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To define at Union level policy objectives and general principles of spatial development to ensure the sustainable balanced development of the European territory which respects its diversity.

2) ACT

ESDP - European Spatial Development Perspective. Towards a balanced and sustainable development of the Union territory.


Spatial development policies are intended to ensure the balanced and sustainable development of the Union territory in accordance with the basic objectives of Community policy: economic and social cohesion, knowledge-based economic competitiveness complying with the principles of sustainable development and the conservation of diverse natural and cultural resources.

Although it does not justify further Community responsibilities as regards spatial planning, the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) is a framework for policy guidance to improve cooperation among Community sectoral policies which have a significant impact in spatial terms. It was drawn up because it was found that the work of the Member States complemented each other best if directed towards common objectives for spatial development. It is an intergovernmental document which is for guidance and not binding. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, it is applied at the most appropriate level and as desired by the various parties engaged in spatial development.

The ESDP is the result of an intensive discussion process. The first proposals on spatial development date from the sixties with the European Parliament's European Regional Planning Scheme. The Commission's documents "Europe 2000" (COM(90) 544, not published in the OJ) and "Europe 2000+" (COM(94) 354, not published in the OJ) gave a decisive boost to the preparation of a concerted policy. The Liège Council in 1993 was the starting point for preparation of the European Spatial Development Perspective as it is now. Since then, successive presidencies, assisted by the Spatial Development Committee comprising representatives of the Commission and national officials, drew up a number of drafts resulting in the final adoption of the ESDP in May 1999 at the Potsdam informal Council of ministers responsible for spatial planning.

The ESDP is in two parts: I) the contribution of the spatial development policy as a new dimension of European policy and II) the trends, opportunities and challenges facing the territory of the EU. This note deals only with the first part; others (Second Report on Economic and Social Cohesion and First interim report) have already provided more recent data on the main changes within the Community.


The underlying idea in the ESDP is that economic growth and the convergence of certain economic indicators are not enough to achieve the goal of economic and social cohesion, so concerted action on spatial development is needed to correct the disparities detected. This must include: constant progress in economic integration (EMU, completion of the internal market), a growing role for local and regional authorities, the forthcoming enlargement of the Union to central and eastern Europe and the development of links between the 15 and their neighbours.

With over 370 million people on 3.2 million and a gross domestic product (GDP) of 6.8 trillion euros in 1996, the European Union is part of one of the largest and strongest economic areas in the world. Nevertheless, serious economic imbalances impede achievement of balanced and sustainable spatial development. The core area of Europe, bounded by the agglomerations of London, Paris, Milan, Munich and Hamburg, accounts for only 20 % of the area and 40 % of the population of the Community but provides 50 % of its GDP. Furthermore, while the differences in economic performance between "prosperous" and "poor" regions are declining slightly, those between regions are increasing in most countries. At the end of 1998 unemployment stood at about 10 % of the working population (half being long-term unemployed and over 20 % young people), with considerable differences between regions and Member States.

The ESDP has selected four major areas which interact and exert considerable pressure on the spatial development of the European Union:

  • The development of urban areas:Almost 80 % of the population of the Union now lives in towns. Urban centres are being restructured or emerging and networks of towns are forming and cooperating across frontiers. A new relationship between the town and the country is required to meet the challenges facing our territories.
  • The development of rural areas:The rural areas of the European Union are often threatened by marginalisation, mainly because of the possible concatenation of constraints such as distance from the main towns, harsh climates, thinly-spread population and inadequate infrastructure or a lack of economic diversification because of the preponderance of agriculture. The environment offers both problems and assets, so demonstrating both the need to protect natural resources and ecosystems and the opportunities offered by various ways of exploiting economic potential (green and cultural tourism, agricultural diversification).
  • Transport:As the single market is completed, the constant growth in road and air traffic generates bottlenecks and pressure on the environment. The European Union is one of the main emitters of carbon dioxide in the world and the uneven distribution of infrastructure across its territory may result in substantial imbalances in terms of economic investment and call into question the principles of territorial cohesion.
  • The natural and cultural heritage:Its diverse natural and cultural heritage is a great richness for Europe but it is threatened by some aspects of economic and social modernisation. The fauna, flora, water, soil and traditional landscapes have to cope with the imbalances generated by an over-exploited environment. With an eye to sustainable development, Europe's spatial planning policy seeks to reduce such practices and encourage the rational use of resources.


Despite there being a specific title on economic and social cohesion in the Treaty of Amsterdam, the Union's sectoral policies have no clearly defined spatial objectives, although several of them have a substantial influence on the Community territory as a geographical area receiving assistance. Their territorial impact depends on the nature of the assistance, whether financial (common agricultural policy, regional policy through the Structural Funds, specific aid for research and innovation), legislative (policy on competition or the environment) or planning (policy on energy and transport). From a financial perspective, the common agricultural policy (CAP) and the Structural Funds accounted for 83 % of the Community budget in 1997.

The following sectoral policies have a territorial impact:

  • The Structural Funds: The various cohesion reports show that disparities between Member States are diminishing but those between regions are growing.The Structural Funds seek to promote economic and social cohesion. They provide assistance mainly in the eligible areas (Objective 1 for the regions whose development is lagging behind, Objective 2 for areas facing conversion) and, to a lesser extent, through a spatial typology providing a basis for the Community Initiatives (Interreg III for border areas, Urban II for urban areas, Leader+ for rural areas).The programme-based system for the Structural Funds offers the possibility of designing integrated development plans which involve all those engaged at local level in a representative and transparent partnership.
  • The Common Agricultural Policy:The initial concern of the CAP was productivity but successive reforms have concentrated on the close links between agriculture and rural areas. Now, other objectives, food safety and respect for the environment, are more important.Better coordination of the various rural development policies is becoming increasingly necessary because the enlargement of the Union and changes in world trade are throwing up major challenges for rural areas: the restructuring of the agricultural sector, particularly in the candidate countries, economic diversification in some areas and the development of a new relationship between town and country.
  • Competition policy:Competition policy works to encourage the integration of national markets into a single European market, principally by preventing cartels between firms and abuse of dominant positions, monitoring mergers and acquisitions and providing a framework for State aids. These measures have an impact on the geographical distribution of economic activities.The Commission also acknowledges the need for intervention to ensure a balance between competition and general interest objectives and ensuring a basic, uniform universal service throughout the territory. While it regards regional State aids as incompatible with the common market, it nevertheless accepts them in duly justified cases: specific support for areas whose development is lagging behind and which are facing conversion or natural handicaps (climatic conditions, isolation).
  • The trans-European networks (TENs):The Community contributes to the establishment of the trans-European networks in the areas of transport, telecommunications and energy supply. Because these have direct repercussions on the use of space, they also help build up the internal market and strengthen economic and social cohesion by improving links between central areas and island, land-locked and peripheral areas.Transport networks account for 80 % of the Community TEN budget. The aim is to establish an efficient and sustainable but environmentally-friendly system: relieving the road network through high-speed rail lines and the promotion of waterways and expanding public transport and cycling in towns.Mainly through distance working and training, telecommunications networks help overcome geographical handicaps.In the energy sector (gas, electricity), the territorial impact concerns the effects on land use and changes in consumption patterns.
  • Environment policy:The Treaty of Amsterdam further stressed the importance of environmental issues by incorporating environmental requirements into the implementation of all Community policies. Environmental impact studies are required before major investment projects are carried out.The territorial impact of environmental policy also concerns the definition of protected areas (" Natura 2000 " network) for fauna and flora, a reduction in the use of harmful substances (nitrates) in agriculture, regulating waste treatment, limiting atmospheric and noise pollution and promoting renewable energy (wind energy).
  • Research and Technological Development (RTD):Community policy on RTD promotes cooperation between firms, research centres and universities. There are no regional criteria for the choice of projects. Thanks to targeted territorial marketing and the use of their specific resources, the least prosperous regions are able to attract RTD investment. The multiannual Framework Programme supports research into spatial development on topics such as "the city of tomorrow and the cultural heritage", "the sustainable management of agriculture and fisheries" and "sustainable management and quality of water").

Financial support from the European Investment Bank (EIB), which does not form part of the Community budget, also plays an important role in promoting the Union's structural measures. Its loans provide implicit incentives and are well-adapted to implementation in less-favoured regions. This facility is highly relevant to the forthcoming enlargement, when it will finance long-term projects such as investment in infrastructure.

Unless they are coordinated, Community policies could unintentionally aggravate disparities in regional development by cancelling each other out as they respond to a sectoral objective with no spatial dimension. The Member States and the Commission therefore consider the ESDP to be an instrument which can help improve the coordination of Community policies. That makes it urgent for the Commission to increase departmental cooperation to ensure spatial coherence and the assessment of the spatial effects of the policies for which they are responsible.


The policy objectives and options of the ESDP are addressed to all those involved in spatial development at the European, national, regional and local levels. They are as follows: A) the establishment of a polycentric and balanced urban system, B) the promotion of integrated transport and communications concepts offering parity of access to infrastructure and knowledge throughout the Union, C) the development and conservation of the natural and cultural heritage.

A) Polycentric spatial development and a new relationship between town and country

At present, the core area of Europe - defined by the cities of London, Paris, Milan, Munich and Hamburg - is the only dynamic area of integration in the world economy. Within the Union, current territorial developments are marked by the continuing concentration of highly performing global functions in this core area and in certain large cities (Barcelona, the Øresund region).

In the light of enlargement and the growing integration of the national economies into the single market and the world economy, the recommended model of polycentric development will allow the excessive concentration of population and economic, political and financial power in a single dynamic area to be avoided. The emergence of a relatively decentralised urban structure will enable the potential of all the regions of Europe to be developed and so also reduce regional disparities.

Rather than, as in the past, encouraging simply links between the periphery and the core area through new infrastructure, the spatial and polycentric development model proposes:

  • creating several areas of global economic integration;
  • strengthening a balanced system of metropolitan regions and city clusters;
  • promoting integrated urban development strategies within the Member States which include nearby rural areas;
  • strengthening cooperation on particular topics (local transport, links between universities and research centres, management of the cultural heritage, integration of new migrants) through cross-border and transnational networks linking the countries of northern and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

To permit sustainable development, the integrated development strategies for towns and urban regions must cope with several major challenges:

  • expanding the strategic role of the metropolitan regions and the "gateway cities" giving access to Union territory (large ports, intercontinental airports, trade fair and exhibition cities, world-scale cultural centres) by paying particular attention to the peripheral regions;
  • checking urban expansion by building on the idea of the "compact city" (short distances), particularly in coastal areas;
  • improving the economic base by using the territory's specific potential and establishing innovative, diversified and job-creating economic activities;
  • promoting a mixture of functions and social groups, particularly in the largest urban areas, to combat the social exclusion of part of the population and restructure and reuse areas in crisis and derelict industrial land;
  • managing waste and resources such as water, soil and energy intelligently, safeguarding the natural and cultural heritage and expanding natural areas;
  • making the areas concerned accessible using efficient and non-polluting transport.

Country-based activity is not in itself a hindrance to competitive economic development and employment growth. In their great diversity, rural areas have completed, or at least begun, their conversion to solve their structural weaknesses and concentrate on the development they can generate themselves. To cope with under-population and mainly agricultural land use, rural areas must diversify their activities by basing their strategies on their own special features and needs. Rediscovering multifunctionality in an agriculture aiming at quality (food safety, local products, country tourism, development of the heritage and landscapes, use of renewable energy), expanding activities relating to the new information technologies and exchanging experiences on selected topics will help rural areas to make the most of their potential.

Furthermore, consideration of a new rural-urban partnership will aim at promoting an integrated approach at regional level and working together to solve insurmountable difficulties one by one. This partnership will help define original options for development. It is sufficient to ensure a basic supply of public services and transport and an effective improvement in land planning. It will encourage the exchange of experiences through cooperation networks bringing together local authorities and urban and rural firms.

B) Parity of access to infrastructure and knowledge

While transport and telecommunications infrastructure alone cannot achieve the objectives of economic and social cohesion, they are nevertheless important instruments which create links between areas, particularly between central and peripheral areas and between urban centres and the surrounding countryside.

The future extension of the trans-European networks should be based on a polycentric development model, giving priority to serving globally important economic areas once these have been identified and paying great attention to regions with geographical barriers to access and to secondary links within regions. Furthermore, all regions should enjoy balanced access to intercontinental centres (ports and airports).

The current increase in passenger and goods traffic poses a growing threat to the environment and the efficiency of transport systems. An appropriate spatial development policy (public transport in towns, intermodal systems, shared infrastructure) will allow an integrated approach to environmental pressures arising from greater mobility, traffic congestion and land use.

Access to knowledge and infrastructure is vital to a knowledge-based society. Job markets and firms require dynamic innovation systems, effective technology transfer and first-class education and training provision. Access to knowledge and the capacity for innovation are still spatially unbalanced in the European Union and are concentrated where economic dynamism is greatest. Raising the level of education and training among the population of the regions in difficulty, principally through the dissemination of the new information technologies (basic service, appropriate tariff policy, training and awareness raising) will help counter these imbalances.

C) Wise management of the natural and cultural heritage

Spatial development can act as an engine for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity at local and regional level. Although strict protection measures are sometimes justified, it is often more sensible to integrate management of the endangered areas into planning strategies for larger areas. When they are respected and developed, nature and culture are an economic factor of some importance for regional development.

The richness of Europe's cultural heritage and landscapes is an expression of its identity and is of general importance. To reverse any process of abandonment and decline and to hand this heritage on to future generations in the best possible conditions requires a creative approach involving the definition of integrated strategies for the preservation and restoration for landscapes and heritage and raising public awareness of the contribution which spatial planning policy can make to defending the heritage of future generations.

The development of natural resources in the European Union also depends on the introduction of integrated strategies for the sustainable management of environmental factors (air, water, soil) and the targeted protection of specific areas:

  • Commitments under the Kyoto protocol require the reduction of CO2 emissions to combat the greenhouse effect. This will be done mainly by promoting settlement structures which use less energy, generate less traffic and make greater use of renewable energy.
  • Water is an important resource. While it is often taken for granted in Europe, over-exploitation and pollution will make it increasingly difficult in future to maintain the present level of supply in terms of quality and quantity. Concerted policies for the management of surface, ground and sea water therefore appear indispensable. Prevention, better land use, crisis management (floods, drought), public awareness and cross-border cooperation are the main requirements.
  • Establishment of the "Natura 2000" network of protected areas is a useful approach to sustainable development. Other sensitive areas (mountains, wetlands and islands) offer great biological diversity and, with an appropriate integrated strategy, possibilities for development. Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) should provide a response to the many challenges facing the approximately 90 000 kilometres of coastline.


Although the ESDP is not a binding document, the Member States want it to produce results in the long-term. The desire cooperation among those engaged in spatial planning at various levels will help avoid contradictions or measures cancelling each other out.

The Member States are making a number of relevant recommendations:

  • At Community level: a) The Commission is recommended to examine periodically and systematically the spatial effects of Community policies.b) To ensure coherent implementation, cooperation with international organisations and institutions (Council of Europe, OECD) is advised.c) Measures to encourage the collection and exchange of information include: the establishment of comparable indicators (geographical position, economic strength, social and spatial integration, natural and cultural assets), studies on the major spatial trends in Europe (demography, location of activities and economic globalisation, technological change, enlargement and relations with the rest of the world), exchange of innovative experiences in the field of spatial planning.d) Establishment of a "European Spatial Planning Observatory Network" (ESPON) should begin as soon as possible. Specialist research institutes in the Member States would then support political cooperation through joint studies on spatial development.
  • Transnational cooperation: The Member States and the Commission are recommended to continue the project-oriented transnational cooperation for spatial development under the Interreg III Community Initiative. Suitable cooperation areas should be retained to that end and the creation of common administrative structures encouraged despite legal obstacles, there should be more intensive cooperation by local authorities and support for cooperation with non-member countries, particularly to prepare them for enlargement, using the existing instruments (Interreg III and the Phare, Tacis, Meda and Cards programmes).
  • At the level of the Member States: It is proposed that the 15 should take more account of the European dimension of spatial planning in their national policies and inform the public about European cooperation on spatial development.
  • Cross-border and interregional cooperation: It is proposed that the Member States and regional and local authorities implement further cross-border projects. Some relevant examples include: the preparation of cross-border planning strategies and land-use plans, improved links between regional transport systems and national and international hubs, implementation of sustainable development strategies in rural areas and of programmes making use of the natural and cultural heritage and the establishment of networks of towns on the topic of urban development.


Enlargement is a real challenge for the European Union; it will have an unprecedented socio-economic and territorial impact. The forthcoming accession of ten candidate countries from Central and Eastern Europe (CEEC) plus Cyprus and Malta, will increase the population and area of the Union by about a third but its gross domestic product (GDP) by only 5 %.

Enlargement will alter the reference area of the ESDP in the following respects:

  • population: While the Baltic states, Slovenia and Cyprus each have under 4 million inhabitants, only Poland and Romania are large countries in terms of population and area. In the candidate countries, urbanisation is generally more concentrated than in the Member States. Since 60 % of their population lives in border areas, cross-border cooperation will be a primary instrument of European integration.
  • economy: According to 1995 figures, the economic prosperity of the candidate countries is everywhere lower than in the Member States and varies considerably from one country to another. Slovenia, the richest candidate country, is on a par with Greece, the poorest Member State, while the Baltic States, Bulgaria and Romania are the least prosperous countries. Within the countries, the capitals and cross-border regions are the most dynamic. In terms of regional disparities, the candidate countries may therefore be compared with the cohesion countries and there is a risk of regional disparities growing still wider. The enormous regional disparities mean that the pattern of employment will see considerable restructuring - which is still in progress - in industry and agriculture.
  • transport: The candidate countries have seen spectacular changes in transport, which now looks to the west rather than to the east, favours roads rather than rail and operates in the private sector rather than the public sector. Despite the lack of resources, the balanced and sustainable development of transport and the modernisation of infrastructure are the major challenges for the future.
  • environment: The environmental situation has two aspects. Most of the candidate countries have extensive areas under cultivation and relatively intact ecosystems but most industrial areas suffer from severe air and water pollution.

In the CEEC, meeting the challenges posed by the process of economic change is still regarded as a national priority. Their regional and spatial planning policies suffer from a lack of tradition as reflected in a shortage of instruments and structures and the frequent absence of an autonomous regional level in the administrative system. Poland, Slovenia and Hungary have made most progress in their reforms towards a regional policy in line with the current Community model (regional strategy, programming, partnership, implementation, monitoring and evaluation). For more information, see the fact sheets entitled " Further indicative guidelines for the future Member States " and " Preparing the future Member States to implement the regional policy in the period 2004-06 ".

Enlargement requires a reform of the current regional and agricultural policies. The Commission made proposals in this regard as part of Agenda 2000 and the debate on the future of regional policy after 2006 has also begun. Previous enlargements demonstrate, however, that an increase in the number of less prosperous countries in the Union tends to reduce the room for manoeuvre as regards regional policy, so calling into question the priorities for the future cohesion policy. Meanwhile, in-depth studies on the territorial impact of enlargement are required. It is also necessary to involve the candidate countries and their local authorities in the management of the Community Funds as rapidly as possible. To that end, the financial instruments of both regional policy (Interreg III) and external relations (Phare, Tacis, Meda and Cards programmes) are supporting training for national and local officials from the candidate countries and the establishment of topic-based networks within areas of transnational cooperation.

For more information on the ESDP, consult the full version of the ESDP on the Inforegio site of the Directorate-General for Regional policy.

4) implementing measures

5) follow-up work

Resolution on regional planning and the European Spatial Development Perspective [Official Journal C 226 of 20.07.1998].

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP) - first official draft [Official Journal C 407 of 28.12.1998].

Opinion of the European Parliament on spatial planning and the European Spatial Development Perspective [Official Journal C 93 of 6.4.1999].

Last updated: 05.01.2004