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Spanning Boundaries Between Policy and Practice:
Strategic Urban Planning in Gothenburg, Sweden
To cite this article: Hannah Saldert (2021): Spanning Boundaries Between Policy and
Practice: Strategic Urban Planning in Gothenburg, Sweden, Planning Theory & Practice, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2021.1930120
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa
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Published online: 03 Jun 2021.
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Spanning Boundaries Between Policy and Practice: Strategic Urban
Planning in Gothenburg, Sweden
School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
Strategic urban planning is promoted to eectively implement sustainability
policies. This paper investigates the role of practitioners when conducting
strategic urban planning in a Swedish development project: the RiverCity
Gothenburg. A case study of the project shows how practitioners serve
a crucial role as boundary-spanners when dealing with the organisational
challenges arising during the planning process. The paper concludes that the
responsibility put on practitioners risks diminishing the political legitimacy of
the strategic planning process. Therefore, there is a need to reduce the gap
between politicians and practitioners for addressing the political aspects of
Received 1 March 2019
Accepted 11 May 2021
conﬂicts; the RiverCity;
To be strategic is often emphasized as important when planning for sustainable urban development
(Albrechts, 2017; Healey, 2007; Kettunen et al., 2020; Staord-Smith et al., 2017). Strategic urban
planning is expected to enable a more comprehensive understanding of sustainability issues and
bridge the sectoral silos, common in local governments, by developing action frameworks to reach
desired outcomes (Albrechts, 2017; Brandtner et al., 2017; Hersperger et al., 2019). However, earlier
research on Nordic countries has shown that in practice, strategic urban planning initiatives often
result in problematic forms of institutional complexity when merging statutory planning with
a strategic approach (Gustafsson et al., 2019; Mäntysalo et al., 2015; Olesen, 2014). This institutional
complexity combined with the conicting objectives and interpretative exibility embedded in the
concept of ‘sustainability’, risks compounding the challenges faced by practitioners involved in
strategic urban planning processes. This paper analyses how practitioners deal with these chal-
lenges of strategic urban planning at the boundary of politics and practice, in an example of
a Swedish strategic urban planning project the RiverCity Gothenburg.
There is a growing body of literature focusing on the role of collaboration and deliberative
governance for sustainable planning (Kettunen et al., 2020; Torng & Ansell, 2017; Weymouth &
Hartz-Karp, 2018). However, less attention is given to how the institutional complexity and compet-
ing priorities of sustainable development are dealt with within local strategic planning organisa-
tions. In this paper, strategic planning is understood as a sociospatial process that creates plans for
future development based on the understanding of current societal trends (Albrechts, 2004; Healey,
2009; Persson, 2020). In practice, this is done by bringing a variety of actors together in diverse
CONTACT Hannah Saldert email@example.com University of Gothenburg, Box 700, 405 30, Gothenburg, Sweden
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
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properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
institutional settings and bridging sectoral silos to produce frameworks of visions, objectives and
actions that frame what a place is and may become after development (Albrechts, 2017; Bryson
et al., 2009; Hersperger et al., 2019). As noted above, it can be organizationally problematic to merge
strategic urban planning initiatives with statutory planning routines. For example, by calling for
transformative practices that assume a discontinuity from established governing routines
(Gustafsson et al., 2019). Or, by generating a hybrid between traditional welfare planning and
growth-oriented neoliberal approaches, resulting in the imagining of radically dierent futures
(Olesen, 2014). Mäntysalo et al. (2015), and also show how merging strategic and statutory planning
results in a need for combining the contradictory governance approaches of management and
bureaucracy. These examples show how the strategic planning organisation brings a specic type of
institutional complexity into the planning process.
While some scholars argue that strategic urban planning is better able to address the concept of
sustainability, the concept itself is ideological and multi-faceted, which forces practitioners to also
deal with interpretive exibility and competing goals (Campbell, 1996; Metzger et al., 2020; Owens &
Cowell, 2011). Conducting strategic urban planning for sustainable development, thus entails
bringing practitioners from dierent policy sectors together to realise the ambiguous visions of
sustainability through collaborating over organisational boundaries in institutionally complex
Despite this attention given to collaboration across boundaries and sectors in strategic urban
planning, the role of the individual practitioner and his/her agency is rarely in focus. To respond to
this research gap, I use Williams’s (2012) analytical framework of ideas, structure and agency to
investigate the role of practitioners when performing strategic urban planning. The research
questions are: How do practitioners within the RiverCity organisation deal with organisational and
ideational boundaries? How does the strategic urban planning context aect boundary-spanning
activities? To answer these research questions, I study the micro-decisions and conicts that arise
during the planning process of the RiverCity within the local government. I address both the
relations between the practitioners working within the municipality, and the relations between
practitioners and politicians.
This paper contributes empirically with an analysis of an ongoing strategic planning process and
the organisational challenges that arise when implementing the vision of a sustainable city district.
Theoretically, the paper contributes to the understanding of the role of boundary-spanners (as
dened in the next section of this paper) in a strategic planning context. This case shows how the
strategic planning organisation put pressure on practitioners to become boundary-spanners. While
necessary to enable the implementation of sustainability policy in this specic context, the bound-
ary-spanning activities also risk diminishing the political legitimacy of the planning process itself.
The paper is organised in the following way. The next section introduces the theoretical approach
of boundary-spanning. The section following presents the RiverCity project and the Swedish
planning context. The case study design and materials used in the analysis is introduced after
this, followed by a section on the results of the study, including the specic challenges identied
within the RiverCity. This is followed by a discussion on what this says about the role of boundary-
spanners in strategic urban planning organisations.
Theory: Spanning Boundaries of Ideas, Structures, and Agency
The concept of boundary-spanning originates from management research in the 1920s (Haas, 2015).
Tushman (1977) introduced the boundary-spanner and elaborated on the dierent roles that
evolved during innovation processes within organisations when there is a need to exchange
information between internal and external organisations, hence spanning dierent types of orga-
nisational boundaries. The concept is versatile and has been used in a variety of sectors, for example,
research and development facilities (Tushman, 1977), health and social care, and public administra-
tion (Williams, 2012). The boundary-spanner promotes strategic decision-making by linking various
sources of information, by creating and coordinating the ow of information across organisational
boundaries (Haas, 2015; Tushman, 1977).
The concept of boundary-spanning focuses on the actors and activities within a collaborative setting.
Williams (2012), who studies intersectoral collaboration in public administration in the UK, developed an
analytical framework for studying boundary-spanning activities. The purpose of the framework is to
adopt a “ . . . balanced approach that situates individual agency within its dynamic interplay within
institutional, organizational, and other macro-level contextual forces” (Williams, 2012, p. 2). He departs
from the assumption that collaboration involves structural and ideational boundaries that the practi-
tioners need to navigate or span. He, therefore, constructs this framework out of three interconnected
factors in collaborative settings: ideational, structural, and agency factors.
The three factors combined are used to describe the complexity of relationships and interactions
in collaborative settings. Ideas, structure and agency are highly interconnected. They dier depend-
ing on the setting and what involved actors represent. Therefore, they can create boundaries in
collaborative settings when dierent ideational, structural and agency factors collide.
Ideational factors represent inuential narratives, rationalities and frames such as policy, values
and goals. It is through ideas that actors interpret and frame the context within which they act (Hay,
2002). The inuence of ideas is specically felt in policy areas where dierent interests collide
(Williams, 2012), for example in urban planning. Although, according to Williams (2012), bringing
conicting frames together, for example when solving problems, can generate new meanings and
realities, which changes ideas through frame restructuring.
Structural factors include, for example, organisational cultures and management systems,
resources and institutional frameworks. They are represented by bureaucratic procedures, ocial
regulations and mandates of agencies or civil servants, and resource streams. These come from
political decisions and are found in policy documents such as budgets, protocols and legal text.
Structural factors frame ideational factors. Ideas are grounded in organisational cultures and
institutional frameworks. Structural factors thus also constrain and enable actors’ capacities to act
within a certain context, while new ideational factors can also lead to policy paradigms that can
change structural factors.
Agency factors include the capacities of actors: their skills, capabilities and experiences. Agency
can be understood as the engagement of actors in a certain context (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998). It is
through the agency of actors that structures are reproduced or transformed (Archer, 1995). Actors
are also the bearers of ideas. Collaboration between actors with conicting ideas can lead to frame
restructuring and the development of new ideational factors.
By focusing on the boundary-spanning practices and actions, William’s framework can contribute
by understanding the challenges that come with strategic planning. To illustrate this, I use this
framework to describe the context and explain the challenges that arise. The ideational factors are
studied within the various policy documents governing the planning project. The structural factors
are applied to the RiverCity organisation and its organisational entities. The agency factors are used
to analyse the practitioners’ capacity to act within this setting, where I focus on how they enact the
role of boundary-spanners.
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 3
Background to the Case of the RiverCity Gothenburg
The RiverCity Gothenburg is one of the largest urban development projects in Scandinavia today. It
is located along the river Göta Älv, which passes through the centre of the city. The project
transforms browneld areas into inner-city residential and commercial districts. The development
is deemed important because of a need to counteract segregation and to attract new business and
tourists to the city, as well as to satisfy housing needs for current citizens.
In Sweden, the National Planning and Building Act (PBA, 2010) regulates the bureaucratic
hierarchy of the planning system. At the municipal level, the City Council appoints a Building
Committee that prepares planning matters, such as granting building and demolition permits,
etc. In Gothenburg, the City Planning Authority (CPA) carries out the decisions of the Building
Committee and prepares the Structure- and Detailed Plans, which the City Council later approves.
Other departments are also involved in urban development, for example, the Trac and Public
Transport Authority (TPTA), the Property Management Administration (PMA), and the Parks and
Landscape Administration (PLA).
When initiating the RiverCity development project, the municipality turned to strategic planning by
adopting a visionary document, and creating a project organisation with a new organisational
structure, where dierent municipal departments and the municipal development company
Älvstranden Utveckling (ÄU) collaborated over organisational and sectoral boundaries (see Figure 1).
This organisation also included private developers early in the planning process to safeguard both
public and private interests through the whole planning process.
The visionary document (hereafter called ‘the vision’) for the development project was adopted
in 2012 and particularly emphasized the social sustainability dimension: “[s]ocially sustainable
Figure 1. Overview of the organisational structure of the RiverCity.
Source: Author’s creation. The ﬁgure is a simpliﬁed illustration of the structure of the RiverCity project, which does
not include all of the subprojects and departments involved in the organisation.
development will be a high prole issue for Gothenburg as well as RiverCity Gothenburg. We will
investigate how the city can be made available to everyone” (Gothenburg, 2012, p. 38). While there
is no clear denition of social sustainability in the document, it addresses social exclusion and
segregation as central issues and aims to (as shown in the quote above) make the city available for
everyone. Hence, it includes targeted actions such as creating public spaces and meeting places
where all people feel welcome, as well as nding ways to establish socially mixed housing to enable
low-income citizens to have a central residence (Gothenburg, 2012, pp. 35, 38). The vision also states
that the development project will develop and test new models and methods for creating sustain-
able neighbourhoods (Gothenburg, 2012, p. 38). Two years after the vision was adopted, the
committees of the CPA, the TPTA, and the PLA also adopted individual strategy documents for
their departments (Gothenburg, 2014a, 2014c, 2014d). The strategy documents presented each
department’s concretised objectives, derived from the Municipal Comprehensive Plan, and were
supposed to be used as complementing policy documents to the vision during the planning and
development of the RiverCity.
RiverCity’s organisation shows traits of multiple objectives and institutional complexity, which con-
tributes to drawing boundaries between the departments. Multiple objectives are shown, for example,
by incorporating the aim of sustainable development, but also because the dierent departments and
companies have separate strategies and objectives. It is institutionally complex due to its organisational
structure (see Figure 1). The City Executive Board appointed the RiverCity organisation, which consists of
dierent municipal departments and companies (see Figure 1). Two project managers lead the devel-
opment project, one representing CPA and one representing ÄU, who answer to a board consisting of
the directors representing the involved departments and ÄU. However, both project managers also
answer to their home departments/company as well. The CPA is responsible for developing the Detailed
Plans and ÄU is the landowner of several areas within the project. As landowners, ÄU also represents the
private developers who will carry out the construction of the dierent areas.
The development area is divided into smaller projects (P) which carry out the planning for the
districts within. All these smaller projects are at dierent stages of the process. During the time of
the study, the RiverCity project was in the phase of developing Detailed Plans for some of the areas.
This study analyses two of these sub-projects. During this phase of the implementation, practi-
tioners at the dierent municipal departments and ÄU were in the early stages of concretising the
goals and objectives of the vision and deciding on what to include in the plans, which would later
govern the further development of the area.
To enable an in-depth understanding of the role of practitioners when performing strategic urban
planning in Sweden, I conducted a case study of the development project from 2017–18. The case
includes the timeline from when the project was initiated in the year 2012 until 2018 and focused
specically on the areas where Detailed Plans were under development to catch the operationalisa-
tion of the vision. The RiverCity organisation is treated as a typical case, exemplifying a strategic
planning organisation that aims to prioritize social sustainability, and was chosen because of its
innovative planning practices. The concept of social sustainability is a fuzzy concept that only gains
meaning in the performative practises of its implementation. Therefore it contains a high degree of
interpretive exibility, lack of testable solutions, and often a substantive focus that spans several
policy sectors (Dymitrow & Halfacree, 2018; Stepanova & Romanov, 2021; Vallance et al., 2011). This
makes social sustainability an ambiguous goal. To investigate the role of the practitioners when
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 5
planning for this goal, the study focuses on the micro-decisions and conicts that arise within the
strategic planning organisation and how this unfolds across the organisational entities.
The case study aimed at getting an overview of the organisation as a whole by collecting
information on the history as well as the ongoing planning process. I employed an interpretative
research approach by letting the theoretical concepts emerge from my encounter with ‘the eld’
(Stake, 1995). I collected the empirical material through interviews, policy documents, reports,
and minutes from meetings; and so interacted with dierent perspectives and documentation of
the case. Meetings and activities conducted within the project were thoroughly documented in
minutes from meetings and reports from workshops, all of which gave valuable insights into the
activities and issues in focus during the planning process. Interviews complemented the docu-
ments and reports by getting the involved practitioners’ perspectives on how the process
unfolded in practice.
During the fall of 2017, I conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with eight key respon-
dents with experience and knowledge on the development project and its context. I selected the
respondents based on their professional mandates, identied through the project website and by
snowball sampling. The practitioners interviewed are civil servants within the municipality, with
roles as either project managers, team leaders, or administrators with a specic responsibility within
the development project. They represent dierent levels of the River City organisation and were
based at either ÄU or CPA. Practitioners were chosen at ÄU and CPA because they were the main
drivers of the development of the Detailed Plans and were leading the process in dialogue with
practitioners at other departments.
I based the interview questions on the policy documents, aiming at understanding the practi-
tioners’ experiences of the practices and processes within the RiverCity thus far. The questions asked
departed from three themes: the context of the project, the practice within the project, and the
implementation of social sustainability. The questions included how practitioners used the policy
documents and conducted activities, what challenges they faced, and when dilemmas or conicts
arose, especially concerning the goal of social sustainability, as well as how these challenges and
conicts were managed.
I transcribed and analysed the interviews in Swedish, and later translated the quotes for this
paper into English. Both documents and transcripts were analysed by conducting an inductive
content analysis through coding and creating categories. I applied the framework of ideas, structure
and agency to describe and explain the challenges evoked by the internal context of the RiverCity,
and how these were dealt with by the practitioners.
Results: Implementing Social Sustainability in the RiverCity
The results of the analysis show how the RiverCity struggles with challenges of vague strategies and
goals leading to diverging interpretations, as well as structural issues through the limitations of nancial
and temporal resources to plan for long-term goals, parallel bureaucratic processes, and unclear
mandates and responsibility between practitioners and politicians. It further shows how practitioners
as boundary spanners are crucial in managing these challenges. This section is divided into three parts.
The rst two sections present the ideational and structural boundaries, which describe the context of
the RiverCity organisation and the challenges it brings. The third section presents what capacity
practitioners have to act within this context and how they are or need to be boundary-spanners.
Ideational Factors Expressed as Competing Framings of the Sustainable City
The ideational factors in the RiverCity organisation can be summarised as competition between dierent
frames of sustainability and conicting rationalities within the planning process. These are found in the
policy documents used by the practitioners, both the ones adopted for the RiverCity organisation and the
sector-specic policy documents stating the objectives for each department and the municipal company.
They are also expressed through the practitioners’ dierent interpretations of these documents.
The vision (Gothenburg, 2012) represents several frames of what the sustainable city looks like,
for example, it is stated that: “ . . . all citizens [should] have the opportunity to live in the RiverCity
Gothenburg area” and “[w]e will build a dense urban environment that promotes meetings and
interaction. Particular account should be taken of the creation of squares and green areas”
(Gothenburg, 2012, pp. 14, 35). These goals are examples of dierent framings of how to develop
a sustainable city. As one practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling (ÄU) explains: “The dense city
and the qualities we want to reach . . . are not always compatible”. The combination of multiple
frames in the vision leads to multiple objectives, which is seen as a challenge when it is time to
interpret and operationalise the goals.
One thought that when we had the vision . . . then we had a common target. It is easy when you see it from
your own perspective: “we agree, we have the same goal”, but then you notice that the others have the same
goal but reach another conclusion, and then it crashes. (Practitioner from the City Planning Authority 3)
Conicts appear when practitioners need to prioritise interpretations of the vision. The dierent
interpretations of the goals are represented by the dierent organisational entities of the RiverCity
and their dierent rationales, which are partly found in their department-specic objectives.
There are several examples of when dierent rationales within the development project collide.
One example is the planning for Frihamnen within the RiverCity. The area is envisioned as both
a dense inner-city area, part of the city centre, and an area that should tie the city together by
connecting dierent city districts (Gothenburg, 2014b, pp. 12, 16). In one of the planning meetings,
the Trac and Local Transport Authority (TLTA) and the City Planning Authority (CPA) prioritised
these two objectives dierently:
TLTA highlights the need for a ve-meter wide commuter bike lane through the area. [Practitioner from CPA]
questions if this is necessary through such a central part of the city and compare it with the inner-city. TLTA
insists that the commuter bike routes are necessary to achieve decreased car trac. (Minutes from meeting
on Frihamnen DP1, 2015-04-22)
In this case, the practitioners representing dierent departments have dierent objectives on how to
reach social sustainability through the development of the area. While TLTA focuses on the mobility
between the periphery and core of the city, CPA focuses on creating an inclusive area without barriers
for groups moving within the area. While both departments are working towards the same goal, they
are basing their decisions on dierent rationales. Connecting the dierent parts of the city through
mobility is assumed to decrease segregation. Based on the Trac Strategy (Gothenburg, 2014c),
travelling by bike and local transportation should be prioritized over travel by car when connecting
the periphery with the city core. Developing the area as part of the inner-city assumes it should be
possible to move around on foot. To make this an inclusive area, one of the respondents at ÄU
specically pointed out the importance for children to be able to live in the area and move around on
their own terms. This would be dicult to ensure with fast bike lanes in the area.
Another example of when dierent rationales collide was when planning for aordable housing
in Frihamnen. The vision presents the goal that all citizens should have the opportunity to live in the
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 7
RiverCity, which is operationalised by creating areas with mixed housing tenure and a variety of rent
levels (Gothenburg, 2012, p. 43). There were dierent views within the project on how to do this.
. . . [a representative from a development company] said the whole time that it would be a lot easier to do
this [building aordable housing] in Torslanda [in the outskirts of the city, because of it being cheaper to
build there]. But I said, that is probably true, but now we are in Frihamnen. And there was a lot of struggle
around if we should see this as a testbed, if we should challenge ourselves or if we should do as we
always have done. (Practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling 1)
Here there is a conict between the idea of socially mixed living and the need to follow the
economic goals in the planning process. The two rationales represented in the quote show
a tension between the values of turning economic prot or developing central aordable housing.
The rationales stem from, on the one hand, traditional economic models and current routines, and,
on the other hand, the strategic visionary document to develop new models and test new ideas
(Gothenburg 12, p.38). The rst rationale does not support the development of aordable housing
in the centre of the city. However, the vision emphasizes the need to be innovative and try new
ideas. This tension is exacerbated by structural factors, which will be exemplied in the next section.
The analysis illustrates two overarching challenges that have to be managed within the project. First,
an ambiguous vision opens up for dierent interpretations and framings of the sustainable city. Second,
practitioners enact dierent rationales in their interpretations, depending on which organisational entity
they belong to. In some cases, the rationales from the involved organizations, regarding how to develop
the areas into sustainable city districts, are in direct conict with one another. In these examples,
ideational factors contribute to creating internal boundaries within the RiverCity organisation, which
leads to confusion and conicts regarding prioritisation of the dierent objectives related to social
Structural Factors Expressed through Resources and Lack of Responsibility
Structural factors consist of institutional frameworks, bureaucratic processes and resources, both
specic for the RiverCity organisation and for each municipal department and company. The
structural factors show three challenges. First, the limitations of nancial and temporal
resources; second, parallel bureaucratic processes; and third, unclear mandates and responsibility.
The rst challenge shows how nancial and temporal resources constrain the possibility of
reaching the goals in the vision. The practitioners interviewed described how the nancial organisa-
tion of urban development in Gothenburg is structured in such a way that the costs of the whole
development should be covered by the prots from the exploitation of the developing area,
including social services and public space. The obstacles created by the lack of nancial resources
are also particularly visible when objectives are put in relation to the budget of the project.
I would say that during the workshop period, everything worked ok, but it is when things come to a head
that it becomes uncomfortable, because that is when conicting interests emerge . . . when the economic
issues are brought in and you realize that you can’t do everything, I guess that is when the discussions
start. (Practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling 4)
It is the project economy that is steering, and that is an inherent problem . . . the projects are supposed to
nance everything within their own budgets through the exploitation of the area. So, if you build a park,
for example, you need to exploit more to make it possible economically, even if that park is for the whole
city . . . (Practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling 2)
The nancial organisation of the project forces practitioners to prioritize dierent objectives and
balance them within the overall project costs. At the same time, there was a political goal to nish
one part of the area in the year 2021. This short-term goal competes with the long-term goal of
. . . the social aspects are in focus but constantly risk being sacriced because of short-term plans and
economic issues . . . because we are supposed to deliver housing and oces fast. (Practitioner from
Älvstranden Utveckling 2)
The temporal resources given by the politicians are adapted for short-term planning while planning
for socially sustainable areas assumes a long-term perspective. The lack of routines for long-term,
socio-economic perspectives within the planning process is something that needs to be worked
around to implement the social aspects of the vision. One respondent from the municipal devel-
opment company explained:
Many of these parts [i.e. the park, aordable housing] cost money, but can also save money in the long
run. The short-term project economy and the long-term social economy is the biggest conict at this
stage. (Practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling 2)
This combination of nancial and temporal resources shows how the organisational structures
frame what is and is not possible to do within the project. It is this framing that constrains the
implementation of social sustainability. As exemplied in the previous section, the vision empha-
sizes the need to be innovative to, for example, develop aordable housing. However, the economic
structures of the project, in combination with short-term goals, limit the practitioners’ ability to be
innovative and try new ideas in the planning. Here there is a mismatch between the exibility
needed to reach social sustainability goals and traditional funding schemes and accountability,
which are short-term and sector-based.
Another challenge found in the structural factors is the separate organisational structures of
departments and companies. The purpose of the RiverCity organisation was to enable collaboration
between the dierent entities within the municipality, as well as to create an arena to develop new
planning routines. The visionary document states that they have to try new tools and methods to
develop a sustainable city (Gothenburg, 2012, p. 36). The practitioners also refer to the need to
collaborate to be able to conduct sustainable urban development.
One believes that it is possible to apply a vision on something existing, but doesn’t understand that we
are working with sustainable urban development, it demands something completely dierent, we can’t
continue working in our silos, and that means that we need to make tough changes to be able to work
together . . . and to nd joint solutions. (Practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling 2)
While the RiverCity organisation has the authority to manage the development process and is
structured to enable collaboration, there are still diculties in synchronizing the dierent depart-
ments and companies.
The RiverCity organisation is a collaborative process, and then there is the bureaucratic process for every
department. The problem is that they are not synched . . . The RiverCity is Scandinavia’s largest urban
development project – but maybe also the one in northern Europe with the most dicult organisational
structure . . . there are so many departments and companies, and we only talk about the municipality –
then all the [private] developers are supposed to be synched together as well. (Practitioner from
Älvstranden Utveckling 1)
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 9
The RiverCity project did not change the organisational structure of the municipality (see Figure 1),
where departments and municipal companies are more or less autonomous. However, in the
project, civil servants are now expected to span organisational boundaries during the whole
planning process. The strategic planning organisation has not been able to synchronize the dierent
bureaucratic processes, instead, the institutional complexity creates internal boundaries within the
As shown in the previous section, the departments still follow their own internal objectives,
which lead to dierent interpretations of what to prioritize in the RiverCity development process.
The challenges of collaboration between dierent departments and companies within the organisa-
tion, as well as the need for synchronizing the dierent bureaucratic processes, illuminate the
unclear mandates and responsibilities within the RiverCity organisation. One example of this is that
within each sub-project there are two project leaders, one representing CPA and one representing
ÄU. It is a challenge for them to determine what their mandates are, especially when they disagree
or have dierent objectives from their home organisations.
. . . some think that it is not important anymore to reach that goal [nish part of the area by the year
2021], while others think that that is not for the project to decide, but a political question, which needs to
be lifted to the political level. This leads to varying degrees of motivation if some departments decide
that it is not important anymore while others still work their asses o. (Practitioner from the City Planning
Because of the lack of clarity in the organisational structure regarding where responsibility lies for
dierent issues, practitioners experience problems when it comes to making certain decisions
within the RiverCity project. This, in turn, puts pressure on the political level.
The municipality has not decided where dierent issues should be handled, which means that there is
a risk that several issues have to be raised to the City Council, and they can’t handle all issues, because
they would be overloaded and can’t grasp all issues. (Practitioner from the City Planning Authority 3)
Since the RiverCity organisation does not have the mandate to make political decisions, conicting
views of practitioners are lifted to one or several political committees in the departments. However,
the respondents describe that it is dicult to get concrete decisions made and that issues are
postponed or moved around. The respondents also experienced that dierent political committees
prioritized dierently in their decision-making, which often collided with one another. This reects
the dierent rationales found in the dierent departments. The boundaries created by the separate
bureaucratic processes, together with the ideational factors, illustrate the challenges within the
strategic planning organisation when managing goal conicts. It becomes especially challenging
when the committees do not take responsibility for solving the issues but instead send them back to
the project to solve.
. . . the conclusion was that we had a goal conict, and that was what the politicians agreed on . . . and
that is, as far as I know, not managed yet, it is just hanging in the air, so it has landed back down in the
project again, for us to resolve, and there are no good conditions for that. (Practitioner from the City
Planning Authority 1)
By sending the issue back to the project, the politicians manifest a boundary between them and the
practitioners. In this case, practitioners are expected to manage the implementation of the goals,
despite the vagueness in the strategy and the multiple objectives. This indicates a gap between the
goals of the policy and the actual practice of operationalising them, which becomes a challenge due
to a lack of clear responsibility and mandates for decision-making.
10 H. SALDERT
The analysis shows how this institutional complexity leads to challenges within the organisation
where the dierent organisational entities enable dierent framings of the ideational factors, as well
as constrain and enable the practitioners’ actions. As exemplied in this section, the organisational
challenges exacerbate the gap between politicians and practitioners. It is the practitioners who are
consequently forced to manage the dilemmas and conicts that arise between departments and
Agency Factors Expressed Through Boundary-Spanning
The analysis thus far shows a predominance of organisational challenges through ideational and
structural factors within the RiverCity. The practitioners are the bearers of the dierent organisa-
tional cultures, as well as the ones who interpret and frame the situations and tasks to be performed.
The structural factors show how boundary-spanning becomes a necessity for practitioners to
manage the challenges.
While structural factors enable and constrain the practitioners’ capacity to act, the respondents
describe that the relations between departments and companies are always represented by
Relations are always both on an individual level, who can work together and communicate with each
other, and how one is organised, what role you have been given and what mandate and responsibility
you have . . . we probably depend too much on the individual level. (Practitioner from the City Planning
Since mandates are unclear and politicians are reluctant to get involved in the implementation
process, practitioners’ personal skills and capabilities become more important when managing the
challenges that arise.
There is constantly a nudging to get invited to [board] meetings, to get common directives, and a lot of
work and energy is put into making it work. And this depends on engaged and motivated project leaders
who are willing to collaborate, or there is a risk that there are parallel tracks . . . [a collaboration between
departments] also depends on the specic individual, what ability you have to handle such a negotiation.
(Practitioner from the City Planning Authority 1)
The agency of practitioners, especially the project leaders, drive the planning process and produce
the organisational structure (or reproduce the departments’ structure).
While the structural and ideational factors set the planning context, it is up to individual
practitioners to navigate and act within this context when implementing the goal of social sustain-
ability. In this way, the practitioners are the ones who manage these challenges. The analysis shows
several examples of how this is done.
One example of the practitioner managing such challenges is the avoidance of lifting issues to
the political level.
. . . you don’t want that, you are reluctant to do that, you can’t go to the politicians with everything
because then you risk getting the issue sent back to the project for further research. (Practitioner from
the City Planning Authority 1)
That practitioners try to manage challenges before they ask for political decisions shows how they
rst rely on their own capacities. The boundary set up between politicians and practitioners
becomes more permeable when practitioners avoid seeking political advice or decisions. When
practitioners rely on their own capacities rst, they are interpreting the policy, which gives them
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 11
opportunities to make decisions on how to operationalise the goals and in that sense prioritise
Another example shows how some practitioners struggle to cross boundaries to give the
directors and politicians “knowledge” for them to be able to make certain decisions.
I think that it is hard to be heard. I gnaw and gnaw and nudge at the board. You notice that the ones
sitting there aren’t developers . . . you constantly need to give them knowledge for them to understand
the issue. (Practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling 4)
By trying to show the board why decisions should be made, or explain certain issues, even when this
is not asked for by politicians or department managers – practitioners are spanning the boundary
between political decision-making and implementation. These two approaches are also used
dierently between the municipal department and the company. The municipal departments
show a clearer hierarchy in the bureaucratic processes than the municipal company does. This
shows how dierent structural factors aect the practitioner’s capacity to act in dierent ways.
I think it is odd that the City Planning Authority does not speak up when the politicians raised the rate of
exploitation . . . and just continue within the same timeframe . . . then I think one should have protested
a bit. (Practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling 4)
The practitioner from ÄU saw it within their capacity to argue or protest the political decision. The
practitioner from CPA, on the other hand, saw it as their duty to follow the political decision, even if
this became challenging for them in the continued planning process. These dierent approaches to
the role of political decisions create dissonance between the practitioners, and further complicate
While structural factors seem to determine agency in these examples, there are also other
examples of practitioners using policy documents to change routines and try new ideas. While the
strategy documents are vague, they also function as an argument for why practitioners should
prioritise certain values and help them to go outside of their usual routines and nd new
When you arrive at dierent propositions and alternatives to solve dierent situations, then you can go
back to the vision, “yes, but the vision states . . . ” and then you get some support and courage to go
outside the box, and a bit further . . . and then everyone makes an eort to think beyond the routines and
try to nd ways of solving this in a better way. (Practitioner from the City Planning Authority 1)
[The company statement] states that we are allowed to take risks, which is very good. If you don’t dare to
risk something, then not much will happen. (Practitioner from Älvstranden Utveckling1)
Practitioners use the wording in the policy documents in negotiations. In this case, the vagueness in
the document works as a tool to settle disagreements. As, for example, the company statement of
ÄU enables the practitioners to promote taking risks when trying new ideas.
In the fullment of the vision, which means to create sustainable urban development, the company will
administer, develop and sell property within the development area. The company shall be able to take
risks and operate partly as a development company and partly as a construction company. (Company
statement Älvstranden Utveckling AB)
The company statement gives the practitioners a capacity to act to a certain extent, by spanning
boundaries. The practitioner’s quotes above show that despite the vagueness of the vision, they can
still use the document to manage challenges around prioritizing between dierent objectives.
12 H. SALDERT
The practitioners’ capacity to act is expressed through them taking initiatives, making decisions
on what to prioritize, and managing conicts. These are clear instances of boundary-spanning, in the
sense that the practitioners’ capacity to act contributes to creating and crossing boundaries. They
need to manage the collaboration within the RiverCity and transfer knowledge to the politicians.
The responsibility that is put on the practitioners also means that their abilities to negotiate and
cooperate, as well as their motivation to do so, are crucial for the continued planning process.
This paper investigates the role of practitioners in a strategic urban planning organisation when facing
challenges of boundaries between policy and practice when implementing visions of social sustain-
ability. This was done by applying a framework of ideas, structure and agency (Williams, 2012) to the
case of the RiverCity Gothenburg, Sweden. While strategic planning is supposed to support the
integration of sectors, the analysis of the RiverCity shows how statutory planning frameworks and
bureaucratic processes within the Swedish context are not tailored for this purpose. Instead, the
practitioners are left to navigate the organisational challenges created by the strategic planning
process. The case study identies four overarching challenges of boundary-spanning that arose within
the RiverCity development project when trying to implement the project vision. These challenges
arose both between organisational entities and between the practitioners and politicians.
The rst challenge is dealing with the lack of clear strategies and goals in the vision documents.
Unclear goals and multiple objectives allow for exibility in the way that dierent actors interpret
and promote dierent meanings connected to the vision documents. This is both a weakness and
a strength for implementing strategic goals such as social sustainability (Boström, 2012; Brorström,
2017). On the one hand, this vagueness makes it possible for actors with conicting interests to nd
agreement, for example, by making political consensus possible in the RiverCity vision. The practi-
tioners in this study also nd it useful when arguing for the need to work outside their usual
routines. On the other hand, this vagueness leads to new conicts that arise when there are dierent
interpretations of the goals in the implementation process, which become clear when the objectives
are being operationalised (Owens & Cowell, 2011). In the case of the RiverCity, dierent departments
prioritise dierent objectives while trying to reach the same goal of social sustainability. This leads to
diverging views on how to dene social sustainability and creates conicts between practitioners. As
goal setting is a key strategy for urban governance today (Hersperger et al., 2019), the large focus on
managing through objectives makes the role of practitioners crucial for determining how to reach
policy goals within the strategic planning organisation. When practitioners interpret policy and give
it meaning in the implementation process – they perform a political decision, especially when there
is uncertainty as to what measures best lead to a specic goal.
The second challenge lies in the traditional ways of organising nancial and temporal resources
which do not support planning for long-term goals. This challenge shows the diculties that arise
when long-term goals are subject to short-term planning. The issue of short-term and long-term
goals in the urban planning setting is one of the main conicts when it comes to planning for
sustainable development (Campbell, 1996), both for economic as well as political reasons. This
challenge is especially telling within strategic planning organisations, like the RiverCity, due to its
blend of elements of for-prot and non-prot models and dual goals of nancial viability and
socially benecial outcomes. While the RiverCity organisation was designed to merge these ele-
ments, clear barriers remain due to the statutory planning structures that the practitioners have to
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 13
follow. Practitioners have to therefore choose which objectives to prioritize or re-interpret the goals
to nd ways to implement them, despite signicant nancial and temporal limitations.
A third challenge is found in the diculties in merging existing bureaucratic processes, and
especially regarding the presence of unclear mandates in the organisational structure. The strategic
planning organisation is supposed to bridge organisational boundaries. However, and as this study
shows, this is easier said than done – because of pre-existing silos and bureaucratic structures. The
mismatch of the municipal’s bureaucratic structure and the strategic approach leads to a need to
manage conicts between the objectives and the dierent goal interpretations. This mismatch
reveals the lack of clarity regarding who is accountable for what within the RiverCity organisation. In
this case, it is not only unclear between departments, for example, which department should be
held responsible for which issue. It is also unclear between practitioners and politicians. This
challenge results from unclear mandates, where no one has, or takes, responsibility for the arising
conicts. While practitioners raise issues to political committees, politicians enforce the boundary
between policy development and implementation by sending the issues back to the practitioners.
This results in a problematic gap between policy and practice and leads to practitioners taking
micro-decisions and actions based on their personal interpretation of the vision.
The fourth challenge stems from the complex institutional context that practitioners must
navigate. In the case at hand, it is the practitioners’ intentions, skills and capabilities to take initiative,
as well as their ability to manage conicts and use the policy documents in negotiations that makes
the implementation of the goals of the vision possible. This shows the importance of the practi-
tioners’ ability to communicate, collaborate and build trust in strategic planning. However, this
study also shows that the lack of political support, in combination with institutional complexity,
creates barriers to carrying out the implementation. While practitioners try to manage these
challenges, the results show how neither politicians nor practitioners know how to prioritize
dierent goals in the vision. Politicians repeatedly ask practitioners to further investigate conicts
to nd solutions, Instead of viewing the conict as political, they frame it as solvable through
additional objective knowledge.
In the case at hand, where politicians are reluctant to get involved in the implementation process,
and the meaning of social sustainability is vague, the practitioners are put in a position to interpret
and decide upon which objectives to prioritize. As Albrechts (2004) suggests, ‘strategic’ in itself
implies that some choices need to be made. Some are made when developing the vision or
promoting certain goals and objectives for the area of development. However, as these overarching
choices do not reach the detailed planning in practice, further choices are needed when implement-
ing the vision. This ends up in the hands of the practitioners – i.e. to make detailed choices and
priorities. Since many of these choices are inherently political, this opens up questions on the
legitimacy of the strategic planning process itself. Earlier research in the Swedish context has
explained such legitimacy issues as an informal dimension of strategic planning due to the
involvement of external actors (Mäntysalo et al., 2015). In this paper, I show that the question of
political legitimacy is also an issue within formal planning organisations involved in strategic
The analytical framework applied in this paper (Williams, 2012) helped to explain the complexity
and many of the internal challenges within the RiverCity. It did so by showing how competing ideas
are represented by the dierent entities of the organisation, and how the practitioners have to deal
with them. The analysis shows how practitioners – as boundary-spanners – are not only coordinat-
ing information ows (Tushman, 1977) but also, through such coordination, gain agency. This
indicates that the boundary-spanner not only brings information to decision-makers (Haas, 2015)
14 H. SALDERT
but also can aect decision-making by choosing and producing the information brought to
politicians. By introducing the perspective of the boundary-spanner to a strategic planning organi-
sation, this study shows the importance of including agency factors when studying the challenges of
implementation that confront these types of organisations.
As the concept of boundary-spanning has previously been mostly applied within sectors such as
research and development facilities, health and social care, and public administration, this study also
contributed by applying the boundary-spanning framework on a strategic urban planning context.
The case reveals that the boundary-spanner is not only necessary for the strategic planning
organisation to work eectively; boundary-spanning activities also lead to issues of political legiti-
macy when the practitioners are interpreting the vision, without political support, when making
decisions on its implementation. There is, therefore, a need to rethink the roles of practitioners and
politicians within strategic planning processes and to establish a clear(er) distribution of mandates
within such organisations.
While this study presents a Swedish planning context, the issues raised are common for many
development projects all over the world. Strategic planning has been emphasized for dealing with
urban sustainable development issues. However, this paper shows how merging strategic and
statutory urban planning in the Swedish context has implications for the implementation of ambig-
uous goals like (social) sustainability, as the act of boundary-spanning becomes necessary to manage
the implementation. When practitioners are left with the responsibility of solving conicts in combi-
nation with vague goals, they are put in a position to either inuence the meaning of the objective,
interpret it according to his/her rationale, or avoid following the objectives altogether. This opens up
questions about the political legitimacy of the strategic planning process itself.
This paper contributes theoretically to the understanding of the role of boundary-spanners in
a strategic urban planning context. It shows how a strategic planning organisation put pressure on
practitioners to become boundary-spanners. This is necessary to enable the implementation of
sustainability policies, but also risks diminishing the political legitimacy of the planning process. For
planning practice, this paper contributes by showing a need to reduce the gap between politicians
and practitioners when addressing the political aspects of ambiguous goals, such as social
The challenge of the unclear mandates between politicians and practitioners further leads to the
question of where to draw the line between professional and political decision-making. This has
implications for planning practise when practitioners are required to nd ways to deal with cross-
boundary collaborations and alternative ways of governing to eectively deal with sustainability
goals, without losing the legitimacy of the planning process. The remaining question is how should
the responsibility of deciding how to operationalize such goals be divided between practitioners
and politicians, and on what grounds should the objectives be prioritised?
While revealing the complexity of the RiverCity, the ndings of this paper reveal key challenges in
the relations and processes within a strategic planning organisation. Further studies could go more
in-depth in the planning process and relations within planning organisations. For example, by
investigating the management of goal conicts and knowledge integration in implementation
processes for gaining a deeper understanding of how to plan for sustainable cities.
PLANNING THEORY & PRACTICE 15
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author(s).
This work was supported by the Swedish Research Council FORMAS under Grant Number 2016-00349
Notes on Contributor
Hannah Saldert has a bachelor’s degree in European Studies (2013) and a master’s degree in Sociology (2015),
both from the University of Gothenburg. She is a PhD student in Environmental Social Science at the University
of Gothenburg since August 2017. Her dissertation focuses on how social sustainability is implemented in
Hannah Saldert http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2253-0013
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