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GREAT insights Magazine

What is territorial development?

June 2015

Romeo, L. 2015. What is territorial development? GREAT insights Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 4. June/July 2015.

A national policy on territorial development may provide the missing link between politics-driven decentralisation and development. This article advances a policy-relevant definition of territorial development and outlines a strategy to promote it.  

Decentralisation and territorial development

The link between decentralisation and development is notoriously problematic. Not only is empirical evidence limited and inconclusive, the very conceptualisation of the link is open to questions and interpretations. Yet, after more than two decades of worldwide decentralisation reforms, some basic lessons have been learned:

– Decentralisation is invariably driven by politics, which dictates the scope and pace of the reforms.
– Decentralisation may contribute to development, but this depends on:

  • the developmental nature of the decentralising State;
  • the national policy commitment to territorial development, and;
  • the role local authorities may play in promoting it: their autonomy and their accountability.

Decentralisation will not contribute to development if the State itself is not committed to development or if the political drivers of the reforms are not supplemented by a national policy that values territorial development and empowers local authorities to promote it. Such policy is then the condition for politics-driven decentralisation to also have a developmental impact. Conversely, its absence goes a long way to explain the freezing or reversal of so many decentralisation processes in the real world. But what is territorial development and what does it take to empower local authorities to deliver it?

Prevailing definitions of territorial development

When used before the word development, the adjective territorial typically refers to either (i) the spatial integration or (ii) the geographic scale, of development.

In the first, more technical sense, territorial development refers to integrated multi-sector development across a specific portion of territory, guided by a spatial vision of the desirable future and supported by strategic investments in physical infrastructure and environmental management. This definition makes no reference to scales (local, regional, national or transnational) and applies equally to any of them.

In the second, more neutral, sense, territorial development is simply an umbrella term for development of specific (typically sub-national) portions of territory. These may be an urban, metropolitan, regional or rural jurisdiction, but also watershed, coastal, mountainous, border areas, etc. Most often, the term is used to encompass both local development (narrowly associated with smaller, first-tier, jurisdictions or even part of them and regional development, i.e. the development of larger, intermediate jurisdictions (districts, provinces, regions, etc.). But since any space can be defined as local from an observer placed above or outside it, the expression territorial development may just designate local development at any scale.

Towards a more specific definition

What should we make of these definitions? Their proponents take different disciplinary perspectives and have different policy concerns. They may end up obscuring some issues while insisting on others.

Those who define territorial development as spatially integrated development of a specific territory may underestimate the complex operation of economic and social sectors across multiple scales and overstate the scope and feasibility of their coordination by local authorities. They may take a hyper-local perspective, obscuring the multi-scalar, multi-actor, nature of territorial development.

Those who define territorial development neutrally, as development that happens in a territory (whatever the scale), may ignore the critical differences, mostly political and institutional, of places of different scale in promoting local development. A most obvious example is the difference, in scope and modalities, of people’s participation in public policy making and implementation, at the urban or regional scale. They may obscure the endogenous nature of local development and the role that the territory plays as active ingredient, not passive receptacle, of development.

A better definition of territorial development is needed. It should be built on the concept of local development, taking stock of its evolution since the early 80s, to eventually understand territorialdevelopment as a more specific and policy-relevant conceptualisation of local development.



Click on the image to enlarge

Back to local development

Central to the concept of local development is to understand local as designating not just a where (whose definition ultimately depends on the standing of the observer), but also, and more importantly a how and by whom development is promoted. In this view the leveraging of place-specific resources through enabling political and institutional mechanisms of local governance and development administration, which are local, infra-local and supra-local, constitutes the critical difference between genuine local development and the many forms of localisation of national, or even global, development policies, programs and projects. In this respect not enough attention might have been given to what it means to localise the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and how such localisation relates to genuine local development.

  • The first defining feature of local development has therefore been the mobilisation of a wide range of place-specific resources via effective political and institutional mechanisms of governance and administration. This is what is meant when local development is referred to as endogenous.
  • The second feature follows as a corollary of the first. It refers to local development being incremental with respect to national development efforts in the sense of having the potential to improve, via autonomous local authorities’ action, both the efficiency and the scope of national development efforts.

To such early conceptualisation, two additional features should be added which are increasingly important in both the theory and practice of local development.

  • The third feature refers to the economies of scope and added value to sector-specific activities that may be realised through their horizontally integrated and spatially coordinated management by local authorities. Local development is then referred to as spatially integrated.
  • The fourth feature refers to the fact that local development significantly depends on the interaction of local public, community and private actors with a range of other actors operating at supra and infra-local level, however such levels are defined. This invalidates any form of localism in thinking about local development, and makes it essentially multi-scalar.

Territorial development as better understood local development

When analysing or advocating the development of territories of variable (but typically sub-national) scale, in terms of all four features above (being endogenous, incremental, multi-scalar and integrated) the expression territorial development may actually be preferable to that of local development. Territorial development retains the original meaning of local development as endogenous and incremental while preventing its identification with any form of localism and stressing the need for spatial integration and multi-scalar interactions and coordination. The following definition could therefore be advanced:

Territorial development designates development that is endogenous and spatially integrated, leverages the contribution of actors operating at multiple scales and brings incremental value to national development efforts.

Adopting such a definition has quite important implications. It calls for the empowerment of developmental local authorities and orients the national policy required to link decentralisation reforms to development outcomes.

Empowering local authorities to promote territorial development

Promoting territorial development requires developmental local authorities empowered with meaningful autonomy and embedded in effective accountability networks. Without autonomy, there may be no efficiency gains in public expenditure and no additional local resources mobilisation. Without accountability, capture by special interests and related inefficiencies might be common. The fact is that developmental local authorities will emerge only if decentralisation reforms themselves are re-conceptualised as “empowerment of people through the empowerment of their local governments” (Bahl, 2005) and not just as a transfer of functions and resources across levels of the governance and public administration system. Local authorities would then be recognised as self-government mechanisms of a local political constituency (not just managerial entities to deliver some services), which are not only responsible for specific functions devolved or delegated to them, but are also empowered with a general mandate for the welfare of their communities and may therefore develop, finance and implement their own local policies (in addition to localising national policies).

Outlining the required national policy and institutional changes

Territorial development is what developmental local authorities are all about. But it won’t happen without a national strategic commitment to it. The often missing link between decentralisation and development is indeed a national strategy for territorial development, referred to as Territorial Approach to Local Development (TALD) by the European Commission (see for more on TALD) article overleaf by Jorge Rodríguez Bilbao). The comprehensiveness and linear logic of the strategy as represented in Figure 1 have an analytical value only and should not be misunderstood as policy prescriptions. Real world change won’t happen simultaneously along all the strategy’s policy and institutional dimensions; partial and incremental reforms are more likely to happen and they may follow diverse and non-linear paths using any of the strategy’s building blocks outlined above as entry point

About the author


Leonardo Romeo is President of Local Development International l.l.c. and Adjunct Professor of International Development Planning at the Wagner Graduate School of New York University.

Photo: Pudong skyline, Shanghai. Credits: Matt Paish,

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 4, Issue 4 (June/July 2015).

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External authors

Leonardo Romeo