Conceptualising ‘street-level’ urban design governance in Scotland

3 Nov 2023, 11:57 a.m.
Robert Richardson

Today’s cross-cutting policy challenges, including climate and housing crises, have increasingly required place-based responses. Urban design can be a key component of this, and evidence shows that well-designed places have the potential to deliver significant environmental, health, social, and economic value. High quality public space, green infrastructure, and active travel connections, for example, can create vibrant places which promote healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.

Delivering these design outcomes in practice, however, is not straightforward. Too much new development in the UK, including in Scotland, still takes the form of car-dependent and ‘placeless’ retail and housing estates. Despite the promise of increasingly design-centred national level planning policy in Scotland, design outcomes do not appear to be improving at the rate which the climate crisis requires.

It is therefore crucial to understand why this ‘implementation gap’ between the design ambition of national policy and the realities of local delivery persists. Urban design is a distinctive area of public policy with particular implementation mechanisms. For example, private developers, rather than government, are often largely responsible for the outcomes of policy by designing and delivering new development. The state’s primary means of shaping urban design outcomes is through the regulatory planning system, which has itself evolved in recent years as planning functions are being increasingly outsourced to private consultants. The arising complex and fragmented governance landscape is a challenging one through which to implement wide-ranging policy aims, and particularly those with the nuance through which urban design concepts are typically expressed.

West Dunbartonshire Council, located in the post-industrial west of Scotland, has invested in its design capacity and adopted a design-led policy agenda in order to improve the outcomes of new development in the area. It has recruited a dedicated design officer and established a new design review panel - a body of volunteer external design professionals to review and feed back on development proposals. This enhances the skills available to the council and the attention given to design during the planning process, and reflects wider trends in public governance in the UK, whereby local authorities increasingly rely on external privately-held capacity.

This paper develops Lipsky’s seminal framework on ‘street-level bureaucracy’ to conceptualise how urban design is implemented within this complex governance landscape. Lipsky’s ‘street-level bureaucrats’ working in local government continually reinvent the aims of policy as it is implemented, with outcomes shaped by the bureaucrats’ high levels of discretion and the numerous work pressures they experience. These implementation processes, however, become even more intricate when the role of a ‘typical’ street-level bureaucrat is shared among actors who transcend sectoral responsibilities and interests.

Further focus on the micro-level of individuals within these processes can therefore help understand the urban design implementation gap, and reveal how policy responses should be more closely attuned to the processes - and people - through which they are implemented. The case study demonstrates the potential for local planning authorities to actively harness these practices in pursuing urban design policy aims and creating better places. This is, therefore, a theoretical piece with important practical implications in the context of increasing interest in place-based policy.


Read the full paper on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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