spatial inequality, hinterland logistics, trade infrastructure, congestion, pollution, spatial justice


Trade infrastructure and logistical activities have long been a source of prosperity as well as nuisance. The gains and pains of logistics, however, are not distributed equally across regions and cities. Important trade hubs such as Rotterdam or Chicago have built strong trade institutions and accumulated urban wealth, hereby making a successful trade-off between the global gains of trade and the local pains of congestion and pollution (Cronon, 1991; Kuipers et al., 2018). Since the rise of global supply chains, such hubs have grown beyond their city boundaries and formed logistical hinterlands. These extensive areas appear to represent a less favourable trade-off between gains and pains, judging by the increasing criticism against distribution centre developments, regarding landscape degradation, congestion (CRa et al., 2019) and precarious jobs (Bergeijk, 2019). In the hinterland of Rotterdam, the building footprint of logistics has increased fourfold since 1980 (Nefs, 2022), while congestion and labour shortages have also increased steeply and the planning system has been decentralized, giving more responsibility to local governments (Nefs et al., 2022). This paper discusses whether hinterland logistics can be regarded as a spatial justice issue, and how this may be reflected in the local spatial planning discourse. 

The concept of spatial justice emerged in the early 1970s, when Harvey and other geographers applied Rawls' (1971) theory on fair distribution of gains and pains to planning, which has gained traction in recent years (Rocco and Newton, 2020; Soja, 2010). This not only relates to infrastructures and spaces, but also the distribution of “financial, environmental and social benefits and burdens issued from urban development.” ( Since public goods and negative externalities such as noise are not equally distributed geographically, accessibility as well as proximity play an important role in a spatial justice discourse. As Bret (2018) explains, geographical scales used in such discourses should also be seen as social constructs, which may be used to legitimize the outsourcing of pains to other territories and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) positions.

The procedural aspects of spatial justice, or how a planning system may enhance the fair distribution of gains and pains, have been explored by Healey (1996) and Ostrom (2015). Moroni (2020) reminds us that distributive justice cannot cover the full range of social justice issues, since not all goods are scarce, divisible and transferable. This also applies to aspects discussed in this paper, such as e-commerce and nitrogen emissions. The Dutch planning system, rooted in democratic water and land management, often faces land scarcity in light of economic and ecological ambitions. It is therefore understood to have the necessary institutions and motivation to enhance spatial justice (Michels, 2006; Salet, 2018).


Although not always framed as spatial justice, the logistics planning literature frequently addresses distributive problems. For example, the Los Angeles region has seen a conflict between regional gains of logistics developments and their local pains in hinterland areas with vulnerable communities (De Lara in Hall and Hesse, 2012; Yuan, 2019). While the regionalization of distribution centres along the Alameda Corridor has improved the air quality and congestion in downtown LA and in general terms in the whole region, it has significantly worsened living and working conditions in the Inland Empire region, east from LA. Another recent case of spatial inequality around trade infrastructure is the Belt and Road Initiative (Teo et al., 2019).

Spatial inequality of logistics is at least partly rooted in the inherently unstable and heterogeneous territorial manifestations of logistics networks. As Santos (2006: 163, 176–185) explains, building on the work of Castells and other geographers, such networks constitute a national space at the service of the international economy, creating various territorial dialectics and instabilities: local vs global, slow vs fast, competitive vs lagging, and varying levels of fluidity (adherence to international corporate standards).

Since the gains and pains of logistics developments are felt on such different scales and among so many different actors, making a good trade-off is extremely difficult. While a company can seek an optimum of costs pertaining to e.g. the service level and location of a distribution centre (Onstein et al., 2019), the societal trade-off is much more complex – involving changing political positions regarding a multitude of gains and pains. Neither societal cost-benefit analyses can fix this - since these still need interpretation and fail to factor in aspects like biodiversity or landscape quality, which are hard to measure (Hickman and Dean, 2018). Nor are spatial-economic models equipped to combine and evaluate this variety of positive and negative externalities (Verhoef and Nijkamp, 2005). As a result, persuasive, coordinative and justificatory discourses remain key elements in deciding on large economic developments with environmental impacts (Healey, 1999), such as logistics.

The literature on spatial justice vis-à-vis logistics and local governance therefore suggests that the trade-off between logistics gains and pains highly depends on discourses, on which Dutch hinterland communities could have a meaningful influence. In the next section, two hinterland cases in the Netherlands shed light on the public discourse on the gains and pains of logistics developments. The purpose of the case study is not to evaluate the trade-offs, but rather to identify spatial justice arguments (gains and pains) in the planning discourse, and analyse these with regard to the local decision-making process.