International Institute for Innovation in Governance



Environmental governance theories: a review

This article synthesizes and compares environmental governance theories. For each theory we outline its main tenets, claims, origin, and supporting literature. We then group the theories into focused versus combinatory frameworks for comparison. The analysis resonates with many types of ecosystems; however, to make it more tangible, we focus on coastal systems. First, we characterize coastal governance challenges and then later link salient research questions arising from these challenges to the theories that may be useful in answering them. Our discussion emphasizes the usefulness of having a diverse theoretical toolbox, and we argue that if governance analysts are more broadly informed about the theories available, they may more easily engage in open-minded interdisciplinary collaboration. The eight theories examined are the following: polycentricity, network governance, multilevel governance, collective action, governmentality (power / knowledge), adaptive governance, interactive governance theory (IGT), and evolutionary governance theory (EGT). Polycentricity and network governance both help examine the links or connections in governance processes. Polycentricity emphasizes structural configurations at a broader level, and network governance highlights agency and information flow within and between individuals or organizations. Collective action theory is helpful for examining community level governance, and helps analyze variables hindering or enabling self-organization and shared resource outcomes. In contrast, multilevel governance helps understand governance integration processes between localities, regions, and states across administrative, policy, or legal dimensions. Governmentality is helpful for understanding the role of discourse, power, knowledge, and narratives in governance, such as who creates them and who becomes governed by them with what effect. Adaptive governance helps analyze the links between context, change, and resilience. IGT helps examine the interdependencies between the systems being governed and the governing systems. EGT is helpful for unpacking how coevolutionary processes shape governance and the options for change.

Partelow, S., A. Schlüter, D. Armitage, M. Bavinck, K. Carlisle, R. Gruby, A.-K. Hornidge, M. Le Tissier, J. Pittman, A. M. Song, L. P. Sousa, N. Văidianu, and K. Van Assche. 2020. Environmental governance theories: a review and application to coastal systems. Ecology and Society 25(4):19.

Evolution of place-based governance in the management of development dilemmas

This paper reflects on the evolution of place-based governance from a long-term (15 year) study of rural development initiatives undertaken in a region of Poland as part of its accession to the European Union. It decomposes the recursive process of institutional learning arising from initiatives for heritage preservation and rural economic development. In the analysis, a typology of unavoidable development dilemmas is elaborated that must be explicitly managed in order to allow place-based governance to effectively harness the cultural value, social context, and developmental needs of certain locales or landscapes. Although creating and sustaining local value remain contingent on broader realities of governance, proactive management of these dilemmas can help prevent many of the usual contestations around goals and identity from becoming intractable in later periods. The proposed approach to enabling place-based governance emphasizes conflict recognition and engagement as important complements to more common prescriptive models of governance.

Feuer, H.N., Van Assche, K., Hernik, J., Czesak, B. & Różycka-Czas, R. (2020) Evolution of place-based governance in the management of development dilemmas: long-term learning from Małopolska, Poland, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2020.1820314

From coal not to ashes but to what? As Pontes, social memory and the concentration problem

Focusing on the case of As Pontes, Spain, where coal mine production intensified rapidly in the 1970s through to the 1990s, this paper contributes to the literature on resource towns, and on boom and bust communities more generally. Here, mining was contested throughout the boom period, eroding the local economy and reducing social cohesion among residents. The effects of the subsequent bust were buffered by the Spanish welfare state, and by a power plant, which now imports coal, but still employed some locals. Despite As Pontes’ problematic past and present situation, which is marked by relative stability and prosperity, one can still find deep nostalgia and community features usually observed in places where the boom provoked less resistance and the bust was more dramatic. A rigid ‘industrial’ identity started to structure governance post-mining; nostalgia for the ‘good’ times dominated. In the analysis of developments at As Pontes, the concept of ‘concentration problem’ is applied in an attempt to shed light on features of governance in resource towns and difficulties in local ‘reinvention’ mode, and develop the idea further by linking it to an erasure of infrastructures of memory.

Perez-Sindin, X. & Van Assche, K. (2020) From coal not to ashes but to what? as pontes, social memory and the concentration problem. The Extractive Industries and Society.

Rethinking strategy

This paper presents a novel framework for analyzing the formation and effects of strategies in environmental governance. It combines elements of management studies, strategy as practice thinking, social systems theory and evolutionary governance theory. It starts from the notion that governance and its constitutive elements are constantly evolving and that the formation of strategies and the effect strategies produce should be understood as elements of these ongoing dynamics. Strategy is analyzed in its institutional and narrative dimensions. The concept of reality effects is introduced to grasp the various ways in which discursive and material changes can be linked to strategy and to show that the identification of strategies can result from prior intention as well as a posteriori ascription. The observation of reality effects can enhance reality effects, and so does the observation of strategy. Different modes and levels of observation bring in different strategic potentialities: observation of self, of the governance context, and of the external environment. The paper synthesizes these ideas into a framework that conceptualizes strategies as productive fictions that require constant adaptation. They never entirely work out as expected or hoped for, yet these productive fictions are necessary and effective parts of planning and steering efforts.

Van Assche, K., Beunen, R., Gruezmacher, M., & Duineveld, M. (2020). Rethinking strategy in environmental governanceJournal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 1-14.

Mine housing in the South African coalfields

Historically, many mining companies in South Africa housed their white workforce in towns established and managed by the company and their black workforce in single-sex hostels or compounds. By the early 2000s, most company towns had been ‘normalised’, the mining industry had abolished the compound system and homeownership had become the dominant policy goal. We use evolutionary governance theory and the concepts of social disruption and place attachment to reveal two problems: the path dependency of the migrant labour system and the goal dependency of government policy. To illustrate the effects on the residents of a coal mining town, we identify three housing clusters: renters, homeowners and informal settlers. Using findings from a survey of one South African mining town (Emalahleni), we show how the housing system created by normalisation places undue pressure on municipal services. We argue that by ignoring the continued migration and the likelihood of mine decline or closure government policy is putting homeowners at risk.

Cloete, J., & Marais, L. (2020). Mine housing in the South African coalfields: the unforeseen consequences of post-apartheid policyHousing Studies, 1-19.


The book Evolutionary Governance Theory: an introduction has been translated into Chinese and is now available in the (online) bookstores.

Evolutionary Governance Theory is a novel theoretical framework for analysing the evolution of governance systems. It integrates numerous theoretical sources, including social systems theory, poststructuralism, institutional economics, and introduced various novel concepts that allow for a more refined understanding of the continous co-evolution between different governance elements.

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Van Assche, K., Beunen, R., & Duineveld, M. (2014). Evolutionary governance theory: an introduction. Springer Science & Business Media.

Mitigating boom & bust cycles: the roles of land policy and planning

A special issue of Land Use Policy, edited by Kristof Van Assche, Monica Gruezmacher, Leith Deacon

The focus of this special issue is on the struggle by communities in many parts of the world to manage radical ups and downs. The cycles of ‘boom and bust’ are diverse, transcending the often referenced dependency on a dominant resource, and many different responses can be observed.

The special issue presents a global collection of experts who have diverse experiences with, and perspectives on boom and bust. The articles emphasize land use tools (e.g. policies and plans) as means to mitigate the consequences of boom and bust on impacted stakeholders, communities, and regions. The articles present a wide variety of responses to boom and bust, some coordinated into strategy, others less so. In some cases, cycles are anticipated, in others, a community aims at reinvention after a dramatic downturn. 

Taming the boom and the bust? Land use tools for mitigating ups and downs in communities
Kristof Van Assche, Monica Gruezmacher, Leith Deacon

Land use tools for tempering boom and bust: Strategy and capacity building in governance
Kristof Van Assche, Monica Gruezmacher, Leith Deacon

Long run agricultural land expansion, booms and busts
Edward B. Barbier

Dealing with the bust in Vorkuta, Russia
Nikolay Shiklomanov, Dmitry Streletskiy, Luis Suter, Robert Orttung, Nadezhda Zamyatina

Mining towns and urban sprawl in South Africa
Lochner Marais, Stuart Denoon-Stevens, Jan Cloete

The social impact management plan as a tool for local planning: Case study: Mining in Northern Finland
Leena Suopajärvi, Anna Kantola

Evolutionary governance in mining: Boom and bust in peripheral communities in Sweden
Simon Haikola, Jonas Anshelm

Long distance commuting: A tool to mitigate the impacts of the resources industries boom and bust cycle?
Fiona Haslam McKenzie

Regional economic transformation: Changing land and resource access on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island
Etienne Nel, Sean Connelly

Planning strategies for dealing with population decline: Experiences from the Netherlands
Raoul Beunen, Marlies Meijer, Jasper de Vries

Problem-Based solutions from the classroom to the Community: Transformative approaches to mitigate the impacts of boom-and-bust in declining urban communities
Jesus J. Lara

Urban expansion, the politics of land, and occupation as infrastructure in Kinshasa
Filip De Boeck

The overlooked role of discourse in breaking carbon lock-in

Over the last 15 years, research on carbon lock‐in has investigated why decarbonization evolves so slowly in Western industrialized countries. In this paper, we argue that the role of discourses has been overlooked in the literature on carbon lock‐in. We argue that discourses are both part of lock‐in mechanisms and, using the concept of discursive turning points, important factors in explaining change. This implies that we need to carefully investigate the dominant discourses that constitute and justify the very technologies, institutions and behaviors of the status quo. For the case of the German energy transition, we demonstrate the importance of discursive turning points for overcoming carbon lock‐in, based on a literature review. Germany’s long‐standing lock‐in of fossil fuels and nuclear power was undermined by the rise of the energy transition discourse. This discourse transitioned from a very marginal position to dominance through a number of factors, winning against the energy mix discourse. Over time the energy transition discourse became de‐radicalized. Coal has been able to defend its role in the German energy mix in the name of affordability and energy security. While renewables continue to grow, this happens alongside a remaining carbon lock‐in. We conclude that discursive lock‐in and discursive turning points are useful analytical tools that help to explain how the transition to renewable energies unfolds. In future research, the interaction between discursive lock‐ins and other types of lock‐in should be investigated.

Buschmann, P., & Oels, A. (2019). The overlooked role of discourse in breaking carbon lock‐in: The case of the German energy transitionWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, e574.

Governance and the coastal condition: Towards new modes of observation, adaptation and integration

The conceptual framework of evolutionary governance theory (EGT) is deployed and extended to rethink the idea of coastal governance and the possibilities of a coastal governance better adapted to challenges of climate change and intensified use of both land and sea. ‘The coastal condition’ is analyzed as a situation where particular modes of observation and coordination were possible and necessary, and those observations (and derived calculations of risk and opportunity) are valuable for the governance of both land and an argument is constructed for a separate arena for coastal governance, without erasing the internal logic of pre-existing governance for land and sea. This entails that coastal governance is destined to be a place of (productive) conflict, as much as of policy integration. Policy integration will be more difficult and more important in coastal governance, as this is an arena where the effects of many land based activities and activities at sea become visible and entangled. Policy integration in coastal governance does however require deep knowledge of the governance path and existing forms of integration there (e.g. in planning), and it exists in an uneasy tension with the requirements of adaptive governance. This tension further contributes to the complexity and complex-prone character of coastal governance. Neither complexity nor conflict can be avoided, and coastal governance as an image of balanced decision- making is (positively) presented as a productive fiction.

Van Assche, K., Hornidge, A. K., Schlüter, A., & Vaidianu, N. (2019). Governance and the coastal condition: Towards new modes of observation, adaptation and integrationMarine Policy.


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