Informal approaches to improving design quality in the built environment across Europe

One of the URBAN MAESTRO objectives was to map out the design governance landscape in jurisdictions across Europe. This includes both the relation between informal and formal approaches to the governance of design and how the delivery of better-designed places can be facilitated by the use of allied financial mechanisms.

To reach this goal, a European survey was launched in 2019 to collect and provide a stock-take of informal tools for improving design quality in the built environment across the continent.  The results of the survey are published in our report Informal tools of Urban Design Governance, the European picture.

The Survey covered 32 European countries: 28 EU member states (at the time of the survey), plus the four EFTA countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland). In Belgium and the United Kingdom, their regions/constituent countries were targeted separately. From the 124 relevant institutions invited to participate in the survey, 63 replies were received.

The survey revealed an increasing number of administrations (national to local), developing an increasingly diverse and sophisticated set of approaches to offer clear leadership in this domain. To do this, governments across Europe are taking advantage of the informal tools of urban design governance to assist in the delivery of a better-designed built environment. These use the soft powers of the state to encourage and cajole development actors in a discretionary (non-obligatory) manner. 

The survey revealed that all five categories of informal urban design governance tools – evidence, knowledge, promotion, evaluation, assistance – are being actively and extensively used across Europe, broadly for two purposes, first, to develop a positive culture within which decision-making on design can occur, and second, to assist in the delivery of better quality projects and places.  These meta-categories can be defined as:

  • Quality culture tools, which seek to establish a positive decision-making environment in which a consensus gradually builds around the notion that a better designed built environment delivers place value and is worth striving for.  Most evidence, knowledge, and promotion tools fall into this category.

  • Quality delivery tools, which steer those decision-making processes in a more focused manner, helping to ensure that from intervention to intervention in the built environment, design quality is delivered.  Most evaluation and assistance tools fall into this category.


These categories cut across the separate meta-categories of formal and informal tools of urban design governance that underpinned the survey.  In this way, informal tools should be seen as important means to complement the formal side of the design governance landscape, and greatly extend the means available to state actors to influence how the built environment is shaped.

The survey also revealed that there is the potential to use financial tools alongside or as part of the urban design governance toolbox in such a way that ‘good behaviour’ is rewarded – namely the delivery of high-quality design – and ‘poor behaviour’ discouraged. This, however, is a potential that seems, so far, to be remarkably under-exploited. The critical task for the state is not simply to incentivise development but to incentivise high-quality development. Currently, many administrations are attempting to do this with one hand tied behind their back.

Despite this, many administrations across Europe are proactive in promoting design quality and fostering a culture of place quality in order to raise standards of design and achieve better places. The survey identified a diverse range of collaborative processes and partnerships between public and non/pseudo-governmental organisations in order to deliver and use the informal tools of urban design governance. Notions of governance embody the notion that a whole range of institutions, actors, tools, and relationships are involved in the process of governing.  The pursuit of design quality in no exception.

Whilst it acts with, for and among other stakeholders, the public sector nevertheless has special responsibility for creating the conditions within which a high-quality built environment can flourish. The survey indicates that many of the most enlightened administrations across the continent are taking this role seriously and have been setting up dedicated actors, institutes, and initiatives to drive forward a culture of design. The use of a varied pallet of informal tools of urban design governance is central to this drive.


Survey replies received by type of organisation

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This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 831704.

© 2019 Urban Maestro