Values in sustainable planning

Article by Mathias Lehner (BNA International)

When it comes to sustainable planning, knowledge does not lead to acting. Design does! Last week the international conference ‘Value This!’ on new strategies for planning took place. The inspiring online event was organized by The Dutch Association Deltametropool in collaboration with the Royal Institute of Dutch Architects BNA.

The main topic was how planning and spatial design can contribute to the international ambitions set out in the UN Sustainabilty Development Goals (SDGs), the Davos Declaration or the Paris Goals. To put it short: How can react to global urgencies and make this world a better place by creating sustainable and integral values? And how can we do this, without drowning in ever more regulations?  Unexpectedly this discussion on ‘New Planning’ made clear a hugely interesting aspect: where some older experts were worried about additional complexity and believed that the new generation were mainly consumers, the new generation of experts almost naturally accept sustainability goals as a given. They embrace complexity and are ready to act immediately. The cherry on the pie was an overall agreement that our new knowledge on sustainability and planning policies can only be married by design: “Knowledge does not lead to acting, design does!”

Set in the Netherlands with their rich state driven tradition in planning and urban development it was particularly interesting to see that the ideas and examples of the international experts were sometimes more inspiring than the Dutch, where the past period had a stronger focus on market mechanism and less on policies. With climate change and now covid-19 it was very clearly stated by the experts that the future for sustainable cities must be a joint public-private commitment.

What the conference showed is that ‘New Planning’ involving international agreements is feasible. Already today, experts bring this complex thinking in values in practice. There are good examples, but at the same time we still have quite a way to go. It is interesting to note, that architects and spatial designers have a crucial role, but also clients and the government parties  involved in planning and building  – in particular the ‘bureaucracy’ –   as Caroline Nevejan called it.

In this context architects were framed as creative and problem solving. They do new findings, come up with new solutions and are therefore crucial for this process of change when it comes to follow up international sustainability agreements. Heading the International Program at BNA we learned from our international work that architects and clients are indeed willing to create values and think out of the box, too. But it is crucial to come further than  good intentions. In Dutch we say ’ ‘goed bedoeld’ is often the opposite of ‘goed gedaan’. To be more concrete: we learned about 3 important aspects of this process. But more on this in a minute.

Also at BNA  we have adopted working with alternative values, such as the Brundlandt trilogy of social, ecologic and economic values. And I am glad that Paul Gerretsen noticed that we were one of the few in The Netherlands with our MakeHappen Inspiration Night earlier in 2020 to embrace the UN SDGs publicly. What we learned also within our European Exchange with e.g. the RIBA and DanskeArk: it is necessary to document the values created, in order to discuss them with clients before ánd after realisation of a project. What we also learned is that e.g. the Brundlandt criteria are still a new vocabulary for architects ánd clients. Often values are implicitly present, but they have to be addressed more clearly and explicitly in order to discuss them effectively. From our projects within BNA Onderzoek such as ‘City of the Future’ and ‘The building as a water machine’ we learned that all parties are open for new ways of planning; especially within these research projects we learned that the phase before the actual designing starts is crucial.

In this context a quote stood out in the conference: “The marriage between research and policy can only be solved if design joins in” said Caroline Nevejan, and Flip ten Cate added that there is “Too little imagination of what can be done. But designers can help to visualize”  Terry van Dijk (RUG)  added: “Knowing does not lead to acting, design does”

To summarize the 3 most important aspects we have learned: Firstly, you have to jointly define what actually is the scope of a planning commission: What values do you want to achieve? What is the actual problem? And with what approach might you solve it? Secondly, while executing the planning or building project you have to stick to your concept, the plan and the mutual agreements. Finally, the third step might be the most important one: You have to monitor agreements. Document them, claim the values and prove them. This is a task for architects, clients, ánd the government parties involved, and it is the weakest point now. After using sustainability criteria in tenders often the promises are not checked in the process and after execution; aspects easily become victim to the Dutch method of the ‘kaasschaaf’, slightly diminishing ambition because of financial reasons. An example of Caroline Nevejan made that very clear: Amsterdam Municipality agreed to plant a food forest, but an unbelievable 55 times it has been mowed down by now by their own maintenance crew because of a lack of process monitoring. To avoid this, Niels Driessen of Arcadis even showed how you can keep track in a sustainability dashboard to monitor the implementation of sustainability goals.

But to give you some more insights from the conference let’s quickly run through the three sessions. In the first session one we learned that we need to act, and that we need a change in attitude foremostly. In particular it is necessary that experts and citizen understand each other in order to understand the impact of international agreements, too. Sometime citizen feel that they  “do not participate” but that they “are participated”. So citizens are not taken serious. This means basically that the values in international sustainability agreements have to be understood and seen in every-day life. What is in it for me, if I reduce Co2? Flip ten Cate added that we have to watch out for the “difference between interest and value; values can unite, so better to agree on values first, and understand personal interest as a second step”.

Also, we heard of a paradox: Some professionals at the Amsterdam Municipality consider international agreements ‘a waste of time’ given their own local challenges. This is remarkable, as e.g. the UN SDGs are the result of 50 years of work; they are integral, easy to understand and very clear. Or as Caroline Nevejan said: The UN SDG’s “is my life too” – other than Paris agreements that “seems for and from experts”.

Finally, there was a common understanding that “All challenges of our time come down to the cities” and: “alone in your office you cannot fix it. If you do not go to the world, the world will come to you” – probably not like you want it. And, as lined out in the introduction Caroline Nevejan stated that “the marriage between research and policy can only be solved if design joins in, to illustrate how that can be done”. Terry van Dijk (RUG) added “Knowing does not lead to acting, design does”.

In the second session the experts looked more closely in the nature of the values. Marcia van der Vlugt of the Dutch Ministry of BZK clearly raised a simple question: “Value? What does that mean for me?” And indeed, there were at least three different sorts of values in international agreements discussed. Firstly ‘principal values’: Martina Huijsmans of Delft Municipality state that “in a capitalistic system the long term sustainable solution is not always the most attractive” and Paul Gerretsen challenged the audience asking if “money is a hinderance” – implicitly calling for another form of values than money. “Maybe data ownership? Data is necessary in order to have real change, but we do not have or own the data.”

Secondly a couple of ‘process values’ were addressed, like the processes inside a government: Martina Huijsmans of Delft Municipality clearly called the legislation period a “Time and space issues”. As an alderman her elected period is too short for real changes. “You can only try to point in the right direction” and  a little city is part of a larger area, or global urgency, that take even longer. Mrs. Huijsmans also called out for another value: the right to fail. “We have to learn to make mistakes in order to find the right solutions, although politicians don’t like that of course”. Process values seem crucial to her: “Future visions such as NOVI for 2030 are good, but what is the right way to get there?”

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly the experts defined  ‘citizen values’: Marcia van der Vliet framed the Dutch energy transition as a “spatial problem” for citizens. Also Mrs. Huijsmans called for values translated to citizens’ lives ‘bikeability’, the “accessibility of schools, supermarket and work in your daily life as a family without the need for a car”. From her practice she knows that a ”bikeable city is a question for local and regional scales; it is difficult to make right decisions, and cities find it difficult to translate goals to the local scale”. But also “liveability and health” are values regarded important for citizens. “The clear skies as a consequence of the grounded airplanes since covid-19 helps in the  storytelling!” A clear sky is more acceptable than the figure of a 30% Co2 reduction. “We need to make ‘stories that grab’!” Mrs. Huijsmans conclude, in order to profit from international agreements on sustainability. “We must not be ‘too abstract’. Everyone needs to have a picture of it immediately!”

In the final session of the conference practical approaches were addressed, when it comes to international agreements. Niels Driessen of Arcadis showed a newly developed system in the form of a digital dashboard to keep track of your ambition and its realisation. But this is not a regular approach: “The projects who use this dashboard are the ‘diamonds’. It depends on the wishes of the client”. Severine Hermand of the Brussels Environment Institute finally presented a brand new platform launched in the end of 2019 and the ‘Brussels’ Index’. This is a set of regulatory, strategic and operational tools (online, see “We focus on 10 aspects of sustainability. The developed toolbox has tools form general to detailed and there is fast ‘Quick Scan Tool’ online” . There are downloads for specifications, maybe part of the contract. Besustainable also gives workshops and trainings and study trips for developers and designers and stakeholders. Not only theory, but hands on! “The good thing is: The development of a sustainable neighbourhood is an iterative, not a linear process.” The about 50 indicators to be filled in online, and the ‘Compass’  assessment tools with 200 indicators to checks if a project meets the ambition scared off some of the senior experts due to the complexity. But professionals like Mrs. Hermand and Mr. Driessen, and also the acting organizer of the conference Alankrita Sarkar were not shocked at all, more surprised by that comment. They embraced complexity as a new normal to really make a substantial contribution to international agreements.

But next to compose your teams with young talents capable of dealing with complexity for architects the most important insight of the conference might  be: “The marriage between research and policy can only be solved if design joins in.” “Knowing does not lead to acting, design does!”

About the Author

Mathias works as an Interdisciplinary professional in the Netherlands and abroad. He is passionate about passion for architecture and the future of the city and works as a director and program manager skilled in design, research and university teaching on urban challenges and spatial solutions. Currently, he takes on the role as Program Manager with Royal Institute of Dutch Architects (BNA) as well as Research Director with In addition to this, since 2001, he has been teaching at university institutions such as Amsterdam Academy of Architecture, TU Delft, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and other courses in Netherlands and outside.

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