Book review: Urban Design Governance: Soft Powers and the European Experience

reviewed by Yueh-Sung Weng

6 Feb 2024, 7:44 a.m.

Urban Design Governance book cover

Matthew Carmona, Tommaso Gabrieli, and João Bento, Urban Design Governance: Soft Powers and the European Experience, London: UCL Press, 2023; 303 pp.: ISBN: 978-1-80008-427-8, £50.00 (hbk)


Even though urban governance has varied applications in different branches of urban studies ranging from human geography to urban planning and urban design, the term generally signifies that stakeholders’ ability to set up rules in an initiative and steer the direction for balancing environmental, societal and economic outcomes. In particular, urban governance has received increasing research focus since governance systems have undergone dramatic reform from Keynesian public administration to neo-institutionalism in public management since the 1980s (Raco, 2020: 256–257). Actors from civil society, such as private sectors, third sectors, community sectors and citizens, have more power and an invited space to participate in a governance process when institutional devolution can be witnessed in decision-making processes (Cornwall, 2008: 271–273). Since then, urban governance has become an art of negotiation and conflict mitigation in power exercise when multiple actors are allowed to participate in a sophisticated public sphere for resource allocations.

However, financially vulnerable groups are still struggling to participate in decision-making processes. Furthermore, more planning instruments need to be devised as a state and civil society collective strategic partnership becomes the aspiration in addressing this issue in urban governance discourse (Brinkerhoff, 1999: 59–60). This book tends to address those gaps by digging into the institutional and economic dimensions of urban governance. Carmona, Gabrieli and Bento first adopt an analytical framework to assess the urban governance outcomes and conduct in-depth case studies in the European context to explain why urban governance is crucial for improving urban design quality. In addition, this informative book highlights the importance of financial dimensions in urban design governance because urban design initiatives cannot be detached from the housing market. Financing urban design assists stakeholders to critically assess the feasibility of an initiative. Thirdly, this book systematically distinguishes planning instruments between regulatory and informal tools to examine those tools’ capacities to balance economic, social and environmental values in practice. Furthermore, the authors believe soft power is essential to enhance a governance structure since a greater power dynamic has been emphasised in governing urban design.

This book, which comprises seven chapters, adopts a logical analytical framework to assess urban design outcomes in the four distinguished stages, ranging from conceptualisation, contextualisation and empirical research, to discussion and reflection of urban design governance. Carmona, Gabrieli and Bento critically review those theoretical foundations on urban design governance in the introductory chapters 1 and 2. In the first chapter, this book conceptualises urban design governance by examining different periods of urban design policymaking in the European political and housing contexts. This historical review allows the authors to study the essence of and stakeholders’ aspirations for urban design from different angles and dimensions, which include the mandate of physical housing improvement to the ambitious goal of socio-economic revitalisation. The historical review explains why the quality of urban design becomes a vital item of the urban design agenda. The strength of this book can be witnessed in the contextualisation of European design governance in chapters 1 and 2. The European experience emphasises the value of two-way interaction between state and society. Practitioners, residents and the community sector in Europe have varied routes to participate in decision-making processes either in direct or ‘in-direct’ design processs. Compared to the East Asian housing context, multiple forms of institutions and planning instruments can be applied in urban design governance structures in a number of European cases (Ng, 2007: 325–332). Stakeholders in European countries have more chance to adopt soft power to enhance urban design outcomes until their non-statutory design strategies are legitimised. Thus, it is valuable to examine whether those European informal tools’ soft power can influence urban design outcomes. At the final section of chapter 2, the authors introduce an analytical framework to evaluate formal, informal design instruments’ capacities and urban governance structures in each of the case studies.

Carmona, Gabrieli and Bento have added three distinguishing contributions to this field by exploring urban design case studies in-depth in empirical chapters 3 – 5. The first contribution can be found in chapter 3, when this book constructs a typology of urban design instruments based on a survey of urban design policymaking in selected 29 European countries. The survey’s findings allow the authors to classify those governance instruments in the following dimensions: formal, informal, social learning and delivery improvement of urban design governance. The long history of European urban design practice with improved state and civil society relationships, which is regarded as an outstanding characteristic in European urban design, may help in understanding the value of social learning in governance and informal practices’ implications for potential policy change in urban design. Secondly, another contribution is to organise ranges of informal design instruments into categories regarding the complementary role with legitimate instruments in urban design governance, in particular, those instruments for improving decision-making that are not legally standardised. Aligned with the analytical framework, the authors investigate to what extent those informal instruments enhance social learning in the governance and quality of project delivery. For instance, urban design knowledge training can let citizens learn more about the value of urban design quality and realise the gap between expected design outcomes in real practice and their aspirations of a green, safe, affordable and inclusive built environment. Furthermore, knowledge-sharing tools allow relevant participants to understand how urban design standards in varied dimensions can assist them in exchanging their ideas and vision in decision-making processes. Thirdly, this book evenly tests urban design governance’s design, institutional and financial dimensions. Case studies in chapter 5 explain well how urban design economic models urge stakeholders to practically assess the scope of initiatives. As for financially vulnerable stakeholders in urban design governance, the financial dimension forces them to devise strategic partnerships with the public and private sectors for leveraging long-term investment and resource allocations.

This conclusion chapter pinpoints two crucial factors: organisational structure and agency that can generally enhance urban design quality according to the investigation of urban design governance with a large sample size. The types of governance structures range from top-down to bottom-up, guided networking and development-focused models. As for the long-term strategy, social learning is the fundamental theoretical apparatus to cultivate the culture of design quality promotion (Bandura, 1977: 2–6). That is because policymaking cannot instantly resonate effectively with stakeholders and urge them to quickly recognise the value of urban design. An individual’s ability to participate in the decision-making process needs to be trained. Even though the state has a duty to provide guidance and resources, private and community sectors are the critical agents for disseminating knowledge and ideas. Then, individuals can learn and practice governing urban design via the learning process of workshops and lectures. The culture of design quality promotion can be built on by a long-term strategic plan when multiple stakeholders are engaged in urban design governance.

On the other hand, the role of agents can become clear once the stakeholders define a set of rules and agendas in an initiative. In particular, a sophisticated governance structure is needed when an organisation aims to promote social return for marginalised groups through neighbourhood investment for a better-built environment. Nevertheless, the significant weakness of this book is that it does not investigate urban design governance’s capacity for wealthy and disadvantaged groups. Whether urban design governance is a privilege for rich people is an unanswered question in this book. If governance is not a privilege, what kind of strategy can secure finance for urban design projects for disadvantaged groups? These inquiries still need to be addressed by further urban design research.

In sum, this book digs into the study of urban design governance in the European continent to prove that governance is essential in enhancing place-making for a better built environment. This book is not only suitable for urban designers but also an informative book for readers who are interested in urban governance. This rich evidence-based research further justifies two outstanding elements for urban design governance. Both are crucial to integrating citizen participation into decision-making for inclusive and habitable outcomes. Informal tools can guide participants in producing creative urban design strategies usually constrained by bureaucratic instruments. In comparison, financial tools urge stakeholders to practically assess the scale and scope of an initiative and to figure out a strategic partnership with potential investors and facilitators for long term investment in design quality.



Bandura A (1977) Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Google Scholar

Brinkerhoff DW (1999) Exploring state–civil society collaboration: Policy partnerships in developing countries. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 28(1_suppl): 59–86. Crossref | Google Scholar

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Ng MK (2007) Sustainable development and governance in East Asian World Cities. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice 9(4): 321–335. Crossref | Google Scholar

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