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A new “Basket” for Urban Quality Indicators

October 15, 2010

As Chairman of the Work Group Urban Issues of the Architects’ Council of Europe I have submitted the following paper to the Member States and Institutions representatives taking part to the drafting process of the Reference Framework for European Sustainable Cities (www.rfsustainablecities.eu). The document refers to the issue of selecting an approach and a number of urban quality indicators  at european level to support sustainable urban development strategies.

Taking into account the physical dimension of urban policies: the greatest challenge for the “Basket of Indicators” of the Reference Framework for European Sustainable Cities (RFSC)

INTRODUCTION

According to one of the 8 characteristics of the Bristol Accord on Sustainable Communities cities must be Well Designed and Built and the Leipzig Charta has reinforced this statement by underlining the fundamental role of architecture and urban design for the future of sustainable European cities. Furthermore the EU Urban development Ministers’ in Marseille have recognised “the importance of urban statistics and comparative indicators at the European level and of the coordination of the information in order to be able draw a comparative picture between cities and to benchmark them;”

CHALLENGE

The ACE welcomes the great effort that is made to include into the RFSC Web tool the so-called “soft” aspects of quality of life, which is a fundamental aspect of territorial capital and city attractiveness towards investment and high skilled mobile workers.

The basket of indicators of the RFSC has to be a “Smart” one, sensible, attractive and inspiring local authorities to make use of them. It has to be felt as an opportunity and possibly provide an immediate reward, in terms of a new kind information that can help to move forward.

The greatest challenge of the basket of indicators is to include clear specifications regarding experiences and methodologies to monitor and assess the quality of the built environment from the morphological point of view, in other words, the tangible, but not barely  measurable value of  urban fabrics, streets, squares, monuments, public buildings, residential buildings etc. in their social, economical, environmental, historical and cultural dimension.

GENERAL REMARK

Many sets of indicators have already been produced to monitor and enhance the quality of the urban environment, also at European level (e.g. Urban Audit and European Common Indicators), but none of them has succeeded in taking adequately into account the physical and morphological dimension of cities.

In general terms all kinds of indicators must fulfil a number of requirements: they must be accessible (data must be easy to get over an adequate period of time), understandable (provide a strong statement regarding the issue addressed), easy to be shared (public administrators and citizens must get the message at a glance), reliable (not only scientifically, but especially in the common sense: they don’t have to generate misunderstandings) and finally they must be owned by the community (they are sensitive political tools, they need strong consensus).

As a consequence of the above mentioned requirements all kinds of indicators, including those aiming at improving the quality of the built environment, must be defined and agreed at local level (Subsidiarity) in a participative process (Good Urban Governance) and exploiting the opportunities given by new telecommunication technologies (Information and Knowledge Economy) in order to increase impact and minimise costs.

THE RFSC BASKET OF INDICATORS

The RFSC Web tool will provide a European framework for the elaboration and agreement of set of urban quality indicators at local level (municipality, metropolitan area or region) bringing a sensible added value to the ongoing debate on quality of the built environment. The EU institutions have learned a lot from local good practices (e.g. through the Urbact Programme and other dissemination networks).

The EU is required to take a leading role in the sustainable development of territories and cities, encouraging good practices, providing incentives and technically supporting local authorities.

DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO INDICATORS

Option 1

There are various approaches to build set of indicators that can serve the purpose in different manners. Most of them are derived from the economic and sociological methodologies and reflect an analytic/quantitative approach. They are based on the measurement of the variation of a certain number of significant values measured in specified intervals. The variation of each indicator provides an information regarding a specific policy objectives. The amount of people in certain streets at certain hours, people using public transport, walking or cycling to work, tourist visiting a city, visitors going to museums, sqm green space per inhabitant within the city borders, green field converted into building sites, brown field converted into green areas, starting or closing businesses, crime rate, employment rate, local, national or international accessibility rate, average residential rent price per sqm, public housing stock, wildlife species, plants and trees, etc. these are well-known examples of indicators.

This approach can have a more or less solid scientific and statistic background, aiming at being as much objective as possible. As a matter of fact the number of people walking in the streets does not say anything about how they feel, the number of businesses cannot well describe the economic situation of a neighbourhood and the amount of green space does not make a better urban environment if they are not adequately maintained and accessible. Moreover this approach needs a lot of resources and its conclusions are very hard to communicate (see for instance the EU Urban Audit or the “Kompass” Indicator project in Germany).

The lack of communication is a major problem because if indicators are not shared they miss the opportunity to stimulate public awareness. One of the most important prerequisites of indicators is to be easy to be understood and shared in the public and contribute to change citizens behaviours for the better. The “American” way to indicators is conscious about this danger and reacts putting less emphasis on scientific stringency and more on participation and communication (see for instance 1991 founded Sustainable Seattle).

Option 2

A recent evolution of this methodology is given by the definition of a single indicator of urban quality that includes references to many others, in a “synthetic” approach. Everybody knows the most famous indicator of this kind which is the Gross Domestic Product, and a very interesting debate about it (see the famous Stieglitz/Senn/Fitoussi report). As far as urban issues regards we can find a brilliant example of a “synthetic” indicator in the Seattle-based “Walkscore”: a value between 0 and 100 given to every point of a web-based map (each point is an address) as the result of an algorithm. “Walkscore.com ranks communities nationwide (and soon, globally) based on how many businesses, parks, theatres, schools and other common destinations are within walking distance of any given starting point.”

According to the developers of this rapidly expanding software, walkable city will have a centre, whether it is a main street or a public space, enough people for businesses to flourish and for public transit to run frequently, mixed income population and mixed use to satisfy in a reasonable space all needs of everyday life, affordable housing located near businesses, parks and public space, pedestrian and cycling oriented design, schools and workplaces close enough that most residents can walk to and from and all the range of amenities that make a high quality neighbourhood. All this only by tipping your address in a website. This approach is clearly less orthodox, but much simpler of the previous one, with an enormous potential. Moreover it is economically sustainable, because many US Real estates companies use this software to assess the walkability of the locations they offer and to a higher Walkscore corresponds a higher commercial value.

Information integrated into the Walkscore (demography, economy, morphology, society) are collected automatically from the web, thanks to agreements with other institutional or commercial websites where these data are available. Walkscore provides a clear and useful information at a glance, it influences positively people’s behaviour and real estate market awarding walkable neighbourhoods against “car dependent” places and of course it is available as App for iPhones. Unfortunately the Walkscore is not yet available for not English-speaking countries. Moreover, like the traditional set of indicators based on quantitative methods, it is not able to take into account the qualitative aspects of a city.

Option 3

Traditionally intended indicators fails when it comes to evaluate qualitative aspects of urban fabric, they are unable to guide towards a city that is Well Designed and Built and they are well aware of it. That is why the European urban tradition has often made appeal to groups of experts (various forms of Building Commissions) to monitor and improve the quality of relevant projects. Qualitative aspects cannot be captured by numbers, they have a strong subjective and may unexpectedly evolve over time. Nevertheless there are also objective criteria that can and must be monitored. In fact building commissions are expected to provide a balanced response to the public authority regarding the opportunity of the ongoing development project, but, except for a few cases, they are not supposed to guide the urban development.

The way neighbourhoods and buildings are designed cannot be decided by a single person or aesthetic authority, as it has sometimes been in the past. Nowadays buildings have to respond to sustainable development criteria and objectives, certainly not to old-fashioned design codes.

In order to become more practical and understandable within the Bristol Accord the definition of Well Designed and Built has been break down into more specific features responding to the current understanding of urban design and architectural issues. Among these features it is worthwhile mentioning: (1)“Sense of place – a place with a positive ‘feeling’ for people and local distinctiveness” (2) “Appropriate size, scale, density, design and layout, including mixed-use development, that complement the distinctive local character of the community” (3) “High quality, mixed-use, durable, flexible and adaptable buildings, using materials which minimise negative environmental impacts”

Reading this definitions you can understand that it is not easy to convert them into traditional indicators. The Commission for Architecture and Built Environment CABE (established in 1999 by the first mandate of Tony Blair’s Labour Government) has provided a broad range of publications to clarify what is meant by a Well Designed and Built city or project. The assessment tool used by the CABE is the Design Review, based on the principle that “Good design is fit for purpose, sustainable, efficient, coherent, flexible, responsive to context, good-looking and a clear expression of the requirements of the brief”.

An indipendent Commission of experts appointed by the Board of the CABE has the task to assess the following aspects of each project submitted: (1) Clarity of organisation, from site planning to building planning (2) Order (3) Expression and representation (4) Appropriateness of architectural ambition (5) Integrity and honesty (6) Architectural language (7) Scale (8) Conformity and contrast (9) Orientation, prospect and aspect (10) Detailing and materials (11) Structure, environmental services and energy use (12) Flexibility and adaptability (13) Sustainability (14) Inclusive design (15) Aesthetics.

The assessments can be made at different stages (brief, preliminary project, definitive project, construction, post occupancy), it is not binding and aims at improving the given situation (not at the perfect world). This assessment is immediately published on the CABE website and any citizen can access, comment and use it (and this fact alone makes it a rather powerful tool).

The great limit of this tool is that it is an evaluation by experts, on the model of a jury of a design competition or a traditional building commission, which means that it does not take into account the opinion of all the stakeholders involved in the project.

Option 4

A valuable attempt to combine experts assessments with the opinions of stakeholders (end users, investors, developers, building managers, neighbourhood associations etc.) is, again in the UK, the Design Quality Indicators DQI, “a method of evaluating the design and construction of new buildings and the refurbishment of existing buildings”.

Starting from the classical Vitruvius trio: Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas (Utility, Firmness and Delight) the DQI has formulated ca. 100 questions regarding all aspects of a project or existing building. These questions are asked to small groups of stakeholders representatives in order to collect and structure the different point of views. A professional facilitator analyses the responses according to the DQI methodology and stimulate a roundtable discussion among the stakeholders in order to come to a common vision, if possible. In any case all stakeholders, including professionals, have the chance to see things from different perspectives and modify their ideas or attitude. The big advantage of methods like this is that they can clarify project’s criteria and choices also to non-professionals, bridging the gap that divides the stakeholders. Moreover, like the Design Review, this is a rather “light” tool, it requests reasonable resources, and can be applied at every stage of the project to test it and ideally it can become a fully participative process. DQI offers the possibility to make this assessment also online and it has become mandatory in England for all newly built public school buildings.

CONCLUSION

This short review is obviously not exhaustive and is intended as a contribution to the discussion about the basket of indicators to be included in the RFSC web tool, focused on the need to make an adequate effort to include the qualitative aspect of the physical dimension of the built environment, as a fundamental element for quality of life, as stated many times in the documents at the basis of the RFSC in Bristol, Leipzig, Marseilles and Toledo.


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