Ecological networks: between expert views and local planning practice

Authors and Affiliations: 

Isabel Loupa Ramos & Inês Pereira Correia

CESUR, Research Group on Urban Planning and Environment, Instituto Superior Técnico, Technical University of Lisbon


Bridging science and practice has been widely acknowledged as a way to make research socially relevant and to improve policymaking in various domains. Accordingly, when facing uncertainty policy-makers tend to rely on experts for evidence-based advice. In this process, differences in “timing” between policymaking and research become evident (Nowotny et al., 2001). Even when there is no preexisting scientific evidence, decisions may not be able to wait for new research to be carried out and policy moves, de facto, ahead of science. This may give rise to mismatches between policy documents and conceptual developments.

In this wider framework, this paper aims to explore specifically the mismatch between experts’ views on what the purpose of an ecological network should be and the green planning practice.

Since 1999 Portuguese law provides for the integration of ecological networks in drawing up spatial planning documents at the local scale. Prior to this, from a planning policy perspective, not much investment was put into ecological networks. Despite the fact that in other sectors regulations have been in place since the early 80s that restricted urban uses on areas of relevance to ecological processes and land of importance for agriculture production. These regulations were brought together by the vision of a continuum naturale in landscape planning (Ribeiro and Barão, 2006).

Within the Portuguese planning system the Municipal Master Plan (MMP) plays a prominent role due to its normative nature, providing the regulatory basis for land use change. Unlike other countries, in Portugal the Municipal Master Plan (LAU 1 level) covers both urban and rural areas, even though it primarily deals with managing urban growth and transportation and other infrastructures. For a decade now it is mandatory for local administrations to map and regulate a Municipal Ecological Structure (MES) in their Municipal Master Plan (MMP).

In this context a methodological approach was developed based (a) on observation of local planning documents of all MMPs already with MESs in place, and (b) on interviews with experts from different disciplines regarding their views on the objectives, potential, mapping criteria and further research needs in relation to the MES.

The results show that there is a wide range of perspectives by local administrations as to what an MES in an MMP is and that the majority of them is still far from acknowledging the purposes of the MES as stated by experts. It also shows that the rural/urban divide that has marked the planning paradigm creates constraints to approaching ecological networks in a way that makes their implementation effective. Ultimately, it is argued that better a communication strategy between the scientific community and local administrations on existing evidence and research might be able to produce practical guidelines that would support a more successful implementation of ecological networks in real landscapes.


Nowotny H.; Scott, P; Gibbons, M., 2001. Re-Thinking Science: Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Wiley, New York.

Ribeiro, L. and Barão, T., 2006. Greenways for recreation and maintenance of landscape quality: five case studies in Portugal. Landscape and Urban Planning 76, pp.79–97.