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Frontiers of land and water governance in urban regions


Artículo publicado en Water International ©

A society that intensifies and expands the use of land and water in urban areas needs to rethink the relation between spatial planning and water management. The traditional strategy to manage land and water under different governance regimes no longer suits the rapidly changing environmental constraints and social construction of the two key elements in urban development. The dynamics of urban development and changing environmental constraints cause an urgent need for innovative concepts in the overlapping field of land and water governance.1 The claim for more space for rivers for flood retention (Hartmann, 2011) and environmental protection (Moss & Monstadt, 2008), the fragmentation of the drinking water sector (Moss, 2009), or unsolved upstream–downstream relations (Scherer, 1990) are illustrative of these dynamics. Therewith, increasingly, water management steps into the governance arena of spatial planning, and spatial planning needs to reconsider its notions of water issues.Particularly in urban regions, engineering and technical solutions of water management reach their boundaries; new frontiers for the common governance of land and water emerge (Figure 1). Although agriculture remains important for land and water governance (Calder, 2005), and it is the biggest consumer of water and occupies large areas of land, this

special issue focuses on the urban realm because in the tense relation between water and land, the need for innovative approaches is more urgent. Urban regions are intensively used by many different stakeholders with competing interests, so that frictions between socio-economic dynamics and environmental constraints of land and water are more complex and more intense. Hence, the challenges of finding creative and path-breaking solutions in those areas are most pressing.
Resolving and dealing with such tensions and frictions asks for a reconsideration of the traditional institutional divide between spatial planning and water management. New governance schemes need to be found that are complementary to those traditional institutions. Water management and spatial planning usually pursue essentially different modes of governance: water management traditionally relies on engineering and technical solutions, spatial planning usually mediates between competing interests without having its own strong institutional capacities (Hartmann & Driessen, 2013; Moss, 2004). Spatial planning is thereby more comprehensive and meta-disciplinary than water management, which tends to be more specific and sectoral (Moss, 2009). Whereas water engineers aim to control and regulate the water sector, spatial planning aims for the coordination and integration of many different sector activities (Hartmann & Juepner, 2014).
There is an ongoing academic discussion on connecting and integrating sectors and subsectors in the field of water management (Dyckman & Paulsen, 2012; Gleick, 2000; Wiering & Immink, 2006). What exactly integrated water resource management (IWRM) means, and what should be integrated in what, remains vague (Biswas, 2004). But a call to involve other disciplines has been issued, in a much broader context than just water management (Loucks, 2000). Others promote an integration of ‘natural systems’ (water and land) in the ‘human systems’, involving economy, policy, institutions and others (Jønch-Clausen & Fugl, 2001). Calder notes in Blue Revolution that the ‘revolution in the way land and water are managed’ (Calder, 2005, p. 1) is a philosophical one, changing the way society regards water. He acknowledges the need to invent governance schemes to deal with this revolution. However, his investigation of integrated land and water resources management focuses on forests and agricultural aspects. Another debate centres on legal integration of water issues in order to create more comprehensive water laws (Hartmann & Albrecht, 2014; Gilissen, van Rijswick, & van Schoot, op. 2009; Heer et al., 2004; Jong, 2007).
Edelenbos et al. pursue a broader perspective on water governance, including also Delta regions, spatial planning. They discuss the connective capacity of water (Edelenbos, Bressers, & Scholten, 2013b), and state in their conclusion that water governance systems are ‘complex, multilevel systems, heavily intertwined with other physical, social, political and economic subsystems’ (Edelenbos, Bressers, & Scholten, 2013a, p. 333). They call for continued work on resolving the fragmentation in the water sector, acknowledging that connection is not the ultimate answer to water governance (p. 344). Billé identifies four common illusions and misbeliefs of integrating and connecting the water sector with other environmental governance by referring to integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) (Billé, 2008). He shows, first, that governance problems are not solved by bringing all stakeholders to a round table; second, there is not one manager; and third, the public interest is not easily identifiable, and more knowledge does not necessarily solve governance problems (‘positivist illusion’). Governance schemes instead need to respond to the specific governance problems; or as Edelenbos et al. phrase it: water governance needs to be ‘aware of the problems with existing boundaries in water governance’ (Edelenbos et al., 2013a, p. 349). Often, approaches focus instead on the institutional boundaries of land and water management (Grigg, 2008).

Environmental constraints and new governance frontiers

Frontiers of land and water governance emerge along the physical boundaries between land and water: along horizontal boundaries on riverfronts and coastlines, along vertical boundaries between groundwater or water infrastructure and surface land use, and along fluid boundaries in floodplains and due to changing sea levels. Figure 2 illustrates the three frontiers schematically. Along these physical boundaries, land and water issues overlap in the urban realm and create new governance frontiers.

In order to make the analytical concept of ‘governance frontiers’ clear, it is vital to distinguish between a frontier and a boundary. A boundary is something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent; a frontier comes with different meanings: it is a region that forms the margin of settled territory, the farthermost limits of knowledge, a division between different or opposed things, or a new field for developmental activity. So, on the one hand, frontiers of land and water governance refer to land and water as opposed to each other; but more importantly, they also express that the common governance of land and water is a field for development and research.

Vertical frontiers

The vertical boundary between land and water is between groundwater and water infrastructure below and land use above.2 Often the interactions between urban land uses on top and water below, like drinking water supply, pipes for freshwater and sewage that enable land uses, or pollution of ground water, occur quite unnoticeably. The surface is the boundary between water below and land on top. However, socio-economic and environmental changes challenge this boundary in various ways. Three contributions in this special issue show the scope of governance challenges on this vertical frontier.
Cuadrado-Quesada explores, with examples from South Australia and Costa Rica, how land uses and groundwater interfere and what in these cases are the specific governance challenges. This paper therewith combines an analysis of the regulatory framework with the issue of participation.
Hartwich, Bölscher and Schulte present a very specific example of a vertical governance frontier between land and water. Short rotation coppices reduce the groundwater level significantly during the growth period (Perry, Miller, & Brooks, 2001). From a governance perspective this raises questions about how to allocate and distribute the advantages and disadvantages of those effects. Hartwich et al. analyse in particular the dimensions of efficiency and effectiveness.
Schmidt connects regional governance and water supply and wastewater disposal in three different case studies in Germany: Berlin, the Ruhr and Frankfurt (Main). This contribution comprises an introduction into how Germany organizes the two fields of governance and regional planning and water management separately. Schmidt identifies the inherent need to address land and water with a comprehensive governance approach.
The three contributions in this section of the special issue illustrate that the vertical boundary between land and water can become more permeable because of the various and not always obvious interdependencies between land use on top and water issues below. In order to find appropriate governance schemes for this frontier, one needs to tackle problems that are not visible in the first place and situations of externalities and long-term effects. This will most likely make it more difficult to activate stakeholders and reach commitment within a certain governance arrangement.

Horizontal frontiers

The horizontal boundary of land and water establishes itself along riverfronts and coastlines. In terms of governance, such areas are usually contested terrains: tourism, environmental protection, real estate development and others issues are in conflict with regard to the use of land and water. In fact, analytically one can observe various governance frontiers between spatial planning and water management established along waterfronts. Two contributions discuss the governance challenges at the horizontal frontier at rivers and the coastline.
Levin-Keitel offers a cultural perspective on urban riverscapes. Using two examples from southern Germany – the cities of Ratisbon and Nuremberg – she searches for the role of culture (i.e. norms and values) in integrated planning processes of urban riverscapes and discusses the dynamic cultural complexes when dealing with urban riverscapes. Levin-Keitel illustrates different cultural imprints of water governance and land governance. This helps in understanding the challenges (and need) for a more integrated riverscape management.
Van den Berghe and De Sutter present a very interesting and very specific horizontal frontier of land and water governance: the case of Flanders’ coastal region. Their analysis helps one to understand how effective and efficient coastal management is challenged by historically and geographically established lock-in situations.
Finally, there are many examples of extending horizontal frontiers of land and water governance in urban regions that show the increasing intensity and importance of developing appropriate governance schemes for those areas. Conflicts of interest result from economic and ecological functions of waterways and shorelines competing with interests of land-use planning. The complexity of such problems has been addressed previously in discussions around ICZM (Billé, 2008) or marine spatial planning, but, particularly in urban areas, governance schemes need to address the increasing socio-economic (e.g., waterfront development projects, floating homes, etc.) and environmental dynamics (e.g., sea level rise, water quality, etc.) along the physical boundary between water and land.

Fluid frontiers

Fluid frontiers between land and water governance refer to situations where the physical boundary between land and water is changing permanently or temporarily (Brown & Damery, 2002; Hartmann & Spit, 2012). This predominantly is the case with storm surges, sea-level rise, but also with the desiccation of lakes (e.g., Aral Lake). In addition, climate change affects water issues in many ways and diminishes or changes boundaries between land and water, which calls for new governance solutions. Fluid boundaries between land and water question existing governance schemes in specific ways. The most prominent fluid boundary in urban regions is certainly flooding, especially because many urban areas are located on large water bodies (Hartmann, 2011). Three contributions address the fluid frontier from different methodological perspectives, covering examples from different continents.
Tempels and Hartmann reflect on this frontier through the lens of the concept of co-evolution. This is a theoretical contribution on the trade-off of flexibility with robustness in flood risk management. The stance taken by Tempels and Hartmann is that floods need to be regarded not as purely technical water management issues, but rather in the context of interacting (i.e. co-evolving) systems: namely land and water.
Hetz and Bruns apply the theoretical concept of lock-in to urban planning in Johannesburg. They discuss informal growth, land policies and how they interact with urban flooding. Thereby issues such as distributional injustice are addressed. The authors provide insights into the constrains with regard to adaptive planning for climate change.
Norton and Meadows present a case where different governance frontiers interact. At the Great Lakes in the United States and Canada, tidal movements affect land uses on the shorelines. Norton and Meadows explain the complex institutional and legal consequences of this interaction of land and water. This case is specific for the Great Lakes, but the effect on affluent land (in a literal sense) is also of interest for regions that will suffer from sea-level rise.
These three contributions explain why water management but also spatial planning cannot rely on established and well-rehearsed procedures and institutions in the face of fluid frontiers. Instead, new governance schemes are required (Dworak & Görlach, 2005). Entrenched lock-in situations need to be overcome (Wesselink, 2007).

Governance challenges frontiers of land and water governance

The above distinction of vertical, horizontal and fluid governance frontiers of land and water is an analytical framework that reveals the different governance challenges. Whereas the horizontal frontier has to deal with governance problems that are very long-term and rather invisible, or, at least where causes and effects are not always obvious, the vertical frontier is one of high levels of socio-economic and environmental dynamics. The governance challenges along the fluid frontier, however, need to overcome entrenched lock-in situations and deal with uncertainty and normativity of flood-risk perceptions in a particular way. The examples illustrate the scope and urgency of these frontiers and the urgency for a quest for innovative governance approaches to address these frontiers.
Tejo Spit
Urban and Regional Research Centre Utrecht (URU), Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands
Emails: and
Thomas Hartmann
Urban and Regional Research Centre Utrecht (URU), Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands
Emails: and


This special issue is an outcome of the international academic summer school of the German Academy for Spatial Research and Planning (Akademie für Raumforschung und Landesplanung, ARL). It took place in August 2013 and assembled a number of PhD students and professors, all active in research on the issue of governance of land and water. Most contributions in this special issue stem from this summer school, which was organized at Utrecht University by the two guest editors. The guest editors and authors are grateful that Water International supported them in bringing their efforts together in this special issue, in particular because it provided many younger authors a chance to publish their work.

1. Governance describes a collaboration of public and/or private actors that aims to realize collective goals (Benz, 2005). A mode of governance is understood here as a particular arrangement of (public and/or private) actors embedded in certain institutions (context, legal framework), and a specific approach to the content (the object) (Driessen, Dieperink, Laerhoven, Runhaar, & Vermeulen, 2012).
2. Although some water infrastructures are also on the surface, the main infrastructural grid is considered as below surface.


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