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Sprawlescapes. A comparative study of landscape discourses of urban sprawl in Sweden and Germany

Final Report Summary - SPRAWLESCAPES (Sprawlescapes. A comparative study of landscape discourses of urban sprawl in Sweden and Germany)

A comparative study of landscape discourses of urban sprawl in Sweden and Germany

This summary report gives an overview of the main objectives, results, and conclusions of the research project SPRAWLESCAPES, a two-year project run by Vera Vicenzotti and Mattias Qviström. The project, which ended in November 2016, was financed in the EU’s People Programme (Marie Curie Actions); it was hosted at the Department of Landscape Architecture, Planning and Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

The challenge

Urban sprawl, that is unplanned incremental urban development, is considered to be an escalating problem in Europe. The European Environment Agency states in a report from 2006 that “[s]prawl threatens the very culture of Europe, as it creates environmental, social and economic impacts for both the cities and countryside of Europe.” (European Environment Agency 2006: 5) Consequently, there are calls to curb urban sprawl on a European level.
However, research has focused almost exclusively on measuring and quantifying sprawl. In this project, we have shown that this approach is problematic as it ‘naturalises’ the phenomenon. That means it falsely assumes that sprawl is a universal concept and manifests itself in the same way all over the world, or at least all over Europe. This has fostered an unreasonably homogenised methodology considering the diversity of European landscapes. Moreover, it has nurtured an oversimplified polarisation between ‘sprawl’ and ‘densification’. These shortcomings have practical implications for planning as the underlying, often ideologically biased, assumptions preclude certain sustainable planning solutions from the outset.

The project’s objectives

In both Swedish and German planning research discourse, the concept of ‘landscape’ has emerged as a way to facilitate a more nuanced and culturally situated conceptualisation of urban sprawl. In the SPRAWLESCAPES project, we have thus engaged with these landscape discourses of urban sprawl, asking: What ‘landscape’-related concepts are drawn upon, built up and disseminated in Swedish and German planning discourse on ‘urban sprawl’ and how do they contribute to a more nuanced, culturally situated understanding of ‘urban sprawl’?
To answer this question, the project has aimed at conducting a comparative analysis of Swedish and German discourses of urban sprawl. To be able to do so, it had to contribute to developing a methodological framework that would allow such a critical qualitative comparison.

Main results

We have conducted a comparative analysis of landscape discourses of urban sprawl in Germany and Sweden by chronicling the import of the German concept ‘Zwischenstadt’ into Swedish planning research discourse. ‘Zwischenstadt’ means literally ‘in-between city’. It is a neologism that has been coined towards the end of the 1990s by German urban designer Thomas Sieverts to allow an unbiased look at the suburbanised reality of the landscape where we live now. It has been introduced and used by Swedish research planners, too, in attempts to come to terms with the peri-urban landscapes.
The project has reviewed existing comparative approaches and has engaged in a critique of quantitative mapping approaches. We have argued that these approaches that try to map urban sprawl on a European level are problematic because they systematically fail to acknowledge the historically varied and culturally situated character of European urban development. Furthermore, they are implicitly based on modernist ideas of progress, which makes them disregard qualitative differences, i.e. differences in culture and history, making it impossible to trace and open up for different developments.
In response to this criticism, we have contributed to developing a methodological framework that allows a critical discussion of mobile ideas in transnational planning discourses on urban sprawl. We have engaged with literature on travelling theories and concepts, translation, and policy mobility, i.e. movements of policies in trans-national planning discourses and their implications., These bodies of work have made us shift perspective to a diachronic, historical approach rather than, for example, comparing the current state of urban sprawl in two countries. We have thus argued that it is essential, especially in transnational planning discourses, to be aware of the paths along which concepts travel, of the different contexts at a concept’s place of conception and its current or final destination, and of the changes the concepts undergo en route.
The methodological framework developed in the project has allowed us see that travelling concepts tend to lose their critical content en route. This has also been the case in the concrete example studied: Due to the mostly truncated way that the term has been invoked as a default counter-narrative, the Zwischenstadt concept’s original critical impetus is largely absent in the way it is used in Swedish planning research discourse. The project proposes thus two ways to recover the critical content of travelling planning concepts: firstly, to translate the concept’s context, i.e. to take into account the differences in the historico-geographical circumstances of the concept’s point of origin and its new destination. Secondly, if the concept travels between language realms, deliberations around the literal translation can help to revive its critical content.

Conclusions and socio-economic impact

In European planning practice and research, it has long been common practice to learn from how things are done and conceived abroad. The methodological framework developed in this research project is thus of crucial importance, because it enables planners and researchers alike to critically reflect on the import and use of concepts coined elsewhere. The project’s results are thus highly relevant for planning practitioners and researchers, both on the national and the European level. This way, the project has contributed to the implementation of the European Landscape Convention (ELC), which highlights “mutual assistance and exchange of information” concerning landscape change, landscape values, etc. (Council of Europe 2000: Ch. III, Art. 8).

Contact info and project facts

Vera Vicenzotti
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Department of Landscape Architecture, Planning and Management
Box 58, 230 53, Alnarp, Sweden
Tel: +46 . 40 . 41 5430

Scientist in charge:
Mattias Qviström
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Department of Landscape Architecture, Planning and Management
Box 58, 230 53, Alnarp, Sweden
Tel: +46 . 40 . 41 5422

Project website:

Project duration: 2 years, between November 2013 and November 2016, with one year parental leave of the research fellow.

Funding: The research leading to these results has received funding from the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under REA grant agreement n° 328787.