ESPON seminar The role of functional areas for territorial cohesion in Iasi (RO) on 19-20 June 2019:


An initially planned seminar in Iasi (Romania) last June became a Conference on how to match policymaking in functional areas with measurable developments for territorial cohesion. This was the final great event within the territorial agenda of the Romanian Presidency of the EU.

This seminar was organised in cooperation with the Romanian Presidency of the EU Council in the framework of the ESPON 2020 Cooperation Programme, which aims to support policy development for promoting territorial cohesion and harmonious development of the European territory.

People are increasingly mobile, and developments don't stop at administrative borders. Moreover, policy decisions and actions reach beyond administrative borders. This means, geographies for policy making are not aligned with the geographies affected. Policy making using functional areas should overcome these challenges.

This seminar looked at how the scale of policy intervention can be matched with the scale of developments by using functional areas. What is the role of functional areas for territorial cohesion? How can areas in decline profit from policy making using functional urban areas? How can development in functional areas be measured?

Furthermore, the seminar provided insights from the latest ESPON evidence on many of the topics related to the territorial cohesion debate including financial instruments, green infrastructure, circular economy, refugee flows, youth unemployment, geographical specificities, cultural heritage, territorial impact assessment, land-sea interactions, big data and urban rural linkages. 

The seminar was aimed at policy makers, stakeholders, practitioners, scientists and experts who are interested in understanding the development challenges and potential of their territory in a wider context and implementing policies ‘on the ground’ and how ESPON evidence can support these processes.

Several sessions were organized on “functional areas and territorial cohesion”, “functional urban areas”, “Macroregions”, “Cross-border regions”, and “Translating territorial evidence for policymakers and citizens”, and various sessions presenting ESPON research and results.

The session on “Cross-border functional areas: which role in future European territorial cooperation programmes” was moderated by Nathalie Verschelde (DG Regio) and the speakers and panellist indicated below presented various aspects to develop the topic.

The Territorial Agenda 2020 calls for a functional approach in policy making and territorial analysis that better reflect the reality and complement approaches related only to administrative boundaries. The Urban Agenda for the EU emphasizes a need for urban authorities to cooperate within their functional areas and with their surrounding regions, connecting and reinforcing territorial and urban policies in order to address growing number of urban challenges like labour migration.

Various country specific and regional examples exist regarding how functional regions have been determined and the way these regions are functioning and being governed. The Council of Europe of Ministers Responsible for Spatial Planning (CEMAT) work has been particularly informing in this regard[1], particularly the European overview on functional areas[2].  It seems that work on defining (delineating) functional areas is always “on-going”, for instance recently the OECD published a study on defining “megaregions” [3]. Apart from country specific experiences of defining functional regions, the most developed concept of functional areas in terms of methodology, analysis and a pan-European application, concerns functional urban areas (FUA) and local labour market areas (LLMA).

Regarding FUAs, a harmonized EU-OECD functional urban areas definition has been elaborated, defining a FUA as the city and its commuting zone at LAU level; in fact FUA has become an officially recognized territorial typology and is included in the TERCET classification[4]. A close sibling to FUA is “metropolitan region” which is approximation of FUA at NUTS 3 regional scale. Eurostat and OECD provide regular overviews of these functional areas.

ESPON has always been a strong advocate of functional approach in planning. This approach allows to capture and lead the development processes at the geographical scales that are not bound by administrative borders but that reflect the realities of increasing interconnections among places based on mobility of people, goods and services.

The functional approach requires a stronger cooperation among places and that, in turn, stimulates their development perspectives at least in two ways:

  • allowing to increase the resource base that is needed to serve people’s well-being needs;
  • ensuring the efficiency of investment through their coordinated use and avoiding wasteful/ overlapping investment.

Therefore, the functional approach in planning, governance and investment policies helps to promote the development potential of places and thereby address the development challenges. A recent ESPON Policy brief[5] provides a number of recommendations showcasing the ways to promote the functional approach and cooperation among different administrative levels.

Given the fact the Romanian Presidency has made functional urban areas and territorial cohesion their priority, this workshop was aimed at providing an opportunity to explore the specific links between FUA and cross-border regions, especially in terms of how Cross-border functional areas can play a role in future European territorial Cooperation.

According to the European Commission[6], the rationale and the benefits of considering cross-border functional areas in the upcoming 2021-2027 CBC programme are the following:

  • For some topics, the solution can be optimised if partners outside the programme area are involved;
  • For some other topics, the solution is purely local, corresponding to an area much smaller than the programme;
  • This shows that the problem-solving should be based on functional areas rather than on the administrative scale defining the programme area (which is only used to define ERDF allocations). What matters is that the projects benefit the cross-border area. The location of the project or the location of the partners does not matter.
  • The ex-post evaluation of 2007-2013 Cohesion Policy programmes highlighted the limited attention that had been paid to the notion of a functional region or area when identifying the border regions to support. This is essential when considering the potential benefits of cross-border cooperation.

For the EC, this new approach might have three main benefits for the post-2020 regulations:

  • enabling the projects to be more effective as they can build on the experience of a wider range of relevant partners and as they can be located where the impact is bigger
  • showing that Interreg is a policy tool supporting projects to improve the situation and not a mere funding tool for the benefit of local authorities sharing a budget
  • and avoiding that programmes re-create new borders outside the programme geography.

If there are obvious difficulties in defining functional areas in practice, this workshop discussed them and tackled the potential place and role of cross-border functional areas in future ETC programmes and cohesion policy post 2020.

It raised and addressed the following policy questions:

  • What are the different challenges for identifying and using functional approach in cross-border regions?
  • How can this concept of cross-border functional area support a new "bottom up” approach and encourage partnerships at different levels (e.g. between regional and local levels)?
  • What impacts on the design and funding of Interreg programmes would have the introduction of such a functional approach?
  • How could this renewed approach support the development of cross-border services for European citizens?

The following speakers and panellists took the floor during this session:

- Bernd Schuh, chairman of the board, Österreichisches Institut für Raumplanung (AT), on Territorial Impact Assessment for Cross-Border Cooperation – ESPON TIA CBC and TIA Tool Projects. Functional cross-border areas and TIA tool: challenges and potentials for using this new approach in CBC programme.

- Helka Kalliomaki, Senior Researcher, Centre for Collaborative Research, University of Turku (FI). Potentials of big data for integrated territorial policy development in the European growth corridors – ESPON BIGDATA Project. The European Growth Corridor stretching from Oslo via Örebro and Turku to St Petersburg is linking together the EU, Scandinavian and Russian markets through the TEN-T Scandinavian-Mediterranean Core Network Corridor. This functional cross-border area needs specific governance and further understanding of its territorial realities relying on location-based data. Indeed, considering this kind of area in 2021-2027 CBC programme will require new means of data utilization as the development dynamics of these territories no longer adapt to the traditional administrative boundaries of data gathering.

- Alexandru Rusu, Faculty of Geography and Geology, University of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, Iasi (RO), presented some contextual background and examples for Romanian border regions.

- Martin Guillermo, Secretary General of the Association of European Border Regions (DE), and Mátyás Jaschitz, Director of Planning at the Central European Service for Cross-Border Initiatives (HU) provide statements voicing the needs and expectations of border regions.


[1] See:

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] See:

[5] See:

[6] DG REGIO border orientation papers drafted in May 2019 to serve as a basis for a dialogue both within each border region and with the EC for the 2021-2027 CBC programme.

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