International Institute for Innovation in Governance

The reality effects of policy and planning. Spatial Planning Lecture by Prof. Kristof van Assche

By Ciska Ulug, March 9th, 2018 | from:

Despite attempts by policy makers and planners, there is always a discrepancy between what is laid out on paper and what is translated into reality. While the unrealistic expectations of this technical rational approach are, perhaps, old news for planners, how to actually cope with such effects, leaves much to be learned. Kristof van Assche, professor of Planning Governance and Development at the University of Alberta, addressed potential management strategies of these so called “reality effects” in the Academy building on Wednesday afternoon.

Beginning with a historic overview (and a reference to his “good friend” Machiavelli), van Assche set the scene, by introducing the romanticized trust in the power of bureaucratic policies, characteristic of modernist thinking. This fantasy is often trodden upon from all sides of the political spectrum, whether it is neoclassical economists critical of state intervention, constructivists suspicious of a “planned” reality, and even (my personal soft spot) participatory “localist” planners on the lookout for potential injustices. Nevertheless, when executed, policies often have unintended results and the potential to change reality. Understanding the context of governance processes is therefore necessary to gain a broader illustration of how policies actually materialize.

Van Assche continued to outline six distinct points necessary to consider in order to optimize and manage reality effects of policy and planning, from a government and planning perspective. Highlights included understanding the starting point and histories of community actors, observing and adapting on one’s own self-transformation, managing expectations from the public, and crediting informal institutions and the beliefs and values they might represent.

While these points are meant to assist policy makers and planners in addressing the multiplicity existing in our cities and regions, the lack of a “one-size-fits-all” prescription can be troubling for those wondering how to apply this knowledge to the real world. How can planners know when they are sufficiently reflexive? How does one know and define their role in the community? Perhaps a cop-out answer for spatial planners: depends on the context. Van Assche’s illustrious examples (thankfully none from his homeland of Belgium, noted a Dutch PhD in the audience) highlighted how this flexibility can occur in practice. The renowned Dutch landscape architects, a favorite case of the speaker, redefined their practice for themselves by applying their work to Dutch regional landscapes and setting an example for the world. This demonstrates how planners and policy makers can be inspired by the existing circumstances and opportunities to craft spatial interventions and locate their place in the community.

The speaker concluded that policy and planning are what he calls “productive fictions”: neither real nor fake. Ultimately, there is no true way to blueprint change, and even if policies are expected to do the impossible, knowing their limits is necessary.

Wednesday’s lecture (impressively delivered sans PowerPoint), fits nicely with my personal existential confusion of planning as a discipline, and my role in it. Planners are expected to straddle the boundary between citizen and bureaucrat, while simultaneously juggling varying degrees of transparency, flexibility, formality, and participation. Being a “good” planner is, perhaps, less about being the “expert” in the room, rather about reflecting and balancing communication suited to the destined community.

Van Assche’s post-structual prose reverberated the multiplicity of our modern world, noting “if you want a perfect world, the worst you can do is assume there’s a perfect world”. You cannot plan reality, but you can manage it.

Tags: Lecture; Spatial Planning; Policy


Power and Knowledge in the post-truth society | APRIL 3, 2018 | 15.00-17.00 | WAGENINGEN FORUM BUILDING C0658

Power and Knowledge in the post-truth society

APRIL 3, 2018 | 15.00-17.00 | WAGENINGEN FORUM BUILDING C0658

Your talkshow host is Martijn Duineveld | Starring: Noelle Aarts, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Peter Tamas & Fons van Overbeek, Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen, Daan Boezeman and Guus Dix

In this seminar, we rethink and discuss the relation between power and knowledge by providing a series of examples from planning, nature management to academia and climate change to illustrate how scientific knowledge is produced and disrupted, used and misused, and highlighted and forgotten.


1. The power of words. How conflicts over wildlife comeback in Europe are intensified through rational argumentation | By Noelle Aarts

The return of several wildlife species across Europe has led to heated debates over how to deal with them. I will focus on the rhetorical work of gaining the upper hand in these debates. I use the classical theory of stasis as a systematic method for locating the points of contention within a debate and understanding participants’ rhetorical efforts at these points. Drawing on diverse discussion forums – including mass and social media, expert symposia and parliamentary meetings – results show how opposing groups engage in a continuous alternation between the construction of a suitable logic in support to their own viewpoint and the dismantling (and rhetorical disempowering) of the logic of the counterparty. We will then explore if and how the points of contention could serve as points of connection, especially by making the discursive power play explicit at the moments ambiguity is created, and contradictions can be transcended.

Van Herzele, A., N. Aarts & J. Casaer (2015). Wildlife comeback in Flanders: tracing the fault lines and dynamics of public debate. European Journal  for Wildlife Research, 61(4), 539-555.

Van Herzele, A. & N. Aarts (forthcoming). Arguing along fault lines: a stasis analysis of public rhetoric over issues of wildlife comeback.

2. Power and knowledge: the case of manure and ammonia | By Jan Douwe van der Ploeg

Van Der Ploeg, J.D., Verschuren, P., Verhoeven, F., & Pepels, J. (2006). Dealing with novelties: a grassland experiment reconsidered. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 8(3), 199–218.

3. Suffering the contradictions of a domesticated Foucault: reflections on the production of programmatically useful knowledge on the shores of Lake Kivu | By Peter Tamas & Fons van Overbeek

The role of research and researchers in maintaining the viability of international development assistance has been well documented. Since the mid-1980s, such inquiry has often drawn on the work of Michel Foucault. Portions of the work of Foucault have also been taken up in and found useful for the production of knowledge in maintaining the viability of international development assistance. This paper reflects on ethnographic fieldwork whose purpose was to trace some of the working and consequences of the overlap of these two uses of Foucault. In its reflection on the production of knowledge on land tenure in peri-urban Bukavu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the present essay finds evidence consistent with the impossibility of development knowledge and identifies some consequences of this impossibility for development researchers.

4. Community as productive fiction and the possibilities and limits of reinvention: Canadian experiences | By Kristof Van Assche

In our presentation, we dwell on the necessarily fictitious yet productive character of ‘community’ and try to link up systematically with the discussions on community reinvention. Often, in tough circumstances, communities try to cling to an identity, or think of changing completely, yet neither of those is likely to work. Diversification is only a narrow subset of reinvention options, and nevertheless is often too simply understood. The same applies to innovation, to branding, to ‘development’ as such. We distinguish rerooting, reinvention and reconstructing as broad strategies of change, and introduce the notion of reinvention paths. Using Canadian examples, we notice that the forms of learning, adaptation and transformation necessary for reinvention are not always possible and wanted, and when they happen, not always democratic. We reflect on layered obstacles for reinvention [as in the case of Newfoundland], yet also on the positive openness of a situation where assets cannot be easily discerned, where conflicts can be positive, where shocks might be useful, where path dependencies can become valuable at some point

Van Assche, Kristof, Deacon, L., Gruzmacher, M., et al. (2017): Boom & Bust. Local strategy for big events. A community survival guide to turbulent times, Groningen/Edmonton: InPlanning& University of Alberta

5. Power/knowledge and institutional change | By Raoul Beunen

The evolution of environmental governance is driven by a huge diversity of knowledges. Increasingly, however, the different understandings of the world create intensive conflicts and deceptions that not only hamper sustainability transitions, but also profoundly disrupt and weaken existing environmental policies and practices. I’ll argue that a more profound understanding of the way in which power/knowledge dynamics influence institutional change and exposing the growing discrepancies between expectations about particular institutions and their actual working and impact, are key to bringing governance systems on a more sustainable track.

Beunen, R., Patterson, J., & Van Assche, K. (2017). Governing for resilience: the role of institutional work. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 28, 10-16.

Beunen, R., Van Assche, K., & Duineveld, M. (2013). Performing failure in conservation policy: The implementation of European Union directives in the Netherlands. Land use policy, 31, 280-288.

6 | By Daan Boezeman

7 | By Guus Dix

Governance arrangements, funding mechanisms and power configurations

Implementing strategic spatial plans is a complex task. The process involves strategy formation, institutional capacity building, funding mechanism establishment and governance arrangements, which take shape within complex power configurations. Based on empirical evidence gathered by interviewing regional planning experts, this paper focuses on the role of governance arrangements and funding mechanisms in current practices of strategic plan implementation in 14 European urban regions. This investigation was completed bearing in mind power configurations, which shape and frame governance arrangements and funding mechanism in planning practice. A cross-case comparison provides evidence that, among the governance arrangements influencing plan implementation, negotiation and interest groups involvement are pivotal. Negotiation involves private interest groups, such as real estate agencies and environmental non-governmental organizations. The paper shows that in some case studies private interest groups have a substantial bargaining power to negotiate, for example, the development of a new housing settlement or a retail facility, while other groups struggle to safeguard natural areas. It is also during negotiations that plan implementation intentions are prioritized, strategic urban projects are formulated and funding mechanisms are established. The paper demonstrates that to truly grasp plan implementation praxis it is necessary to go beyond multi-actor involvement and inter-scalar government cooperation. It is necessary to scrutinize the funding sources, investigate who wins and who loses while negotiations are happening, and how plan implementation decisions are actually made.

Oliveira, E. & Hersperger, A.M. (2018) Governance arrangements, funding mechanisms and power configurations in current practices of strategic spatial plan implementation. Land Use Policy. Online first:


A coevolutionary perspective on the adoption of sustainable land use practices

Cotton export substantially contributes to Uzbekistan’s economy. To produce cotton, the state imposes output targets on farmers which results in intensified cotton production practices, and consequently in land degradation. Improving degraded croplands via afforestation is an option explored through research experiments in the region, yet is currently not practiced by farmers. Using the example of the Amu Darya River lowlands of Uzbekistan, we analyze afforestation and its implementation constraints, by developing a coevolutionary socio-ecological systems framework that leans on evolutionary economics and evolutionary governance theories. Our study shows that farmers’ perceptions and rationalities, in close association with governance configurations of actors, institutions and knowledges, make them unreceptive towards afforestation. Altering relations between agricultural institutions and actors that are currently present in the cotton-centric configuration is difficult given the path-, inter- and goal dependencies. To change rural sustainable development paths, we conclude that the adoption of innovations requires a tailoring of knowledge and technology fitting local situation, as well as the reassembling of relations between actors, institutions and knowledge.

Djanibekov, U. , Van Assche, K., Boezeman, D., Villamor, G.B. & Djanibekov, N. (2018) A coevolutionary perspective on the adoption of sustainable land use practices: The case of afforestation on degraded croplands in Uzbekistan. Journal of Rural Studies 59: 1-9

The contingency of landscape design interpretations

To address visual communication issues in landscape planning and design processes, an analytical framework that enables the study and possible anticipation of the interpretation of visual design representations is presented here. This framework consists of a hybrid theory of Peircean social semiotics and Laclaudian post-foundational discourse analysis (PDA). The semiotics of Peirce, through the concept of the interpretant, enable the conceptualization of the discourses that make up the socio-political contexts of design projects as so-called ‘interpretive habits’. This framework is demonstrated by partly reconstructing the socio-political context of Rebuild by Design, a design competition organized in the wake of hurricane Sandy in New York. It is suggested through this demonstration that the sign systems and discursive networks that influence the interpretations of design images by different stakeholders can be partially uncovered during the design process itself. By recognizing these interpretive habits during specific phases of the design process, planners and designers could potentially better anticipate the productive and counter-productive interpretations of their design representations.

Raaphorst, K. (2018) Knowing your audience: the contingency of landscape design interpretations. Journal of Urban Design. Online first

Informal institutional change in De Achterhoek region


As in other European countries, the formal planning task of Dutch governments is subjected to devolution and austerity measures. Not only did these developments lead to outsourcing planning tasks to lower-level governments, also citizens are increasingly ‘invited’ to take responsibility for providing public facilities and services. In De Achterhoek, a Dutch region, these shifts are amplified due to population change and traditional active citizenship, and led to institutional change. Since a decade local governments stimulate citizen initiatives, under the umbrella of participatory governance. This process of institutional change did not alter formal institutions, but was the result of an informal and dialectic process between local governments and citizen organizations. In this paper, we will demonstrate the process of change and how it affected planning practices in De Achterhoek, building on theories of informal institutional change and its driving forces. The empirical part of this paper draws on the results of three focus group meetings, in which a diverse set of local stakeholders discussed the effects of change they observed and how it shaped planning practices. In the final section, we reflect on the degree of institutionalization, by examining the robustness and resilience of the observed change.

Meijer, M., & van der Krabben, E. (2018). Informal institutional change in De Achterhoek region: from citizen initiatives to participatory governance. European Planning Studies, 1-23.

Politics of policy learning

In Dutch healthcare, new market mechanisms have been introduced on an experimental basis in an attempt to contain costs and improve quality. Informed by a constructivist approach, we demonstrate that such experiments are not neutral testing grounds. Drawing from semi-structured interviews and policy texts, we reconstruct an experiment on free pricing in dental care that turned into a critical example of market failure, influencing developments in other sectors. Our analysis, however, shows that (1) different market logics and (2) different experimental logics were reproduced simultaneously during the course of the experiment. We furthermore reveal how (3) evaluation and political life influenced which logics were reproduced and became taken as thelessons learned. We use these insights to discuss the role of evaluation in learning from policy experimentation and close with four questions that evaluators could ask to better understand what is learned from policy experiments, how, and why.

Felder, M., van de Bovenkamp, H., & de Bont, A. (2018). Politics of policy learning: Evaluating an experiment on free pricing arrangements in Dutch dental careEvaluation24(1), 6-25.

Call for papers: Spatial planning & place branding: rethinking synergies and governance

In a special issue for European Planning Studies we intend to bring together experts on spatial planning and place branding to think explicitly on the relation between the two fields and the potential of  theories and practices in which the two are integrated.

We believe exploring the relation between spatial planning and place branding is useful and important because, on the one hand, the relation is still under- explored, while planning could use the insights in place-based value creation stemming from place branding, and place branding often lacks insight in how places might actually be changed or preserved through coordinated intervention. On the other hand, much of the literature on place branding in our view either under- estimates or over- estimates what branding can do, partly because of underlying ideological assumptions, partly because of simply a lack of insight in the functioning of governance, including spatial governance.

Bringing planning and branding closer together in theory and practice means seeing their relation in the context of governance. Planning in this view is spatial governance, the coordination of policies and practices affecting the organization of space. Place branding refers to the creation of value in space by reinforcing and representing the assets of the place in a cohesive manner, in an image and a narrative of the place itself.

Given this context various topics could be explored in this special issue:

  • planning and branding and participatory governance
  • planning and branding and sustainable development
  • planning/branding and the balance preservation/innovation
  • spatial planning as part of place branding
  • place branding as part of spatial planning?
  • planning/branding as core of a development strategy?
  • nature and environmental assets in planning/branding
  • cultural landscapes as meta- assets for planning/branding
  • planning/branding and policy integration
  • innovation and branding
  • design in planning/branding
  • power/knowledge in planning/branding
  • scales in governance/ multi- level governance
  • combining planning/branding for places with deep history
  • agriculture and new food cultures as drivers of planning/branding
  • planning/branding and the balance between collaboration and competition
  • models of branding or planning: caution with best practices

If you are interested in making a contribution to the special issue, please send an abstract of 300-500 words to the guest editors by Feb 15, 2018; for those invited to submit a full paper, please submit this to the guest editors by August 1, 2018; after an internal review and revision, the usual external review for the journal will take place.

Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen and Eduardo Oliveira


Call for papers: land use instruments

The Journal Land Use Policy is organizing a special  issue on land use instruments to mitigate radical shifts or boom and bust cycles in communities. The special issue will include papers from well-known universities and research institutes in the United States, Indonesia, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, among others, and is currently looking to expand the breadth of topics and geographical areas in order to have a genuinely comparative approach.

The special issue starts from a broad understanding of land use tools that includes all those institutional tools that affect the coordination of land use. Various sorts of planning, zoning, economic development strategies, preservation policies, etc. can have the character of land use policy tool if they aim at the coordination of land use and the reorganization of land. They can include and activate more circumscribed and focused land use tools.

The cases presented in this special issue are expected to highlight the diverse ways communities have confronted the radical changes associated with boom and bust and the lessons learned to try to mitigate them.

If you are interested you can participate by sending a 300 word abstract to Monica Gruezmacher (gruezmac[at]ualberta[dot]ca) by December 30th this year. 

Via this you will find a short explanatory document with details on the content, process and approach.

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