Regions with specific territorial features have received increasing attention in recent years. The Lisbon Treaty changes the wording of Article 174 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (ex article 158 TEC) so that it now reads:
"In order to promote its overall harmonious development, the Union shall develop and pursue its actions leading to the strengthening of its economic, social and territorial cohesion.
In particular, the Union shall aim at reducing disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the least favoured regions.
Among the regions concerned, particular attention shall be paid to rural areas, areas affected by industrial transition, and regions which suffer from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps such as the northernmost regions with very low population density and island, cross-border and mountain regions."
This shows that regions with territorial specificities are approached as a subset of backward and least favoured regions, and thus their specificities are described as "handicaps".
The Green Paper on Territorial Cohesion, published by the European Commission in 2008, takes a different angle. The subtitle of the document, "Turning territorial diversity into strength", suggests that geographic specificities could also represent a chance for the concerned regions and for Europe.
This ambivalent understanding of Europe's extensive and diverse geographic specificities, as an asset as well as a source of territorial development challenges, shapes the political context for the GEOSPECS project. The construction of a coherent European perspective regarding Europe's specific types of territories presupposes that these two types of approaches are more explicitly connected and integrated
In spite of the frequent concomitant references to multiple categories of geographic specificities in EU policy documents, there have been no attempts to construct a transversal discourse on why they are often not fully exploited, and why many areas with geographic specificities are still "lagging". The main objective of the GEOSPECS project is to provide a coherent transversal framework to characterise the past trends, state, and potential future developments of geographical specificities for territorial policy and regional development.
The second (subordinate) objective relates to the idea that concepts such as "mountain", "island", "sparsely populated" and "border" have a strong federative power, creating a sense of commonality among regional actors from across Europe concerned by a given type of "geographic specificity". This is demonstrated by the number of well-established European organisations representing large number of regions with geographic specificities, such as:
Therefore, a secondary objective of the GEOSPECS study is to facilitate the integration of this sense of commonality and of the discourses constructed to justify specific treatments, on the basis of geographic specificities, in European territorial cohesion strategies.
The conceptual framework proposed for GEOSPECS aims to describe the duality characterising the potential territorial development of any geographic specificity, i.e. the group of disadvantages linked to the threats, and the group of advantages linked to the opportunities. Furthermore, as an additional step in the analysis, it tries to describe the typical combinations of disadvantages or advantages with "nexus models".
The nexus models aim to visualize not only the key characteristics and sets of development challenges and opportunities of GEOSPECS areas, but also the interlinkages between these. Not all of them are linked in a causal way, but in many cases geographic specificity works to reinforce (positive or negative) development processes and potentials.
GEOSPECS explores how challenges and opportunities for development combine in individual regions to create an overall situation of growth or decline, sustainable development or imbalance.
The GEOSPECS project crosses three dimensions:
First, different categories of geographic specificities are coherently defined and mapped using a common spatial reference framework. Numerous areas are characterised by multiple geographic specificities; the GEOSPECS project also investigates the particular conditions for economic and social development that may result from interactions between these specificities.
Second, analyses based on carefully selected transversal themes are used to quantify and qualify the current state and trends, and to identify associated strengths and weaknesses.
Third, the unique regional combinations of geographic specificities create systems of challenges and opportunities.
Analytical dimensions of the GEOSPECS project
A key ambition of the project is to strengthen the dialogue and knowledge exchange between the different types of geographic specificities. This implies that connections must be established between fields of research that have, until now, been envisaged in a relatively isolated way. The overlaps between the various geographic specificities can facilitate such a dialogue. "Border regions" may, for example, be found in mountainous, sparsely populated, coastal, insular, outermost and "inner periphery" regions.
In addition to the exchanges naturally developing because of the overlaps, individual project partners are responsible for a number of key transversal themes (economic vulnerability, accessibility, information and communication technologies, residential attractiveness, regional identity and cultural heritage, protected areas and biodiversity, natural resource exploitation, ecological vulnerability and climate change). The cross-analysis of geographic specificities according to these themes contributes to a more coherent discourse on geographic specificities, by showing similarities and differences in the ways that regions concerned by each theme experience obstacles to balanced and harmonious development and overcome these challenges.