Territorial development in Europe: What does the future hold?

Europe is not a flat and empty space free from development constraints, but an old civilised territory made of hundreds of thousands of small towns and cities of all sizes, a predominantly man-made landscape, an extremely diverse mosaic of regions with different geographic characteristics where territory matters very much. But what does the future hold for European territory?

This is exactly the question addressed by the recently completed EU project “Scenarios and Vision for European Territory 2050” (ET2050), funded by ESPON, the European Spatial Planning Observatory Network. The project aimed not only to predict likely futures but also to assess the alternative territorial strategies in terms of economic growth, regional disparities, land-use and related environmental impacts (transport, energy, emissions, etc.). The project highlighted three possible territorial scenarios for development for 2050, taking into account several ongoing mega-trends (such as slowing economic growth, ageing population, external and internal migration, climate change, geopolitical challenges). A vision for the future of European territory is needed to bring coherence to the fragmentation inherent in the actual administrative structure of Europe. The ET2050 project provided an integrated analysis and developed long-term spatial scenarios with the view of enriching and stimulating the European policy debate and mitigating clashes between growth- and sustainability-oriented policies.

Zoltan figure 1
Figure 1: Areas promoted in the A (blue), B (red) and C (green) scenarios (Source: Spiekermann & Wegener, Urban and Regional Research, ET2050)

Scenario A: The promotion and networking of European Metropoles would involve the further development of capital cities and global metropoles. It promotes global competitiveness of Europe by facilitating the economic development of the largest metropolitan areas of global importance in Europe (see Figure 1). The scenario assumes that for the European global competitiveness it is crucial to take full advantage of the connectivity to international networks and the agglomeration economies of larger European metropoles.

Scenario B: The promotion of polycentric development by supporting second-tier cities provides an image of the European territory in which economic and population growth, as well as most private and public investments, take place within smaller national capitals and regional centres. It follows the priority of balanced polycentric urban systems in which 261 second-tier cities of European/national significance are defined. Cohesion and Structural funds would be mostly targeted to such cities, and would include urban renewal and re-urbanisation, R&D investments, and promotion of regional and inter-regional transport networks. Polycentrism is the principle of organization of a region around several centres as opposed to a development model focused on one centre only (monocentricity). Examples of polycentric regions include the Rhine-Ruhr area in Germany, and Randstad in Holland. Many would argue that polycentrism is more conducive to much needed ‘territorial cohesion’ of Europe while combining economic competitiveness with environmental sustainability.

Scenario C: The promotion of small cities and less developed regions involves a paradigm-shift and responds to the challenges of energy scarcity and climate change by promoting small and medium-sized cities as centres of economically resilient regions with more sustainable mobility patterns. Local production and local markets gain much importance, while migration of skilled people from large cities to rural areas accelerates localism. Cohesion policies are focused on reinforcing the social and economic balance of Europe at the regional level, promoting decentralization, endogenous development and empowering regional institutions leading to more efficient provision of public services. In this scenario, small and medium-size cities attract people based on their cultural and environmental quality, and public incentives.

The ET-2050 project argues that the polycentric territorial scenario (B) induces the most balanced growth. Making Europe open and polycentricremains the most suitable territorial strategy supporting competitiveness, social cohesion and sustainability goals. The efficiency and quality of European territory lies in networking cities of all sizes, from local to global level, as well as empowering people and local activities to valorise their own assets at European and global scale.


Written by Zoltan Gal, member of the ET-2050 project team. Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Kaposvar University, Hungary. Visiting Fellow, Department of Geography, Trinity College Dublin, 2014.



I would like to express my very great appreciation for the Geography Department at TCD for hosting me during my 3 months of research scholarship and I wish to thank the department for the warm welcome by colleagues who made me feel at home during my stay. I am especially grateful to Martin Sokol who facilitated my visit to TCD.



“Making Europe Open and Polycentric”. The Final Report for “Scenarios and Vision for European Territory 2050” project (Author: MCRIT (ed.) and all TPG).


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