IMAJINE: Rethinking territorial inequalities through spatial justice

IMAJINE logoThe persistence of inequalities between regions despite over three decades of interventions under the EU Cohesion Policy is a wicked problem for Europe and there is growing appetite to rethink approaches. Over the last six years, WISERD at Aberystwyth University has been leading a major project, IMAJINE (Integrative mechanisms for addressing spatial justice and territorial inequalities in Europe), that has sought to do just that.

Funded by Horizon 2020, IMAJINE has adopted a holistic, multidisciplinary and mixed methods approach involving a consortium of 16 partners across 13 countries. At the core of IMAJINE’s approach is the concept of ‘spatial justice’, which it has explored as an alternative way of approaching questions of territorial inequality. This involves going beyond mapping disparities to interrogating the processes that produce uneven outcomes, exploring perceptions of ‘fairness’, and considering the political implications as calls are made for ‘justice’.

WISERD researchers have been engaged in all aspects of IMAJINE. Professor Rhys Jones contributed to analysis of policy discourses and the framing of inequality and cohesion, and Dr Maria Plotnikova to econometric analysis of regional inequalities and their evolution. Dr Rhys Dafydd Jones and Dr Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins completed research in Wales on the connections between migration and territorial inequalities. Meanwhile, Dr Anwen Elias, together with Dr Elin Royles, Dr Huw Lewis, Dr Nuria Franco Guillen and Dr Patrick Utz, investigated how ideas of spatial justice have been articulated in the claims of territorial autonomy movements.

As coordinator, Professor Michael Woods managed the project and oversaw the integration of results from the various work packages as IMAJINE moved towards completion in June 2022. The integrative analysis has produced new critical insights into the conceptualisation of spatial justice and its application in research, which will be discussed in a forthcoming book In Search of Spatial Justice (Edward Elgar), fed into policy recommendations and debated at a seminar with policy stakeholders in Brussels.

One novel feature of IMAJINE has been the elaboration of scenarios for territorial inequalities and spatial justice in Europe in 2050, based on projections from the research findings. The four scenarios imagine contrasting balances between solidarity and autonomy and differing emphasises between economic growth and social wellbeing resulting from divergent policy paths.

The differing scenarios exemplify the core conclusion of IMAJINE: there is no one objective solution for achieving spatial justice in Europe, but rather we need a debate on what type of spatial justice we want. Questions of whether to emphasise an equal distribution of wealth or rights to regional self-determination, for example, are central to current concerns from Brexit and the delivery of Wales’s wellbeing agenda to post-COVID recovery and the climate crisis. As it turns out, the clue to solving the dilemma of how we might achieve spatial justice in Europe was in the name of our research project all along.