Drawing up cultural historical pattern languages to support regional transitions


  • Oswald Devisch Hasselt University
  • Teresa Palmieri Free University of Bozen-Bolzano




The awareness grows that even seemingly commonplace planning challenges – such as noise disturbance, parking issues, and privacy concerns – call for systemic changes that imply complex transitions, cross multiple scales and involve a large diversity of stakeholders (Meadow, 1999). Flanders employs ‘strategic projects’ as a key instrument to navigate this transition. A strategic project comes with an iterative process structured around three interconnected tracks: developing a shared vision at the regional scale, investing in strategic locations, and establishing a collaborative process with key stakeholders (Albrechts, 2004). However, sustaining this iterative process, tracking synergies among investments, maintaining alignment with the overarching vision, and ensuring stakeholder commitment pose significant challenges.

Despite the availability of tools like concept notes, project subsidies and quality chambers, most investments remain isolated, failing short of contributing to systemic change. This paper introduces an innovative approach grounded in the concept of pattern languages (Alexander et al., 1977), to augment relationships among individual projects, the overarching vision and the agendas of involved stakeholders. In particular, the choice for pattern languages is informed by their three central features: it’s moral component, it’s emphasis on coherency, and it’s generative ability.

To augment the contextual nature of a pattern language, we incorporated Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) (Engeström, 2000). CHAT posits that an activity not only relies on tools but also on a community, rules and a division of roles; all framed within a specific history and culture. Stakeholders, according to CHAT, only change their activities when triggered by conflicts (or contradictions) within or among these components.

We developed a visual analytical framework, rooted in both pattern languages and Cultural Historical Activity Theory, to challenge how stakeholders - ranging from individual citizens to businesses and local authorities - have engaged with their region throughout history and may do so in the future. This framework identifies the triggers that prompted stakeholders to change their way of working (i.e. the contradictions that made them adjust their current activity pattern). The resulting mappings unveil interdependencies among stakeholders, but also among the stakeholders and the (unique) attributes of the region, providing a comprehensive understanding of the regional activity-system to which they all contribute. Additionally, the mappings trace patterns in the individual histories such as recurring leverages, similar actions, and types of cooperation’s, culminating in a regional ‘cultural historical pattern language’.

Our argument suggests that each strategic project should commence with the creation of such a language to illuminate how individual actions contributed to past and potential future changes and to weigh the stakeholders' capacity to engage in forthcoming actions (Palmieri et al., 2021). To exemplify our methodology, we will present a case study conducted in the Rupel region, Belgium, where we developed such a regional cultural historical pattern language with 12 entrepreneurs. Throughout our case, we successfully unravelled the intricate interdependency of these entrepreneurs with the region, highlighting their role in addressing commonplace planning challenges typical for a region in transition.


Albrechts, L., 2004. Strategic (Spatial) Planning Reexamined. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 31(5), 743-758.

Alexander, C. Ishikawa, S. and Silverstein, M. 1977. A Pattern Language. Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Engeström, Y. 2000. Activity theory as a framework for analyzing and redesigning work’, Ergonomics, 43, 960–74.

Meadows, D. 1999. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Sustainability Institute.

Palmieri, T., Huybrechts, L. and Devisch, O. 2021. Co-producing, curating and reconfiguring dwelling patterns: A design anthropological approach for sustainable dwelling futures in residential suburbs. Design Studies, 74.