify local characteristics, championing the socio-economic potential of individual regions,” notes Andersen. COHSMO compared service provision at local, regional and national levels, finding that Denmark stood out as having high local financial resources and competence, while other countries prioritised financial control regionally (especially Poland and Italy) or nationally (notably Lithuania). Most cases highlighted economic growth policies over social cohesion policies. While social segregation was unexpectedly low in big cities such as Vienna and Milan, it was actually high in Aarhus. “While Denmark having both high local authority autonomy and social segregation seems contradictory, it highlights the importance of context. In Denmark housing is not a locally determined issue, resulting in some housing estates being characterised as ‘ghettos’, with extreme solutions now being proposed nationally, against local wishes,” Andersen explains.
The potential of spatial planning
By focussing on the reciprocal relationship between territorial cohesion and location-sensitive social investment policies, COHSMO revises some of the precepts underlying the European Social Model. COHSMO’s findings highlight that the link between economic progress and social progress is often uneven, as each country balances welfare and economic policies differently. The COHSMO team reports that institutions from several countries are increasingly adopting location-sensitive planning processes such as: mobility infrastructures connecting peripheral neighbourhoods and more equitable and accessible urban public services. The team are further developing their findings, including an examination of the degree to which urban concentrations are a precondition for economic growth, considering factors like local natural assets such as renewable energy potential. “The implication is that for effective territorial cohesion policies, local authorities need decision-making and fiscal autonomy,” concludes Andersen.
COHSMO, policy, urban, social cohesion, inequality, territorial, European Social Model, location, social investment, rural, public services, segregation