What is usually employed to explain institutional interactions is multi-level governance (MLG) theory, which focuses on governmental levels and responsibilities, as well as coordination. The paradigm of adaptive governance (AG) is instead thought to delve into the dynamics of how flexible certain administrations can be and, not by chance, how adaptive they can be with regards to policy changes and variations of the status quo. Conceptually, the two approaches are similar and respond to the same questions, but their objects of analysis are different, as well as their heuristic purpose.

Unambiguously, AG is not to be confused with governance for adaptation, which, together with mitigation, coincides with the two main policy domains of environmental public policies. More specifically, instead, Dietz, Ostrom, and Stern (2003) refer to adaptive governance rather than adaptive management because the idea of governance conveys the difficulty of control, the need to proceed in the face of substantial uncertainty, and the importance of dealing with diversity.

In general, AG is defined by Chaffin, Gosnell, Cosens (2014) as an emergent form of environmental governance that is increasingly called upon by scholars and practitioners to coordinate resource management regimes in the face of the complexity and uncertainty associated with rapid environmental change.

Furthermore, Termeer, Dewulf and van Lieshout (2010) clarify that scale issues in AG can be divided roughly into two categories: cross-scale issues and cross-level issues. Cross-scale issues are the result of the existence of multiple relevant scales and the cross-scale interactions between them cross-level issues are the result of cross-level interactions between multiple levels on a scale. Depending on the scale at hand, cross-level issues can take different forms, but generally problems result from the interdependence between levels. If it can be useful for making this clearer, the typical example of a cross-scale issue can be water, resources, or even climate, anything that might display a discrepancy between the scale of social organisation and the biogeophysical scale of that resource (going beyond formal borders and limits).

A critical assessment of AG may interpret it as focusing on uncertainty, variability and consequent skills that must be developed to be resilient to changes (namely, to be adaptive) but failing to effectively address institutional complexity. MLG, on the other hand, declines variability at the different levels of government and if it can be more useful for studying administrative capacity and coordination, it is nonetheless true that it might not provide the necessary flexibility in case of major changes. In this regard, Termeer, Dewulf and van Lieshout (2010) assert that while monocentric governance theories emphasise ‘effectiveness’, the ‘resilience’ norm dominates adaptive governance.

Thus, without having the intention to be normative or prescriptive, it could be useful to reflect on the desirability of either fostering effectiveness or resilience. Similarly, the question of whether MLG or AG is better to answer a research question about which role urban public policies play and maybe also which factors might be expected to vary as a result of a governance change remains open to debate, but some common ground can be found.

Huitema et al. (2009) introduced the concept of matching AG to a bioregional scale, an operational scale where ecosystems and institutional arrangements are compatible. A bioregional scale crosses administrative and political boundaries and focuses on the optimization of governance by aligning ecological goals and social feasibility. Rescaling policies at the necessary governmental level (be it urban, regional or a higher one) while maintaining the heuristic insights of AG would be a very relevant success of mutual enrichment between these theories.

However, a critical assessment of AG can be given as regards firstly the real possibility of transposing its principles into practical implementation. Bureaucracy and existing political systems usually tend to maintain stability and may more than often pose hurdles in establishing the necessary institutional structures to experiment and adapt. Together with this, the effective coordination schemes and the willingness to cooperate and increase interactions may as well be absent or insufficient.

Another objection that could be raised is the one of scaling up AG from local to higher contexts of decision-making. Coordinating and cooperating across multiple scales and jurisdictions, in particular for complex issues like climate change, displays difficulties in making adaptability concrete and in solving intricate intertwining of governing structures and the relative stakeholders with which common work is much needed.

These pieces of reasoning shed light on the challenges and limitations associated with AG, but with the help of inclusive decision-making, the design of appropriate institutional arrangements, and fostering ongoing learning and adaptation, it is possible to enhance the effectiveness of AG in addressing complex environmental and social problems, regardless of how demanding or time consuming iterative learning, monitoring and feedback gathering may be.

Undoubtedly, collecting reliable data, conducting meaningful evaluations, and effectively integrating feedback into decision-making processes can lead to very valuable results and maybe even to the concrete reconfiguration of governance frameworks, especially in environmental policy domains.





  • Dietz, T., Ostrom, E., and Stern, P. C. (2003) The Struggle to Govern the Commons. Science 302, 1907-1912.
  • Chaffin, B. C., Gosnell, H., and Cosens, B. A. (2014) A decade of adaptive governance scholarship: synthesis and future directions. Ecology and Society 19(3), 56.
  • Termeer, C. J. A. M., Dewulf, A., & van Lieshout, M. (2010). Disentangling Scale Approaches in Governance Research: Comparing Monocentric, Multilevel, and Adaptive Governance. Ecology and Society, 15(4).
  • Huitema et al. (2009) Adaptive Water Governance. In Chaffin, B. C., Gosnell, H., and Cosens, B. A. (2014) A decade of adaptive governance scholarship: synthesis and future directions. Ecology and Society 19(3), 56.