Soft-power in the governance of urban design: the role and impact of informal tools for improving spatial quality in cities across Europe

Urban design governance can be defined as state-sanctioned intervention in the tools and processes of designing the built environment. This means that urban design governance is focused in shaping the decision-making environment of development actors. Such processes will comprehend the various governance mechanisms associated with the design, development and management of the built environment. They will range across formal (hard) and informal (soft) powers of the state, in other words, those that are legally binding and sanctioned by law; and those that are non-coercive, discretionary and optional (Carmona et al., 2023).

The proposed research is focused on the "soft power" approaches of urban design governance, more precisely, in the informal tools of urban design governance. Informal tools refer to those approaches where public authorities act in a semiformal or informal capacity as enablers or brokers rather than through regulatory or direct investment powers. In Europe, such tools include peer review mechanisms, awareness campaigns, design competitions, education initiatives, design awards, city-architects, research by design, and the like

The research hypothesis is that the use of informal tools of urban design governance can contribute to enlarge the opportunity space for public sector intervention in processes of built environment design, namely by extending the range of means available to state actors to influence how the built environment is shaped, improving the connection among sectoral policy agendas and fostering a placemaking culture. What is to be known, is if soft powers of the public sector as operationalised through informal tools of urban design governance represent an effective means of building and enacting a place-based quality agenda.

In this context, the proposed research will examine the role and impact extent of informal tools of urban design governance in different European contexts. Building upon the results of a European survey, developed within a recent postdoctoral research activity at the international research project URBAN MAESTRO, funded by an EU H2020 grant, the research will explore and analysis the use of informal tools in a number of case studies. Through a comparative analysis of interplay of informal tools of urban design governance against the four axes of analytical matrix in the different contextual settings, the research will elaborate a set of conclusions and recommendations.

Focusing on the European context, this research will contribute to the international debate on design governance and add to existing research on this field. The results are expected to raise awareness of public authorities about innovative informal urban design governance tools and influence networks and key actors who will take an active role in a global debate on design governance, by sharing best practices on urban design governance and exposing the research results to an international audience.

References: Carmona, M., Bento, J., & Gabrieli, T. (2023). Urban design governance. Soft powers and the European experience. UCL Press.




Image title and credits (from left to right):

Urban design governance analytical framework  (Image: Matthew Carmona. Source: Carmona, M; Bento, J.; Gabrieli, T. , 2023)

Comprehensive typology of urban design governance tools (Image: Matthew Carmona. Source: Carmona, M; Bento, J.; Gabrieli, T. , 2023)

Styles of government intervention: examples of different formal and informal powers and levers for government policy-makers (image: adapted from UK Policy Lab by Andrea Siodmok, 2017)

Example of informal design governance approach, ‘Courtyard of the Future’ in Copenhagen, is one out of three rainwater demonstration projects that are part of the Copenhagen Climate Adaptation Plan, designed by BLOG, 2021 © Camila van Deurs

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Date: 2022-2028

Coordination: João Bento

Funding: Scientific Employment Stimulus Contract (FCT 2021.01464.CEECIND)