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The Kingdom of Spain has been a parliamentary monarchy since the approval of the democratic Constitution of 1978. Its territory is mostly located on the Iberian Peninsula, in the southwest of Europe. It includes territories on both the mainland peninsula and nearby islands, such as the Canary Islands and Balearic Islands, as well as the cities of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa. The country's mainland is bordered to the south and east by the Mediterranean Sea; to the north and northeast by France, Andorra, and the Bay of Biscay; and to the west and northwest by Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean respectively.

Spanish (español) – recognised in the Constitution as Castilian (castellano) – is the official language of the entire country. The Constitution also establishes that ‘the other Spanish languages’ – that is, the other languages of Spain – are also official in their respective autonomous communities in accordance with their statutes and their organic regional legislation, and that the ‘richness of the distinct linguistic modalities of Spain represents a patrimony which will be the object of special respect and protection.’ The other official languages of Spain, which are co-official with Spanish, are: Catalan (català or valencià) in Catalonia, the Valencian Community and the Balearic Islands; Galician (galego) in Galicia; Basque (Euskera) in the Basque Country and Navarre; and Occitan (aranès) in Catalonia. Spanish is spoken by 98.9% of the population. As mother tongues or non-mother tongues, in addition to Spanish, 17.5% of the total population uses Catalan, 6.2% Galician, 5.8% Valencian and 3.0% Euskera. In autonomous communities, Catalan is used by almost 85% of the population of Catalonia, by 63.1% of the Balearic Islands and by 51.8% of the Valencian Community. Galician is spoken by 89.0% of the Galician population and Euskera is used by 55.1% of the population of the Basque Country and by 21.7% of Navarra. Occitan is spoken by fewer than 5,000 people, only in the small region of Val d’Aran (Oficina para las Lenguas Oficiales 2019).

Foreign residents in Spain make up 9.8% of the population. Of the total foreign population, 14.9% come from Morocco, 14.8% from Romania and 6.2% from the United Kingdom. However, viewed in terms of large regions and place of birth, those born in South America would be the second largest group (18.4%), after those born in countries of the European Union (35.7%) (INE 2019a).

Spain has been a member state of the European Union since 1 January 1986, an Euro area member since 1 January 1999 and a Schengen area member since 26 March 1995. Fifty-one members of the European Parliament are from Spain. Spain has 21 representatives on the European Economic and Social Committee and 21 representatives on the European Committee of the Regions (European Union 2020).

General information

Name of country Spain
Capital, population of the capital (2019)* Madrid, 3,266,126
Surface area 505,983 km²
Total population (2018)** 46,659,300
Population density (2018) ** 92.7 inhabitants/km²
Population growth rate (2018)** 0.28%
Degree of urbanisation (2018) ** 80.5%
Human development index (2018)*** 893
GDP (2018)** EUR 1,208.248 billion
GDP per capita (2018)** EUR 25,854
GDP growth (2018)** 2.4%
Unemployment rate (2018)** 15.3%
Land use (2006) **** 47.1% forest and scrubland 0.9% inland waters 50.1 % agricultural land 2% built-up land
Sectoral structure (2018)** 66% services and administration 21.9 % industry and construction 2.6 % agriculture and forestry

* INE (2019b)

** INE (2019a)

*** UNDP (2019)

**** European Environment Agency. Data based on Corinne Land Cover 2006 survey.

Administrative structure and system of governance

The Spanish case reflects some special features because its political system has relatively recently changed to one of democracy after the Francoist dictatorship (1939–1975). The Spanish Constitution of 1978 changed the basic territorial structure. As in some other European countries, the decentralisation process has resulted in progressive rationalisation or the rise of stronger levels of sub-national government (Keating/Loughlin 1997).

Article 137 of the Spanish Constitution states: ‘The State is territorially organised in municipalities, provinces and the Autonomous Communities that can be constituted: all those entities enjoy autonomy in the management of their own interests.’ That means that there are three levels of government: central, regional (17 Autonomous Communities, plus two autonomous cities) and local (municipalities and provinces). While traditionally the State and the municipalities have wielded the greatest political power, the role of the regional level has been reinforced in the past decades (Aja 2003; Requejo/Caminal 2010), especially in terms of what Hooghe and Marks (2009) called self-rule or the capacity of regions to exercise authority over those who live in a region. Despite this, the capacity of regional governments to participate in the Spanish policy-making process as a whole (or shared rule) is limited in comparison to other federal countries. The Spanish upper chamber has a marginal position in the legislative process, regional governments have no direct capacity to co-determine national legislation or constitutional change, and most of the decisions taken by the multilateral committees formed by the central and regional governments have no binding authority (Chaqués/Tomàs 2014).

Administrative structure of Spain

Administrative structure of Spain

State administration

Spain is a parliamentary monarchy with the ruling monarch serving as the official head of state and the President of the Government (Presidente del Gobierno) as head of government. The highest decision-making bodies of the state administration are the parliament, the government and the president. The independent courts holding judicial power are separate from the legislative powers granted to parliament as well as from the executive powers granted to the government and the president. The judicial power is composed of different courts organised according to their specialisation (civil or criminal jurisdiction) and the hierarchy (different territorial levels) with the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo) being the highest-ranking court (Vallbé 2012). Moreover, the Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional) exercises constitutional jurisdiction, that is, it guarantees constitutional supremacy through certain specific processes such as the action of unconstitutionality, the conflicts of attributions and competences, and the appeal for protection. The Constitutional Court has become a key actor in the functioning of the political and juridical system (Fernández 2012).

The Spanish Parliament (Cortes Generales) has two chambers that have asymmetric powers. The lower chamber (Congreso de los Diputados) is responsible for the state budget and supervises the working of the government: it is able to approve or reject laws, initiate legislation and vote the Prime Minister in or out. The upper chamber (Senado) has the right to veto legislation but this can be reversed if there is an absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies. Parliament is elected through public elections every four years (the most recent election was in November 2019). The Congress has 350 members elected by the public, while the Senate is composed of 208 elected officials and 57 members appointed by regional legislatures (a variable number according to their population) (Ruiz Martínez 2012).

The government is led by the prime minister (usually the head of the party that has won the elections), who is selected by parliament and appointed by the monarch. The government is comprised of the prime minister and the other ministers (forming the Cabinet) that are each responsible for a specific field of policy. The prime minister has the power to appoint and fire ministers to and from the Cabinet. The government is responsible for leading both domestic and foreign affairs, as well as for running the State defence. The government leads the civil administration and is also responsible for preparing and implementing the decisions made by parliament. Moreover, it has regulatory power to elaborate and dictate general normative texts affecting the subjects of its competence. There is also the Council of State, which is a consultative body giving non-binding opinions to the Spanish government (Matas/Ridao 2012).

The central government has exclusive jurisdiction over state functions like defence and foreign affairs, citizenship, immigration, social security, and rights-related issues; and sets and implements most policies related to economic stabilisation (mostly Europeanised after the Economic and Monetary Union), transport, energy and communications. Shared jurisdiction applies for welfare issues like health, education, labour and social policy in general, environmental issues, and taxation, with important differences between the Basque Country, Navarra and the rest of AACC. For issues with shared jurisdiction, the central government sets the basic principles, from which regional governments develop their own laws, setting their own goals and implementation strategies in their territories.

As a parliamentary monarchy, the monarch (Felipe VI, King of Spain since 2014) is the head of state. The Constitution regulates his functions and adopts a hereditary monarchy, in which primogeniture prioritises males over females in the line of succession. The king is the country’s highest representative in international affairs, commander-in-chief of the armed forces – though without actual authority over them – and a symbol of national unity. He also exerts an arbitration and mediation function over the regular functioning of institutions. The figure of the Crown is inviolable and has no political responsibilities (Expósito 2012).

Regional administration

The 17 Autonomous Communities (Comunidades Autónomas or AACC) have significant legislative and executive powers over a wide range of areas – housing, urban and regional planning, agriculture, transport, health, education, social welfare and culture – according to the terms of their individual statutes of autonomy. The AACC have progressively gained more competences as well as their share of public expenditures (35%). Central government manages 53% of the public expenditure, while the share of local governments (12%) has remained almost constant (Castellà 2012).

The individual Statutes of Autonomy have been developed at different paces. Both the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and the Statutes of Autonomy define a quite open and flexible system of political decentralisation, through which AACCs can adopt differing models in terms of policy scope, fiscal autonomy (in the case of Navarra and the Basque Country) and in terms of the speed of the regionalisation process. In the case of seven ACs – Catalonia, the Basque Country, Navarra, Andalucía, Valencia, Galicia and Canarias – the transfer of competences for health, education and social policy occurred in the early 1980s following a quite direct and rapid process. In contrast, the transfer of jurisdiction for certain issues to the other ten AACCs only occurred in the late 1990s, after the Pactos Autonómicos of 1992 (Agreement on Autonomous Communities), following a gradual trend. Indeed, the full transfer of jurisdiction for certain issues only occurred in the 2000s, when the INSALUD (Spanish Health Institute) services were transferred to the AACCs. This agreement – made by the governing party, the Socialist Party, and the main opposition party, the Popular Party – defines the principles of what was popularly known as the Café para Todos Agreement (Coffee for All agreement), according to which all AACCs were to obtain a similar range of jurisdiction for the issues at hand (Chaqués/Tomàs 2014).

Since devolution to the AACCs was intended to be asymmetrical, the scope of competence is variable but all have the same parliamentary structure. Indeed, there are 17 regional parliaments, which are directly elected every four years. Each AACC has its own government and president of the regional government, as well as a High Court of Justice, hierarchically under the Supreme Court of Spain. The two autonomous cities have more limited competences than the AACCs, but more competences than municipalities. A president, who is also the mayor of the city, exercises the executive power. In the same way, limited legislative power is vested in a local assembly in which the deputies are also the city councillors (Castellà 2012).

The articulation of the Statutes of Autonomy has been regularly challenged by the demands of certain regional governments (mainly Catalan and Basque) for more autonomy through reforms of their Statutes of Autonomy and the right to hold a referendum on independence. In this context, both the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court have exerted a predominant role in the determination of the constitutionality and legality of the different processes.

Local government

The treatment of local government in the 1978 Spanish Constitution is relatively brief, since most of the articles are devoted to the development of the new statutes of autonomy. The Local Government Law (Ley Reguladora de las Bases del Régimen Local, 1985) specifies general principles regarding the territory, internal organisation and functions of local government; the more concrete details are left to regional legislation. Each Autonomous Community can determine its own local government arrangements, always respecting the existence of the municipalities and provinces, which have constitutional recognition. This is why we find different local institutions, such as the comarcas (counties) in Catalonia, Aragon or Galicia, Cabildos in the Canary Islands and Insular Councils in the Balearic Islands. These are a second tier of local government created by regional parliaments with variable competences. In Catalonia, for instance, comarcas provide technical, legal and economic assistance to municipalities; cooperate financially in carrying out the works, services or activities of the municipalities; guarantee the provision of compulsory municipal services in the municipalities that, due to their population, are not obliged to provide them; cooperate with the municipalities in the establishment of new services necessary for the development of the territory; establish and coordinate, on the basis of a report by the city councils, the infrastructures, services and actions of supramunicipal scope. They are ruled by County Councils, which are indirectly elected.

The central government also determines the economic resources of municipalities and provinces through the Law on Local Finances (Ley Reguladora de Haciendas Locales, 1988). Therefore, there is a share of competences between central and regional governments in relation to the local level. The central government determines the general legislation (with several updates) and then each AACC legislates its own arrangements, respecting the general legislation (Tomàs 2017).

The municipality is the basis of all territorial organisation, and the first level of the citizen’s participation in public affairs. The municipality’s responsibilities include transit, civil protection, health and education services, urban planning, roads, public works, culture, sports, public transport, tourism, cemeteries, and municipal markets. Their incomes come from direct and indirect taxes (related mainly to property) and transfers mainly from the central government. The municipality is ruled and administrated by the council, formed by directly elected councillors and the mayor, who is elected by and from among the councillors. At present, there are 8,113 municipalities in Spain; 80% of the population lives in urban areas in a preponderantly rural territory. Indeed, there are densely populated urban areas on the coast and in Madrid in contrast with a large number of uninhabited areas. Combating depopulation has become one of the priorities of the current government.

The competences of the provinces (50) mainly lie in offering technical support to the municipalities and the coordination of supralocal services, especially for small municipalities. They are also the electoral districts for general elections. Provinces are governed by the council, formed of councillors that are elected in districts. Each district has a number of deputies weighted according to the population, and these are distributed in proportion to the election results obtained in the municipal elections throughout the district. Transfers from central government constitute the provinces’ main economic resources.

System of powers of Spain

System of powers of Spain

Spatial planning system

Historical development of the planning system

During the dictatorship (1939–1975) urban and spatial planning was centralised as a competence of the central government. This public action was dominated by a vision that gave particular attention to the housing emergency in big and medium cities through different programmes, and to economic development. However, it lacked a general territorial and urban vision. The dictatorship broke with the previous focus on urban issues.  With the arrival of democracy, the country had to face significant urban and territorial deficiencies. They were addressed by a new spatial and urban planning system that was based on the Constitution of 1978. It has been further defined and has evolved over the last four decades (see below).

Spanish planning system:

As mentioned, the Constitution set a multi-level institutional framework with three main levels of government: the national, the regional (AACCs), and the local (provinces and municipalities). Regarding urban and spatial planning, the national level retained few competences, as most of them were devolved to the AACCs and the municipalities.

Planning system of Spain

Planning system of Spain

The National Government:

To understand the role played by this tier of government, it is highly important to mention that in 1992 an event that determined the evolution of the spatial and urban planning system in the country took place: in that year the government prepared a law aimed at determining the general framework for spatial planning and urban development on a national scale: the Land Act of 1992 (Texto refundido de la Ley del Suelo). It included an article that introduced the possibility of developing a National Territorial Plan (Plan Nacional de Ordenación) through which the State could set priority guidelines for spatial and urban development at country level. This article was declared unconstitutional in 1996 by the Constitutional Court, which considered that it impinged on regional competences. This Constitutional Court judgment expressed at that moment the incapacity of the State to enact laws that are genuinely urbanistic or which relate to spatial planning (López Benítez/Vera Jurado 2005). This fact has conditioned the evolution of both policy fields, reducing the role of the national government as coordinator of territorial development (De Gregorio Hurtado et al. 2021) and significantly limiting its action to the policy areas through which it can exert an indirect impact on urban matters, legislating in few policy domains regarding urban territorial and urban issues (Esteban Noguera 2011). All this explains to a certain extent the apparently ‘neutral’ and sometimes even ‘passive’ role in this regard developed by the government in subsequent periods (De Gregorio Hurtado et al. 2021). Territorial actions by the government have mainly taken place through its competences in economic policies, transport (through the national transport plans), housing (through the national housing plans), and land (through the land acts). In the last decades other policy areas have arisen as relevant, particularly environmental and climate change policies, showing a trend that will probably be consolidated in the years to come.

The Autonomous Communities or AACCs

The Autonomous Communities or AACCs have competences in spatial and urban planning as well as housing. Regarding urban planning, they must fully align their legislation with the Land Act mentioned above (through the development of their own land act) and in coherence with their territorial regional planning instruments (see below). With regard to housing, they further develop the national housing plan in their territory in coordination with the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda (formerly the Ministry of Public Works).

In relation to spatial planning they have full competences, but the Constitution does not define specific content for this policy domain, leaving it to what is established by the statutes of each AACC. This has resulted in a high degree of heterogeneity in how spatial planning is understood, instrumentalised, and implemented in the different regional contexts, even if it is possible to identify some common elements and approaches. From 1983 the regions started to address this competence at different speeds. At present all of them have developed legislation on this matter. However, as Benabent (2006: 199) points out, this legislation does not contain substantive but procedural determinations, defining instruments of an integral or sectoral nature (that specify or develop the land use planning approach for the region). The main functional objectives of regional spatial planning pointed out by this author from a comparative perspective, which takes into account the action developed by the 17 regions, are the following:

  • Achieve a balanced territorial development.
  • Improve quality of life.
  • Preserve the environment, as well as the resources of the territory and the values associated with it (ibid.: 200).

The heterogeneity mentioned above is clearly present in the model that determined the relationships among the different instruments that comprise the spatial planning system in each region. Benabent (2006: 213-215) identifies three models with regard to the relationships among the different spatial planning instruments: i) regions with a closed pyramidal structure (they act on the basis of a hierarchical system in which the guidelines are set by a territorial plan of an integral nature); ii) an open pyramidal structure (the regions define the sectoral instruments that are relevant for the characteristics of their territory); iii) and a reticular structure (in which there is no hierarchy among the different instruments).

The most important spatial planning instruments are the following:

  • Territorial plan: It is characterised by an integral approach and has different names in different regions (directrices de ordenación del territorio, plan territorial). The most important function of this instrument is to establish the basic elements for the organisation and structure of the whole regional territory, coordinating public and private socio-economic actions within it. It also determinates the public policies that have a direct territorial impact or territorial implications (Parejo 1998). As a result, when it exists, it serves as the reference framework for all the other spatial planning instruments (see below).

It is relevant to note that not all the regions have approved their own territorial plan (as envisaged by their own spatial planning law). At the moment only 11 AACCs have a territorial plan.

  • Subregional territorial plans: These are plans that further develop what is established by the territorial plan (when it exists) for a specific area of the region, achieving a greater level of detail. They can have an integral approach (for example the subregional plans for functional areas, such as the Basque Country), or a sectoral approach (for example, the coastal zone protection plans in some regions).
  • Territorial sectoral plans: These instruments have the objective of coordinating sectoral policies in the territory of the region. The regional regulations on spatial planning normally define the matters that are the subject of sectoral planning. The sectoral plans can cover the whole regional territory or a part of it, depending of the nature of the matter addressed. As mentioned, these instruments are not under the hierarchy of the territorial plan (when it exists) in every region.
  • Plans for environmental protection: These plans aim to protect specific areas on the basis of their valuable natural, ecological, landscape, agricultural or forestry characteristics or value (Benabent 2006: 207).

The regional territorial plans have a strategic rather than a normative nature.  Because of this, their guidelines are not always transposed to the subregional level through normative instruments (Farinós et al. n.d.).

The municipalities

have the competences in urban planning in their territory. These competences are based on the national and regional laws on the matter, developing the principle of local autonomy embedded in the Constitution. In the development of these competences, the municipalities must comply with the national and regional territorial and land laws, as well as the territorial plans and other sectoral regulations. As a result, even if the local responsibility and competence for urban planning is almost total, the AACCs develop a ‘tutelary’ role in this regard (Parkinson et al. 2012), as the regions approve the urban planning instruments developed by the municipalities as well as modifications to them.

Urban planning in the country has been developed during the democratic period and has been greatly influenced by the Land Law of 1976 in which two kinds of planning instrument were defined that determined the urban development model and structure of the city: i) the urban planning instruments of a general nature (planes generales de ordenación urbana for cities and normas subsidiarias for small municipalities). These plans have different names in different regions (planes generales de ordenación urbana, plan de ordenación municipal, plan de ordenación urbanística municipal, plan general municipal, plan general municipal de ordenación). They classify all the land within the municipality, seeking to balance the general interest and lucrative uses. As such, the general urban plans establish the areas for urban expansion, the areas of the existing cities to be transformed or regenerated, and the natural areas which are protected because of their valuable environmental or urban identity characteristics, constructive value, etc. These instruments are binding. Then, there are ii) the instrumentos de desarrollo that elaborate what is established by the urban general plan with the necessary level of detail. They are binding instruments. The most relevant ones are:

  • Planes parciales’: These plans allow for urban expansion on rural land. They organise the development of municipalities, establishing urban functions (public and private) on the basis of the comprehensive determinations of the general plan.
  • Planes especiales’: The main distinctive characteristic of these plans is that, unlike other urban planning instruments, they do not pursue a multisectoral or comprehensive regulation of the area in question, but address a specific objective (for example the protection and regeneration of areas of the existing city).
  • Estudios de detalle’: These instruments complement the general plans, as well as other instruments within the ‘instrumentos de desarrollo’ category. They determine street alignments, volumetric determinations, etc. In some AACCs, on the basis of the regional law (regional Land Act), they can also determine morphological and aesthetic aspects.

All the spatial planning and urban instruments mentioned above are subject to participation processes at the legislative level, meaning all of them undergo a public participation process that precedes the final approval. In the participation process all the stakeholders can make proposals or request changes. The institutions are obliged to take into account all the actors’ requests, but they are not obliged to adopt the proposals in the final version of the spatial or urban planning instrument.

As the spatial and urban planning system described above demonstrates, these are policy areas in which the competences are shared in many cases. For example, there is a National Land Act that is transposed and further developed at territorial level by the regions via their own land acts; the latter, in turn, determine the urban planning system that needs to be taken into account by the municipalities. Because of this, the multilevel coordination of spatial and urban planning is decisive in progressing towards a balanced country in social and territorial terms, and requires a sufficient level of coordination among the government tiers. Nevertheless, after more than 30 years of democracy the system has evolved towards a fragmented one to the detriment of the multilevel collaborative approach necessary to coordinate public action in these fields. Parkinson et al. (2012) argue that many authors explain this by pointing out that the policy culture of the old centralised state was transferred to the regional level, reproducing in each AACC many of its inertias and the political culture of central administrations, thereby giving rise to a high level of institutional fragmentation that explains why territorial decentralisation has not delivered all the beneficial effects expected. Romero González et al. (2004) argue that this fragmentation is present in the relations between the main three levels of government, introducing in the system a high level of complexity, slowness and weakness. As a result, the country is characterised by a problem of institutional coordination that pervades many policy areas, including spatial and urban planning. This emerges as a pending issue that, interestingly, is not on the current policy agenda of the country. 

In 2019 the Council of Ministers approved the Spanish Urban Agenda, a strategic instrument aimed at advancing the urban objectives of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda of the United Nations. It also takes into account the Urban Agenda for the European Union. Its impact is still uncertain, as so far it has not been allocated economic resources. Nevertheless, if finally it is given momentum (and budget), it could improve the scene described above as it envisages the creation of procedures that could incentivise the collaboration among the government and the municipalities, fostering the development of action plans for sustainable urban development at local level. In this regard, the Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda is undergoing a pilot project in which 11 Spanish cities are developing their own urban agenda in the framework of the national one. At the same time, this instrument largely fails to fully integrate the regional level in the framework it proposes (De Gregorio Hurtado/González Medina 2019), which shows once again the limited capacity of the State to determine a specific role in this regard for the AACCs or even to involve them in this process in an explicit and committed manner. Interestingly, many regions are developing their own urban agendas (e.g. Catalonia, Valencia), while others have approved their urban agendas recently (e.g. Andalucía in 2018, the Basque Country in 2019).

Soft planning

Soft planning or non-statutory planning instruments have been used in urban policy in the country from the late 1980s. The most important instruments in this regard are the Local Agenda 21, developed by many municipalities following the recommendations of the Earth Summit of the United Nations (1992) and the Aalborg Charter of the EU (1994), and the strategic local plans. Both of these instruments can integrate more than one municipality, even if in most cases they set procedures and guidelines only for one city and for a specific temporal horizon. These instruments, and particularly the Local Agenda 21, have made a relevant contribution to advancing the sustainable urban development vision at local level. Both instruments have contributed to introducing participative tools and methods with regard to urban transformation, regeneration, and urban development. They can be considered crucial elements in the evolution of local governance in the country over the last three decades. The Local Agenda 21 is evolving in the present to meet the requirements of the Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the New Urban Agenda of the United Nations. In this regard, big cities in particular have developed or are developing their Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. This is, for example, the case for Malaga, Seville, and Barcelona.

The use of soft planning is also gaining attention alongside other urban matters, and particularly with regard to transformative processes and sectoral matters in the existing city. The limited flexibility and lengthy administrative procedure that requires the approval of a new general plan, or its modification, has resulted in some cities using strategic planning instead of traditional planning instruments on some occasions. For example, this was the case for the city of Madrid in 2015–2019, when the local council, instead of continuing the process of developing and approving a new general plan which was started by the previous local government, opted to use strategic planning instruments (planes estratégicos and planes directores) to set the frameworks for specific areas or urban policy sectors. The use of strategic planning allows cities to react more rapidly to the changing urban reality that characterises the present moment, but on the other hand it can evade the procedures set within the planning system to balance public interest with private interests through the administrative process which urban general plans undergo. Some voices consider that the planning system should evolve to be better able to address contemporary urban problems and challenges. In this regard, the Spanish Urban Agenda proposes to undertake some specific challenges in this direction (Ministerio de Fomento 2019: 161-162) but a public debate on this has still not been opened. 

Urban policies in the country have been significantly influenced by EU urban policy through two different and closely interrelated axes: i) the implementation of instruments that formalise the urban policy of the EU in the country with Cohesion Policy budget (mainly the European Regional Development Fund) from 1989: the Urban Pilot Projects or UPP in 1989, the URBAN Community Initiative (1994–1999), the URBAN II Community Initiative (2000-2006), the Iniciativa Urbana (2007–2013), and the Integrated Sustainable Urban Development Strategies or ISUDS (2014–2020); ii) the transposition of the Urban Acquis principles of the EU into the Spanish framework. This has taken place through the implementation of the practical instruments mentioned above, and through a further Europeanisation process based on the introduction in Spain of the discursive principles set in the Urban Acquis through different documents, among which the Leipzig Charter (2007) and the Toledo Declaration (2010) are particularly relevant. The thematic Network for Urban Initiatives (Red de Iniciativas Urbanas), created by the Ministry of Finance in the framework of the implementation of the instruments that formalised the urban dimension of EU policy in the Spanish context during the 2006–2013 programming period, has also significantly contributed to introducing and embedding in the local policy discourse the principles of sustainable urban development that guide the urban axis of EU policy (De Gregorio Hurtado 2017; 2018). The Europeanisation of the urban policy in the country has been particularly important with regard to actions in the existing city through urban regeneration initiatives. The concept of integrated urban regeneration proposed by the Urban Acquis, and particularly by the Toledo Declaration, has been embedded in the policy discourse of the government, the AACCs and the municipalities (ibid.). The relevance of the issue has led in previous years to some regions launching instruments for urban regeneration that replicate the URBAN Community Initiative launched by the European Commission in 1994 (De Gregorio Hurtado 2012). This is the case with the Izartu Programme launched in the Basque Country in 2001, the so-called Neighbourhood Law of Catalonia (Ley de Barrios) passed in 2004, and the Neighbourhood Law of the Balearic Islands of 2009. A similar approach was also adopted by the Ley de actuación integral en zonas de atención especial in Extremadura in 2011. While the Izartu programme was implemented through two different rounds and has not been launched again, the Neighbourhood Law of Catalonia has not been allocated budget since 2009, and the laws from the Balearic Islands and Extremadura were not even implemented as a result of the economic crisis of 2008.

With regard to the main challenges in spatial and urban planning in the country, the most relevant is the lack of a collaborative tradition among the three main government tiers (see previous section). 

Another relevant issue with regard to spatial and urban planning is the metropolitan reality and the lack of institutionalised frameworks to address it (with the only exception being the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona). Parkinson et al. (2012: 183) mention that the Local Government Law of 1985 recognised the regional competence to establish and abolish metropolitan areas and other associated local institutions. As a result, metropolitan areas were abolished in many regions (that was the case with the Barcelona Metropolitan Corporation in Catalonia, the Gran Bilbao in the Basque Country, the Administrative Corporation of Gran Valencia, and the Madrid Metropolitan Area Planning and Coordination Commission). There are no institutions to address the metropolitan reality in the country, with the mentioned exception of the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona that was approved by the Parliament of Catalonia in 2010 and has competences in public transport, housing, public space, infrastructure, water, and waste.

The Spanish planning system needs to evolve in the years to come with regard to some relevant issues that have arisen as crucial challenges for the country. One of the most pressing issues is the necessity of integrating the climate change policy (mitigation and adaptation) in territorial and urban planning. This needs to be fully integrated with the provision of frameworks that allow the Spanish urban system to make the necessary green transition required by the EU to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, and particularly the carbon neutrality planned for the European territory by 2050. 

In the field of urban planning, along with the climate emergency, the social crisis related to the pandemic has arisen as one of the main challenges for urban areas in the near future. As inequality is increasing in Spanish cities, urban planning needs to act as a decisive mechanism to guarantee balanced urban areas in terms of public facilities, urban mobility, and urban spaces that support the daily life of all citizens.  Hence, urban planning which fully coordinates mobility, housing, climate, and environmental policies represents an opportunity to progress towards more liveable urban areas. A similar difficult scene was faced by Spanish cities in the 1980s, which gave rise to urban planning instruments that became a reference for other cities in the country and abroad, particularly in Italy (e.g. the general plan of Madrid, the general plan of Malaga, etc.). They aimed at creating a ‘city of proximity’, improving the peripheries and limiting urban expansion. At present, cities, supported by the regions and the national government, need to make a similar contribution, acting through sustainable urban planning principles, instruments and mechanisms in order to face the interrelated local and global challenges that characterise the present moment. 

Important stakeholders

Institution/stakeholder/authorities Special interest/competences/administrative area
Central government National territory
Junta de Andalucía Territory of the region of Andalucía
Aragón Territory of the region of Aragón
Principado de Asturias Territory of the region of Asturias
Islas Baleares Territory of the region of Islas Baleares
Gobierno de Canarias Territory of the region of Canarias
Comisión Regional de Ordenación del Territorio y Urbanismo (CROTU) Territory of the region of Cantabria
Castilla-La Mancha Territory of the region of Castilla-La Mancha
Cataluña Territory of the region of Cataluña
Comunidad Valenciana Territory of the region of Valencia
Junta de Extremadura Territory of the region of Extremadura
Xunta de Galicia Territory of the region of Galicia
Gobierno de La Rioja Territory of the region of La Rioja
Comunidad de Madrid Territory of the region of Madrid
Región de Murcia Territory of the region of Murcia
Comunidad Foral de Navarra Territory of the region of Navarra
País Vasco Territory of the region of País Vasco
Autonomous City: Ceuta Territory of the city of Ceuta
Autonomous City: Melilla Territory of the city of Melilla

Fact sheets


  • Map of Spain

List of references

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Chaqués, L.; Tomàs. M. (2014): Public policies in Catalonia. From self-rule to shared rule?, Revue de science politique de l’Europe meridionale-Pôle Sud, 40 (1), 43-57.

De Gregorio Hurtado, S.; Ruiz Sánchez, J. (2021) Urban National Policy in Spain? A diachronic critical review of four decades of Government action. In: Fedeli, V.; Zimmermann, K. (ed.) The Modern Guide to National Urban Policies in Europe. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. 216-244.

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De Gregorio Hurtado, S. (2012): Urban Policies of the European Union from the Perspective of Collaborative Planning. The URBAN and URBAN II Community Initiatives in Spain. PhD Thesis. Madrid: Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.

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Farinós, J.; Aldrey, J.A.; Elorrieta, B.; García, M.J.; Del Río, D. (without year): Políticas Territoriales y Ordenación del Territorio, in Instituto Geográfico Nacional: Atlas Nacional de España. Available at: http://atlasnacional.ign.es/wane/Pol%C3%ADticas_territoriales_y_ordenaci%C3%B3n_del_territorio (Accessed 11 December 2020)

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INE Instituto Nacional de Estadística (2019b): Madrid: Población por municipios y sexo. Data from 1 January 2019. Available at: https://www.ine.es/jaxiT3/Datos.htm?t=2881#!tabs-tabla (Accessed 15 February 2022)

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Vallbé, J. J. (2012): Autonomía y organización en el sistema judicial español, in Reniu, J. M. (ed.) Sistema político español. Barcelona: Huygens Editorial, 91-109.