Strengthening Metropolitan Governance through Soft Planning: Towards a Supra-municipal Awareness in the Region of Lisbon?


  • Cristina Cavaco Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon School of Architecture, CIAUD
  • Igor Chaves
  • Luís Sanchez Carvalho


Soft Planning, Territorial Governance, Governance Rescaling, Inter-municipal Cooperation, Metropolitan Area of Lisbon




Over the past decade, a significant surge of interest in soft planning and soft spaces has emerged, reshaping planning processes and governance dynamics. These concepts have catalyzed innovative planning approaches and the rescaling of governance arrangements, challenging the conventional boundaries associated with hard spatial planning. They underpin the foundation of a new planning paradigm, characterized by a shift in territorial governance facilitated by more flexible governance arrangements beyond the formal ones and the creation of new spaces for planning and political engagement, characterized by a voluntary and non-statutory nature (Cavaco et al., 2023).

While these concepts were initially applied to describe planning solutions in the UK and Northern Europe, their influence has transcended boundaries, shedding light on similar approaches in Southern Europe (Purkarthofer and Granqvist, 2021). In Portugal, the ascent of soft planning is intricately linked to the European Union’s (EU) role, particularly in advancing non-statutory planning practices (Cavaco and Costa, 2019). This encouragement is evident not only through non-mandatory policy agendas but also significantly through the allocation of funds from the Cohesion Policy. Despite lacking formal competencies in spatial planning, the EU's Structural and Investment Funds, combined with specific policy initiatives, have effectively propelled territorial strategies and partnerships. These operate on a soft planning basis, influencing domestic administrative-territorial organization.

Across various community programming cycles, the Cohesion Policy has significantly exerted a substantial influence on Portugal's internal processes of territorial and governance rescaling, accentuating the rise of inter-municipalism (Vale et al., 2021). In the absence of administrative regions (an intermediate tier of government between the central and local administrations), models of inter-municipal cooperation have emerged as a pivotal mechanism to fortify regional governance and engage local authorities in the allocation of European funds. Nevertheless, these models bring to light inherent challenges, primarily arising from the absence of a corresponding administrative and governmental level. The imperative to address the distribution of territorial resources and power among cooperating municipalities becomes evident, particularly as the legitimacy of their intervention depends on votes from local elected officials. Consequently, their influence is confined to the municipal territories where they hold formal jurisdiction (OECD, 2020).

By examining the case of the Lisbon Metropolitan Area and inter-municipal cooperation within the context of Portugal's territorial administrative structure, this presentation aims to delve into the dynamics and impact of soft planning approaches. It specifically focuses on their role in reinforcing territorial rescaling and metropolitan governance. The presentation acknowledges the influential role played by the Cohesion Policy and the European Funds in propelling these dynamics, notably by providing financial mechanisms to invigorate integrated territorial approaches.

To achieve this, the paper scrutinizes several strategies and non-statutory planning instruments implemented between 2014 and the present. This analysis reveals significant progress in recent years, particularly in strengthening metropolitan governance. Beyond the institutional and administrative consolidation of the Metropolitan Area, these instances contribute to the gradual development of a 'supra-municipal awareness' that goes beyond the mere aggregation of individual and autonomous municipal intentions—an ordinary record in Portugal's inter-municipal cooperation.



Cavaco, C. et al. (2023) ‘Beyond soft planning: Towards a Soft turn in planning theory and practice?’, Planning Theory, 22(1), pp. 3–26. doi: 10.1177/14730952221087389.

Cavaco, C. and Costa, J. P. (2019) ‘Administrative Organisation and Spatial Planning in Portugal: A Push Towards Soft Planning Spaces in Europe?’, in Shaping Regional Futures. Designing and Visioning in Governing Rescaling. Cham: Springer, pp. 87–101. doi:

OECD (2020) Decentralisation and Regionalisation in Portugal: What Reform Scenarios?, OECD Multi-level Governance Studies. OECD Publications.

Purkarthofer, E. and Granqvist, K. (2021) ‘Soft Spaces as a Traveling Planning Idea: Uncovering the Origin and Development of an Academic Concept on the Rise’, Journal of Planning Literature, 36(3), pp. 312–327. doi: 10.1177/0885412221992287.

Vale, M. et al. (2021) METRO - The role and future perspectives of Cohesion Policy in the planning of Metropolitan Areas and Cities. Annex V - Lisbon Metropolitan Area case study. Luxembourg: ESPON. Available at: ESPON METRO_Synthesis Report.pdf.