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URBAN DESIGN GOVERNANCE - Exploring formal and informal means of improving spatial quality in cities across Europe and beyond

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Urban MAESTRO (URBAN DESIGN GOVERNANCE - Exploring formal and informal means of improving spatial quality in cities across Europe and beyond)

Reporting period: 2020-06-01 to 2021-04-30

Urban Maestro is an initiative that sought to identify, document, analyse and encourage innovative strategies for the governance of urban design, in Europe and beyond.

European cities have established sophisticated laws and regulations to organise and guide the great number of interventions and decisions that shape the urban environment over time. These rules are meant to secure diverse public interest objectives such as creating environmental sustainability, human scale, land use mix, conviviality, inclusivity, or supporting cultural meaning. However, if these sophisticated regulatory frameworks are good at protecting against the worst forms of urban development, they do not necessarily lead to satisfactory results. More than often, the quality of the resulting urban places is disappointing.

At its core, the Coordination and Support Action Urban Maestro aimed at understanding the contribution of alternative, non-regulatory approaches to the quality of the built environment. These approaches - that were qualified as ‘soft-power’ in contrast to the ‘hard-power’ of formal regulation and control – consider that the role of governments in urban development can be wider than acting as simple regulators or direct investors. They enhance the ability of public authorities to intervene as enabler, broker, or inspirational leader in shaping the future of cities, therefore emphasising the political dimension of urban design policy making.

Strategies to promote a high-quality built environment often combine different formal and more innovative informal tools to guide, encourage and enable better design. Example of informal tools include supplementing a zoning-based planning system with non-mandatory guidance, organising architectural competitions, establishing a peer review mechanism for design proposals, instigating temporary urban interventions, or creating financial incentives linked to achieving certain design or other social objectives. Of these various strategies, financial mechanisms and their relationship to informal tools of urban design governance represented a particular focus of the project, as synergies between such tools have the potential to make both approaches more effective in attaining their desired outcomes.

Urban Maestro highlighted and captured knowledge about how such initiatives are used in practice, with what purpose, and with what impact on delivering better-designed places. Ultimately, Urban Maestro has contributed to the global urban debate and the realisation of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by spotlighting the potential of urban design governance practices within Europe and beyond.
Over the last two years the project has been able to conceptualise a new typology of urban design governance tools, build a picture of the European landscape of informal tools of urban design governance through a Europe-wide survey, and collect data on over 95 governance practices that are either innovative or representative of a particular type of tool and approach.

The project team and its advisors have explored selected examples of these practices through research and live exchanges in a series of bilateral conversations, workshops and a Masterclass to also mobilise a younger audience. Complementary to this, the team has worked up 37 detailed case studies to explore some of the most innovative practices. All of this helped to provide the material for the range of engagement activities that constitute the core of the Urban Maestro project.

Building on the overall work conducted across the project’s life, the team has summarised the key findings of the project in a number of recommendations, which have been presented during the concluding Policy Dialogue and Expert Forum, and disseminated through an online publication, available through the website

Key exploitable results of Urban Maestro therefore include a typology of urban design governance tools, a series of information sheets on the innovative practices that were identified, a series of elaborated ‘expert papers’, the lessons from the workshops, and their synthesis into a set of practical ‘policy recommendations’ for public authorities. These inputs contributed to position the notion of ‘urban design governance’ in the global urban debate. They were and will continue to be promoted by the consortium members through their engagement with public and private partners at various levels.
European countries have been engaged in formal processes of regulating their built environment for centuries, and in the modern era these formal processes have become the mainstay of approaches to ensure that the built environment properly reflects a range of public policy objectives. Urban Maestro’s primary innovation is to look beyond these mechanisms, which can be quite blunt and lack sophistication, and which arguably are complicit in the production of a sub-standard built environment.

The project looked instead at the range of informal urban design governance tools that are today increasingly shaping European cities. Whilst studies have previously looked in a selective manner at different informal tools of urban design governance, Urban Maestro’s focus on the full gamut of approaches and taking a European-wide perspective is unique.

During the final phase of the work, the project team moved from exploring individual practices to understanding what the practices meant in a comparative and collective sense. The ultimate contribution of the project – beyond the state of the art – has been:

1. Placing informal urban design governance on the policy agenda in Europe;
2. Establishing an illustrated panorama of innovative practices spanning the continent, many explored in some depth;
3. Establishing a typology of urban design governance tools as a means to relate practices;
4. In so doing formulating a new common language that can be used to take discussions forward;
5. Connecting urban design governance tools to instruments of development finance and demonstrating how this linkage has the potential to enhance place value;
6. Identifying six overarching principles for effective urban design governance practice;

It is hoped that revealing the state of the art in Europe will inspire and provide a boost for less advanced practices, in Europe and further afield, leading in time to a widespread improvement in the governance of urban design and to enhancements in the quality, sustainability and liveability of the built environment.

These are long-term goals, and whilst the impact of the project is limited by the time and resources available, it has begun a process of pan-European learning that has the potential for significant and fundamental impact, both in Europe and beyond.