Devolution is advocated as a solution to scale mismatches in urban environmental governance. However, urban environmental quality is a multi-scalar issue: its various aspects – noise, soil, odour, air, water et cetera – are influenced by processes at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Decisions by municipal authorities that benefit local environmental quality may, therefore, conflict with higher-level environmental objectives. Managing the effects of urban development on each of these various aspects, then, is not only a matter of attributing authority to the ‘right’ jurisdictional levels; rather, it is about organizing effective interplay among these levels. This paper compares two fundamentally different ways in which such interplay has been institutionalised in the Netherlands. Two examples illustrate these approaches and show that they may lead to different results. One approach is to devolve the authority to decide about the desired environmental quality upon the municipal level. The second approach is to have local authorities and polluters comply with centrally issued standards and, meanwhile, give them more leeway to negotiate the necessary emission reductions. Whereas the former offers the desired degree of flexibility, the latter guarantees that objectives are achieved. It is from the trade-off between flexibility and legal certainty that the choice for either of these approaches results. This paper contributes to the scientific debate on managing urban environmental quality in a multi-level governance context by demonstrating how the two approaches work out in practice and what their advantages and disadvantages are. The paper very preliminary judges the two approaches and suggests a third one combining the advantages of both.
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