The concept of ‘soft spaces’ is increasingly used in academic debates to describe planning spaces and processes outside the statutory planning system. By being used in research that is based in different geographical contexts, addresses different spatial scales and deals with different thematic fields, the idea of ‘soft spaces’ has undergone a considerable conceptual evolution.

In order to clarify the content and use of soft spaces as a concept, this article co-authored by Eva Purkarthofer (TU Delft) and Kaisa Granqvist (Aalto University) approaches soft spaces as a traveling planning idea. The traveling of planning ideas refers to the flow of ideas through different ‘circuits of knowledge’, such as communities of academics, planning practitioners and policy makers, from one place-based context to another, during which the ideas potentially gather new meanings. The concept of soft spaces has traveled through three distinct contexts: its origin story in the United Kingdom, and two translation experiences in the context of the European Union and the Nordic countries.

In the UK, soft spaces were first used to describe regional and city regional development areas of national importance, promoted by the national government and aimed at speedy policy delivery. In the context of EU policy-making, the concept of soft spaces is often used to refer to functional regions and cooperation spaces across borders, while also the related concept of ‘soft planning’ emerged, referring to strategy development, coordination, cooperation, negotiation, and learning. In the Nordic countries, soft spaces are characterized as strategic arenas of negotiation and cooperation between municipal actors at the city regional scale. However, the regulatory system and especially the municipalities remain important for planning in the Nordics, making soft spaces tightly entangled with the logics of statutory planning.

More awareness and reflectivity are needed not only when the concept of soft spaces continues to travel to new contexts in the academic circuits of knowledge but also in the light of the concept potentially transforming from an analytical term into a prescriptive idea. In future research, further clarification of what is ‘soft’ in soft spaces is needed, as well as a discussion of the tensions, synergies, and hybrids between ‘the soft’ and ‘the hard’ in planning research, which can ultimately also benefit planning practice.

Purkarthofer, E., & Granqvist, K. (2021). Soft spaces as a traveling planning idea: Uncovering the origin and development of an academic concept on the rise. Journal of Planning Literature.

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