Unveiling the culturised practices of regional planning – the case of Stockholm, Sweden



regional planning, planning culture, soft spaces




For many years, research has stressed the potential of regional planning to mediate between different issue- and sectoral-based interests. It is argued that the regional scale is appropriate to pursue horizontal and vertical coordination of differently positioned actors in view of the exploitation of land for housing, transport, industry and agriculture versus protection of biological diversity, cultural heritage and climate change adaptation measures, for instance (Frank and Marsden, 2016). Also, regions may offer a ‘good spatial fit’ to incorporate a number of socio-economic, environmental and functional issues, since they comprise urban, sub-urban and rural areas and their specific challenges and interrelations. As a result, we can observe a resurgent research interest in regional planning with a specific focus on governance, institutional design and on the strategic and practical relevance of regional planning (Lingua and Balz, 2020), which is (still) firmly institutionalised in the majority of European countries (Smas and Schmitt, 2021). However, in Sweden regional planning has traditionally a weak position compared to planning within municipalities. The scope of action of regional planning is limited in legal terms, but also regarding available resources and political backing. Hence, public agencies working with regional planning need to be innovative in identifying and developing its own specific culturized practice of regional planning. The only Swedish region having a long tradition in practicing “statutory” regional planning is Stockholm, with a first regional plan adopted in 1958 and the latest, the eighth one, is from 2018. Since 2019, Stockholm Region has a more pronounced and extended responsibility for regional development and public transport, which we consider as a critical juncture as it increases the need to coordinate these policy areas with the longstanding tradition of regional planning.

In this paper we seek to unpack the scope and current practices of regional planning in Stockholm by exploring regional planning as culturised practices (Othengrafen and Reimer, 2013). To that end, we view culture as an analytical lens (not as a normative or abstract concept) for investigating planning practices in order to reveal underlying convictions and norms, the role of (in)formal actor-network relations, and prevailing traditions that guide planning decisions. We focus specifically on the internal relations between public agencies and politics, but also on external relations with other stakeholders in order to understand the organisational and institutional structures that public planning professionals shape and are shaped by (Purkarthofer, Humer and Mattila, 2021). Drawing on a qualitative research design, our analysis reveals the extent to which regional planning is able to coordinate and integrate different agendas and interests, despite a comparatively vaguely defined legal context and using solely non-binding instruments. More concretely, we investigate four cases in order to assess to what extent regional planning is able to fulfill its above-mentioned roles and expectations to coordinate different interests, agendas and strategies. Two of the four cases focus on the ongoing densification in designated regional urban nodes (regionala stadskärnor), with the overall objective to make Stockholm region ‘more’ polycentric. The other two cases shed light on strategic measures to promote so-called rural nodes (landsbygdsnoder) as spatial focal points for guaranteeing a certain level of services of general interest within sparsely populated areas. What these two normative concepts, regional urban cores and rural nodes, have in common is that they follow a soft approach in delineating the targeted spaces. Our results show the durability of hegemonic narratives and how underlying ideologies and taken-for-granted beliefs shape regional planning in Stockholm. However, we also unveil how regional planning is indeed able to pursue specific normative goals despite a limited scope of action with regard to policy tools, resources and political backing.


Frank, A. and Marsden, T. (2016) 'Regional Spatial Planning, Government and Governance as Recipe for Sustainable Development? ' Metropolitan Ruralities - Research in Rural Sociology and Development, 23, Leeds: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 241–271.

Lingua, V. and Balz, V. (eds.) (2020) Shaping Regional Futures. Designing and Visioning in Governance Rescaling. Cham: Springer.

Othengrafen, F. and Reimer, M. (2013) 'The Embeddedness of Planning in Cultural Contexts: Theoretical Foundations for the Analysis of Dynamic Planning Cultures', Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 45(6), pp. 1269–1284.

Purkarthofer, E., Humer, A., and Mattila, H. (2021) 'Subnational and Dynamic Conceptualisations of Planning Culture: The Culture of Regional Planning and Regional Planning Cultures in Finland', Planning Theory & Practice, 22(2), pp. 244–265.

Smas, L. and Schmitt, P. (2021) 'Positioning Regional Planning across Europe', Regional Studies, 55(5), pp. 778–790.