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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 1 - Urban MAESTRO (URBAN DESIGN GOVERNANCE - Exploring formal and informal means of improving spatial quality in cities across Europe and beyond)

Reporting period: 2018-12-01 to 2020-05-31

The quality of the urban environment derives from various interventions and policy decisions over time and reflects the collective work of multiple stakeholders – public, private and community.

While European cities have developed sophisticated laws and regulations (“hard power”) to secure diverse public interest objectives through the governance of urban design, the quality of the resulting urban places can be disappointing. Often outcomes are not aligned with commonly shared objectives such as creating environmental sustainability, human scale, land use mix, conviviality, inclusivity, or supporting cultural meaning.

At its core, the coordination and support action “Urban Maestro” aims to understand and encourage innovation in the field of urban design governance through a better understanding of alternative non-regulatory (“soft power”) approaches and their contribution to the quality of the built environment.

Far from limiting themselves to be simple regulators or even direct investors, many European countries and cities have developed these alternative approaches in order to enhance their ability to intervene as enablers or brokers in urban development. Through these means they have initiated strategies to promote a high-quality built environment, often combining different formal and more innovative informal tools to guide, encourage and enable better design.

For instance, a city may decide to promote quality by supplementing its zoning-based planning system with non-mandatory guidance, by organising architectural competitions, by setting up a process of peer review for design proposals, by instigating temporary urban interventions to demonstrate the potential of particular spaces, or by 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 represent a particular focus of the project. It is hypothesised, for example, that synergies between such tools have the potential to make both approaches more effective in attaining their desired outcomes.

Urban Maestro aims to capture and highlight knowledge about how such initiatives are used in practice, with what purpose, and with what impact on delivering better-designed places. Ultimately, Urban Maestro expects to contribute to the global urban debate and the realisation of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by enhancing practices of urban design governance within Europe and beyond.

Urban Maestro was launched in 2019 by three partners: The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), the Bouwmeester Maître Architecte of Brussels (BMA) and University College London (UCL). It is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.
So far, 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 60 different informal urban design 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 at a series of bilateral conversations and carefully curated workshops. During the workshops, practices have been discussed and analysed in detail, allowing participants to learn, share ideas and co-create policy recommendations.

The team is in the process of working up detailed case studies (some commissioned from our advisors and some developed by the team itself) to explore and present some of the most innovative practices. All of this helps to provide the material for the range of workshops and engagement activities that constitute the core of the Urban Maestro project.

The results of Urban Maestro are made available through the website which is intended to serve as a knowledge platform as well as a participatory tool. Everyone can contribute to Urban Maestro’s exploration by suggesting innovative practices or providing complementary information to practices that are already listed. External contributions are always welcome, and the project team remains particularly keen to hear about examples that combine design governance tools with financial mechanisms focused on building better places.

In the remaining months of the project, the team will be conducting a transversal analysis of the practices that have been uncovered in order to understand what can be learned from the diversity of experiences across Europe.
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 looks 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.

Increasingly, the project team will move from exploring individual practices to understanding what the practices mean in a comparative and collective sense. It is hoped that revealing the ‘state of the art’ in Europe will inspire and provide a boost for less advanced practices, 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 so far limited, it has begun a process of pan-European learning that has the potential for significant and fundamental impact, both in Europe and beyond.