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A closer inspection of our urban design panels

A closer inspection of our urban design panels

Urban designers are being propelled into the development limelight with the release of new report, Urban Design Panels - A National Stocktake. The report is authored by urban designer Sarah Duffell on behalf of the Ministry for the Environment, and recommends that more weight be given to the expertise of urban design panels as a key tool in the decision making process followed by councils around New Zealand. Duffell says that urban design panels that are operating effectively can save time and money, for both applicants and councils, because consents can be decided on “better-resolved designs”.

The report brings together findings from a ‘national stocktake’ responded to by eight city councils and three district councils in May and June this year, who have some form of urban design panel in place for processes such as resource consent reviews, technical advice or independent appraisals of specific projects.

The stock take of councils around the country shows that a large number of councils are not using urban design panels. Twenty local authorities (28 percent of city and district councils) failed to give any response at all to the survey. Regional councils were not surveyed.

The report found that the determining factors for whether or not a local authority chooses to establish and operate an urban design panel are:

  • The content of the district plan and whether it gives any scope for specific urban design assessment
  • The demographic characteristics of the local authority, including size, population and proportion of urban land
  • Budget considerations
  • The availability of suitably qualified people to form a panel.

On the other hand Duffell also found many local authorities are viewing the relevance of urban design in terms that are too confined to compliance with rules or to new developments only, such as subdivisions. There is a large misconception that urban design is restricted to metropolitan centres only.

“During this survey it became apparent that the perception of the scope and definition of what ‘urban design’ involves varies widely across the country.

“This shows that an opportunity exists to raise awareness of what urban design can do, and its benefits to places of all sizes and demographics,” says Duffell.

Auckland-based urban designer James Lunday of Common Ground Studio agrees: “There is no doubt that more weight needs to be given to good urban design. This report is a strong indication that the Ministry for the Environment’s Urban Design Protocol and a greater emphasis on consistent application of urban design principles will need to feature prominently in the second phase of Resource Management Act reforms now approaching completion.”

“It is a concern that the many provincial or rural councils who could benefit from urban design advice for large or significant projects are missing out. The development decisions made outside our cities are too important to miss out on expert urban design advice, so it is especially pleasing to see that this report has identified the need to investigate ways to change that situation as a priority.”

Duffell notes that most panels have not yet been operating long enough to witness the construction of a significant number of projects they have provided advice on; with notable exceptions being Auckland City Council and Queenstown Lakes District Council.

Based on responses to her survey some of the obstacles to the ability of urban design panels to raise standards of urban design and to effect change, include instances when projects don’t come before a panel at an early enough stage or advice is given that isn’t supported by provisions in the district plan. 

Comments made about other difficulties faced by urban design panels included instances where their qualitative assessments are over-ruled by quantitative considerations, for example considerations that allow too much weight to be given to traffic counts or parking space numbers.

Amongst more internally focused difficulties was an observation that some panel members were perceived to be guilty of straying into supplying irrelevant or commercially unviable “architectural critique or areas of personal taste” rather than keeping to matters of urban design. 

The report pointed to the positive outcomes that an urban design panel can help achieve, as follows:

  • Better relationships between buildings and streets
  • Less car parking in front of buildings
  • More provision for pedestrians
  • Better relationships with adjacent open spaces
  • Better site layout

The report recommends a best practice and ‘best fit’ approach rather than a ‘one size fits all’ answer. At the same time it favours providing urban design panels with standard terms of reference and nationwide training.

While the need for more urban design consultation has been made clear, the report has also found a gap in the number of qualified urban design professionals in New Zealand. 

The report also briefly visits some examples of international design programmes, like the Seattle Design Commission, which operates a number of citizen-led boards appointed by the mayor and city council to review the design of projects.

Looking forward, the report makes four recommendations:

  1. Provide best practice guidance for local authorities wishing to set up an urban design panel: this guidance would create greater consistency nationwide on how urban design panels operate and are monitored, and would provide standard terms of reference.
  2. Provide support for nationwide training for those sitting on urban design panels, to create a consistent decision-making process.
  3. Investigate ways to assist provincial and rural councils to give urban design advice,
  4. particularly for projects in their area that are large or significant. 
  5. Continue to provide research, guidance and training on urban design issues, objectives, policies and rules in district plans to ensure these are written to give effectiveness and weight to urban design matters where relevant: this will give decision makers the tools to make robust decisions that can include consideration of urban design matters.

Read the report in full here.