What influence does spatial design have on spatial planning at a regional scale level and on decision-making at all scale levels? Based on practical case studies from the Netherlands, PhD researcher Verena Balz explored the two-way traffic between regional design and the development of spatial policy.

From the 1960s until the early 1990s, Dutch spatial planning was centrally controlled. With a sequence of policy documents on spatial planning, central government kept control. As a result of a shift in the mid-1980s from spatial planning for geographically marked areas to planning for metropolitan networks, there has been an increasing focus on spatial development at a regional scale.

Planning on this kind of scale tends to involve numerous actors (public, private and civil society) playing a role or having a strategic interest. It is also necessary to switch between different levels of governance and administrative boundaries. What emerges is something resembling a regional design practice, which provides substance in this complex context on the one hand while at the same time being shaped by that context. “I tried to explore how this design practice, which offers a great deal of room for creativity and is almost completely lacking any formal framework, relates to spatial planning in its ultimate configuration,” says Balz.

A huge amount of literature has been published on architectural and urban design and the same is true of spatial planning and governance. Balz explored how these two divided worlds are interconnected, partly in order to determine what regional design actually delivers. “By that I mean expected results (performances), such as a better understanding of the challenges tackled by the plan or generating wider support for proposed measures.” According to Balz, designs on a regional scale are not intended to be implemented on a one-on-one basis. What they are intended to do is inspire and result in the creation of an image and lead to changes in behaviour that then determine decision-making.

Balz notes that there are often heightened expectations with regard to what regional design contributes to a planning process: inspiration, innovativeness and characterising policy. “Although views of this kind on the potential role of design may be justified, in the practical world of a specific planning process, they are not all equally successful.” However, regional planning practice is pre-eminently suited for outlining the potential impact of policy and regulations. In this way, designs can contribute to the flexible, iterative processes through which new policy or new regulations emerge.

Balz attempted to determine the extent to which regional design affects spatial planning by analysing a series of spatial plans. This included a focus on the relationship between the activities of the Atelier Zuidvleugel (South Wing Studio) and the Stedenbaan transit-oriented development programme. As such, much of the dissertation consists of a description of the specific context in which regional designs are made. “Based on the cases studied, I conclude that regional design has no really direct or very strong influence on decision-making. Instead, it has an indirect, long-term effect. I believe it is important for designers to be aware of the very arbitrary nature and the specific character of the context in which they work.”

She also concludes that regional design practice is to a large extent influenced by the level of freedom from policy frameworks relative to government-controlled spatial planning and that, in the complex arena of actors, it is sometimes unclear who is responsible for the design process and for the effect of the results in terms of decision-making. “This is despite the fact that, in some policy frameworks, such as the MIRT (the Multiannual Programme for Infrastructure, Space and Transport), regional design is a compulsory component of the planning procedure.” Balz sees room for improvement. “There needs to be greater clarity with regard to who is liable for the function and outcomes of regional design.”

Published: June 2019