Spatial quality teams in the Netherlands (2014)

It is impossible to imagine Dutch spatial practice without spatial quality teams. Active at all scales and in various types of spatial projects, such teams exert a big influence on design questions and on design practice in the Netherlands. The essence of the teams lies precisely in their lack of ‘objectifiability’.

The study of spatial quality teams carried out by Sandra van Assen and José van Campen arose out of curiosity about the significance and methods of the teams. The aim was to open up the black box in order to illuminate how and within what framework experts pass judgement, and whether it is effective. The results were presented in November 2014 in the publication ‘Q-factor, ruimtelijke kwaliteitsteams in Nederland’, an atlas with maps and data that shed light on spatial quality teams and their contribution to state-of-the-art design practice, along with a discussion prompted by the study and two thematic essays. This English summary details the main findings of the study.

The black box of quality teams

We initiated the study of spatial quality teams in 2011 because of our surprise at how inconspicuous spatial quality teams were outside their own world and project commission. The aim of the study was to open up the black box, thus enhancing the visibility of spatial quality teams in all their manifestations, enabling them to be examined, and allowing recommendations to be made to the teams. The question was: what can be said about the desirability and necessity of quality teams? What are the necessary conditions for an effective advisory role in light of the social, administrative, economic and professional dynamics of our time?

In this summary we report on our findings, based on a two-year quantitative and qualitative study. We drew on questionnaires completed by ninety quality teams, progress meetings, observations and films of team meetings, interviews with those involved, and discussions with our supervisory team. Our most important observation is that the teams have potential as hubs, points where spatial expertise is shared, but that there is room for improvement in how they operate and their ability to exert an influence.

We first present a model for making the profile of a quality team clear and consistent. Next we examine the effects of spatial quality teams. Then we describe a way of discussing the professionalism of spatial quality teams in a systematic way: the Q Factor. We conclude with a number of recommendations to everybody involved with spatial quality teams.

Expert judgement as part of planning culture

The methodology of seeking an expert assessment would seem to be part of the genetic make-up of Dutch spatial planning. That may have something to do with the country’s long history of shaping towns and landscapes, in which the search for spatial quality – as a synthesis of beauty, solidity and usefulness – has always played a role. In the tradition of Thorbecke, the government refrains from passing judgement on the quality of building development and structures, taking decisions instead on the basis of advice offered by a committee of experts. Spatial quality, considered an aspect of building development in the Netherlands, must always be discussed and assessed. Dutch landscape architect Dirk Sijmons calls this form of peer review, no matter how limited, the best form of quality assurance that has been devised.

The precursors of quality teams emerged at the instigation of professional social organisations. The first independent quality committees were set up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Moreover, multidisciplinary teams of officials from the Department of Landscape Construction and the Dutch Forestry Commission emerged more or less spontaneously from the designers themselves. In the early 1990s the term ‘quality team’ was introduced in the Netherlands by urban planner Riek Bakker, who took the example of Baltimore and appointed a quality team for the redevelopment of the Kop van Zuid district in Rotterdam. Moreover, in other big public-private area development ventures in city centres and in new outlying residential developments (so-called Vinex areas), the involvement of an authoritative and independent quality team became commonplace. The past decade has seen the emergence of new quality teams that focus more on monitoring the coherence and optimisation of spatial quality in ‘what happens’ in an area.

Definition and profile of a spatial quality team

Following the study, we have defined a spatial quality team as a multidisciplinary team of experts that advises on spatial quality in spatial assignments. Multidisciplinary advice from a team of experts working as a group is essential: it is about the shared and verifiable arrival at a judgement through interaction among team members and the initiators of a project. In our definition the term spatial quality is interpreted broadly: as a synthesis of utility, future value and amenity value. The nature of the client or body that employs the team is not defined, but it can be either a public or private body. What matters is that the advice does not focus on a matter of private concern but rather, views spatial quality as something of shared importance for society. Expertise is also broadly interpreted and can concern professionals as well as area experts involved in societal processes or organisations.

The study shows that no two quality teams are exactly alike. Many teams lack a clear structure, and such hybrid or undefined quality teams provoke confusion. We recommend that quality teams define their own profile precisely using a model made up of two types and six criteria, with accompanying variants. Each profile created is custom-made for a particular project. There is no one best choice, but consistency in the choices made is of vital importance.

161113-q-team-profile-2-0-def
Model to facilitate discussion about the profile of a spatial quality team

Specific or generic 

Specific quality team. This team monitors the ambitions of an urban, infrastructural, waterworks or landscape development. It supervises and assesses individual projects according to their contribution to the quality of the whole spatial ensemble and advises on everything related to it. The team can play a role in public procurement procedures, during the phases for defining the commission and selecting and awarding the contract, and during the implementation phase (for example, during the ‘optimisation rounds’).

This team operates within the framework of the project area: the physical boundaries, the exploitation, planning and project processes. The assessment framework is provided by an urban or landscape master plan, possibly elaborated in other quality documents. The team is formed for the duration of the project and is composed on the basis of the specific assignment.

Generic quality team. This team is a driving force between the spatial vision that has been determined for a project area and various planned and spontaneous initiatives by private and public parties. The remit of the team is a broad one. It can raise matters for discussion, stimulate, investigate, supervise, assess and evaluate.

This team usually operates within administrative boundaries, such as a province, region, municipality or city district. The assessment framework is a spatial vision (policy strategy, environmental vision) or a global quality ambition, possibly elaborated in an image quality plan, policy paper on the appearance of buildings or other policy document on quality. The team is usually not given a definite deadline. The composition of the team reflects the themes at play in the area, and in some cases where one theme prevails above others. We usually see generic quality teams among public authorities and alliances between government bodies that place spatial quality high on the agenda, or where one theme requires extra attention. At local level we see generic quality teams emerge as successors to local authority design review committees for new building permits and monuments.

Variants

Role: reactive or proactive? In practice, the role of a team often turns out to be rather unclear. On occasion, people sit down at the table with differing expectations. To establish clarity in the profile, we can distinguish two variants:

  • reactive quality team: primarily aimed at supervising and assessing plans and projects that are submitted to the team by the client or external parties. It can play a role from an early stage in the process, and continue right up to the permit application procedure. Relatively often, a reactive team advises only when asked to do so.
  • proactive quality team: in addition to supervising and assessing, it plays an active role is raising discussion. It stimulates spatial innovation, brings parties together, initiates projects and research (sometimes design research) and plays a role in discussions on spatial questions. A proactive team offers both solicited and unsolicited advice.

Many frequent issues for discussion concerning the role of a quality team revolve around the question of whether the team should develop its own vision of a project, whether it should be able to call in its own contra-expertise, whether it should become involved in the selection of designers, and whether it should even be allowed to design. Contributing to design and assessment would seem to be at odds with each other, yet this combination occurred some 16 times in the 90 teams studied.

Team composition: focused on image quality, spatial integration, or integral approach? The composition of the quality team is connected to its role, the spatial assignment and the complexity of the social context. It is not always clear who exactly is a ‘real’ member of the team. Meetings are often attended not only by the team members but also other experts or support staff. For the clients of the team, it can be unclear who belongs to the team and what their roles are within the team. Personal appointment decisions, with a defined task and for a defined period, enable clarity to be created in advance. The compositional variants are:

  • design and image quality: the team focuses on the urban design, architecture or landscape design and is made up largely of urban designers, architects and landscape architects.
  • spatial integration: the team focuses on the qualitative integration of a project into its context and, in addition to the above-mentioned experts, includes other spatial experts such as cultural historians, archaeologists, public space experts and planners.
  • integral approach: the team focuses on a more integral consideration of the interests and values of various sectors; the team includes not only individuals from the spatial disciplines but also experts from other professions such as infrastructure, housing, sociology and society, ecology, water management and economic planning. The final evaluation remains a matter of administrative decision-making.

Independence: internal, mixed or independent? The greater the assessment role of the quality team, the more important its independence. Independence essentially means whether team members operate independently. The definition employed for this is that an independent member is not employed by the clients of the quality team, has no vested interest in the project under review, and does not bear any administrative responsibility for it. The independence variants are:

  • internal quality team (in the study: 14%): this consists entirely of non-independent members who form an internal expertise team, a ‘rethinking team’, or a team geared to a learning organisation.
  • mixed quality team (in the study: 48%): this team is made up of a combination of independent and non-independent members in various compositions, such as a supervisory team that may include an independent supervisor as well as an official project manager, a city architect and an official secretary.
  • independent quality team (in the study: 31%): this team is made up entirely of independent members, without any connections or relations that could influence their advice.

Independence can also be considered as a characteristic of the team itself. Does it have its own budget and can it draw up its own agenda? Can it independently, and under its own name, offer solicited and unsolicited advice? Are its meetings open to the public and can it communicate independently with the outside world?

Public character: not public, limited public character, fully public? From the study it turns out that the public character of spatial quality teams is not well developed. Of the 90 teams studied, just 18 teams indicate that their advice is public. The variants on the public character are:

  • not public: the team advises the client only, advice is not published, and meetings are held behind closed doors. Initiators or partied involves may attend only if invited to do so.
  • limited public character: advice is made available to the client and to the project initiators, and is made available to any interested parties on request. Meetings are not open to outsiders. Parties involved can attend meetings at their own request and may also submit a request to explain their project to the team.
  • public: advice is published (usually on the internet), meetings are open to the public and freely accessible. Initiators or parties involved can request time to present their project to the meeting.

Another aspect of the public character of a team is its visibility and ‘findability’. How does the team communicate with its target groups, how broad is the network, how far do the feelers of the team reach? Does the team have its own public profile or is it ‘hidden’? Can the team be found on a website?

Degree of regulation: unregulated, informal or regulated? With this criterion we refer to the degree to which the quality team can determine how it operates and account for its advice. The following variants occur in terms of the degree of regulation:

  • unregulated: the free team’s role is an inspirational one, unconstrained by any rules, and maximum versatility is required. The free team usually works on the basis of a global assessment framework and is appointed on the basis of a global objective.
  • informal: the informal team establishes the most necessary rules only, and then improvises depending on the request made to it for advice. The team works on the basis of an assessment framework and an appointment decision, complemented by summary regulations or protocol.
  • regulated: the regulated team has carefully defined its assessment framework, the advisory process and the accompanying rules, which can include an appointment protocol, the roles of the various members and secretary, how the advice is composed and motivated, how discussions are conducted, how advice is processed and what is done with it, and how conflicts are resolved.

Our proposition is that the heavier the assessment role played by the quality team, the more it needs to formally establish in advance regarding its remit. Moreover, in all three variants, working procedures must be careful and professional. Teams that operate in a careless manner are unclear for the client, cost more money than they need to, and create chaos with regard to substance and procedures. The role of the chairperson is crucial here.

Team authority: general authority, professional authority or procedural authority? Authority is acquired by the team as a whole. The persuasiveness of the team, the collaboration, and the way in which members interact and formulate their advice, is more important than the authority of the members themselves. The ingredients of authority are professional expertise and persuasiveness (the ability to exert an effect). Variants in terms of authority are:

  • general authority: the team is seen as a general authority, possesses excellent professional understanding and great power of persuasion and a mastery of the process. It also possesses great competence and experience. It is only natural that its advice is taken seriously and almost always accepted by all parties.
  • professional authority: the team possesses great professional expertise, but is less expert is its power of persuasion and mastery of the process. This team does not achieve an optimal effect, and its advice sometimes goes unheeded or unanswered.
  • procedural authority: in terms of professional expertise, power of persuasion and mastery of the process, the team is on a similar level to the clients and project initiators, but its advice weighs heavily in a procedural sense.

Achievements and performance of a spatial quality team

The achievements of a spatial quality team can scarcely be demonstrated objectively. Bert Boerman, a member of the Provincial Executive in Overijssel, says that he expects a team’s performance to be greater than its cost. That performance cannot be quantified in terms of concrete savings but, according to him, should be seen in terms of more effective investment in spatial development, and of positive long-term effects such as enhanced user value, higher amenity value or a more flexible programme.

The achievements of a spatial quality team are not easy to quantify. Achievements are largely qualitative and must be considered at various scales and over a longer period. At the scale of the project or intervention, the quality teams list as their achievements: increased quality, better grasp of the assignment, smarter solution, integral approach, greater support base, reduced cost, realistic expectations, ‘solutions with both feet on the ground’, greater expertise, more creativity, less inertia.

Some issues mentioned as benefits for the wider area or context of a project are: connecting parties; creating synergy between separate projects (knock-on opportunities); ensuring continuity and memory; adopting a position above the parties, interests and ad-hoc decisions; offering a counterweight; and keeping long-term goals in mind. Positive effects on the process and the organisation are: accelerating (in speed of thinking and process), breaking through blinkered compartmentalisation, putting spatial quality on the agenda, contributing to a change in culture, the learning effect, and the network effect.

We would also like to point out the ‘meta-benefits’ for spatial professions in general. Peer evaluation can raise standards of professional practice to a higher level.

We asked a number of teams if the benefits can be quantified. Some teams can show that they saved tons or even millions in infrastructure, water safety and redevelopment projects (three quality teams: Space for the River, Groningen-Assen Region, Utrecht Orbital Motorway).

The team of the future has a high Q Factor

Developments in society and in the profession call for different skills and ways of working from spatial quality teams than has been customary over the past two decades. A major change is occurring in spatial processes. Spatial developments are no longer the exclusive domain of governments, investors, developers and housing associations. Knowledge does not only come from planners and spatial designers but also from new players, operating close to the location. The role of the government – the biggest client of quality teams – is changing. No longer is development up to the government, the flow of funding has dried up, and its role as director is no longer a given. In the worst case, the government simply sits back, while in the best case, directing has become a question of negotiating the social value of initiatives, drawing up covenants for projects and boosting spatial quality in programmes. Assessment becomes a search for an optimum. The role of the spatial quality team changes from placemaking to sensemaking: the collaborative process of achieving a result by posing questions, establishing priorities and arguing choices. It is a cyclical process in which the assignment and the solutions are precisely defined.

The quality team of the future anticipates such developments and offers a forum for discussion about spatial quality. In our study we saw teams that were fully engaged in this area, and we also saw teams who sit around the table just as they did ten years ago: hesitant, with a certain distance and sometimes even arrogance, uncompromisingly rooted in their own world.

That is why we are introducing the Q Factor, as a target for professionalism in quality teams. The Q Factor stands for the extent to which a team operates with authority, flexibility and effectiveness in the shifting forces surrounding the commission, context and creativity. The Q Factor is a way of discussing and clarifying the professionalism of a team systematically for its members, patrons, clients and other parties.

161113-the-q-factor-2-0-def
The Q Factor of the spatial quality team in advising on the creative aspects of a spatial assignment is linked to its knowledge of attitude towards the other two C’s: the commission and the context. Offering advice is not a technocratic exercise or a matter of ticking off criteria. Rather, it is about interpreting an initiative with this field of forces.

Conclusion and recommendations

Our conclusion is that the deployment of spatial quality teams offers more potential than is currently made use of. The Q Factor of many spatial quality teams can be increased and the benefits made more visible. If this is not done, there is a danger that public opinion will view the weaker teams as indicative of standards.

The recommendations to the professional community and the clients of spatial quality teams are:

  • develop stronger quality codes. More than is currently the case, the term ‘spatial quality team’ should acquire a qualitative meaning. Those involved in spatial quality teams should draw up a shared quality code. A first step in this direction can be made on the basis of this study.
  • place less emphasis on the assessment role and greater emphasis on the advisory role. A form of planning that encourages initiatives and innovation offers opportunities for teams to act in an advisory and solution-focused manner, allied to the clients and their wishes. This calls for a cultural change of mentality in the professional community. An advisory team is active, brings the parties involved together, and draws on its expertise: its knowledge of the spatial system, allied to a solution-focused design ability.
  • render visible and make available the value of shared knowledge. The added value resulting from the deployment of spatial quality teams is still not visible enough. The task now is to enable the value created by quality teams to benefit society and the profession. A (virtual) centre of expertise and a community of practice could enable quality teams to function in a more solid and cost-effective manner.