Agonistic planning in practice: is it successful?


  • Felix Leo Matzke ILS Research


Agonistic planning, Rhenish mining area, real-world laboratory, lignite mining, transformation




The Rhenish mining area can serve as a real-word laboratory setting for agonistic planning theorists: since the middle of the last century open coal-pit mining led to a state of permanent conflict. In the 1970s and 80s citizens’ initiatives were founded fighting for their villages to stay. Inhabitants and NGOs tried to solve their argument juridically up to the German Federal Constitutional Court. But until recently neither the “right to home” nor environmental conservation criteria could outdo reasoning for security of energy supplies. With a growing influence of climate activists on societal and political discourses, the tide now has turned: Most Germans support a sustainable transition of energy supply markets (e.g., Bertelsmann Stiftung 2023). Subsequently, federal and state governments have decided to phase-out lignite mining in 2030 (RWE AG, 2022).

However, for some villages in the mining area of Garzweiler in Erkelenz this decision came too late. Inhabitants who already resettled have now to accept that their relocation was not necessary. This led to multiple lines of conflict between different actor groups. Disputes are reinforced because five formerly separated villages have been merged in a collective resettlement. Some inhabitants stayed in the old villages refusing to relocate causing additional tensions between “leavers” and “remainers”. Climate activists who built a camp in a former village in Erkelenz are not seen as supportive but rather as an external friction by most of the residents. Also, the municipal administration although objecting the mining plans all along is not an ally in the eyes of the villagers because eventually it has to implement the (unpleasant) decisions made on planning levels above.

This paper builds upon research (e.g., workshops, qualitative interviews, a survey) within the framework of a transformative research project (Zhoch3, 2021-2024). Aim is to show how these conflicts outlined above are negotiated by the different groups of actors. Thesis of the paper is that based on the strategic approach of mining operator RWE, also local citizens, climate activists, and even the municipal administration have ‘learned’ to act in an agonistic manner. Agonistic planning theory argues for conflict being a productive force when opposing parties tolerate each other and adhere to shared rules of conflict resolution (Kühn, 2021: pp. 145-146, Pløger, 2021: pp. 1297-1298). But a) if an involved party complies to “the rules of the game” as well as b) if agonistic behaviour is considered to be successful varies greatly from an individual perspective. The paper concludes that the highly fragmented field of actors impedes a collective mode of problem solving. Regarding the transformative objective of the project, our findings offer some ideas how social cohesion could be strengthened to support more collaborative actions.


Kühn, M. (2021) ‘Agonistic planning theory revisited: The planner’s role in dealing with conflict’ Planning Theory, 20(2), pp. 143–156.

Pløger, J. (2021) ‘Conflict, consent, dissensus: The unfinished as challenge to politics and planning’ Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 39(6), pp. 1294–1309.

RWE AG (2022) Agreement on coal phase-out 2030 and strengthening security of supply in the energy crisis. Press release, Essen, 4 October 2022. Available online: