A number of urban design panels have been established in New Zealand with the aim of improving the quality of urban design. These have mainly been set up by metropolitan councils and in areas of rapid urban growth. The Ministry for the Environment wanted to gain a nationwide picture of these urban design panels to inform policy proposals, enhance their use and effectiveness, and improve the quality of urban design in New Zealand. The project brief required a ‘stocktake’ of local authority urban design panels to establish their number and the processes they use, and to canvass views on their effectiveness.
The project was undertaken in May and June 2010, and involved a survey of all local authorities in New Zealand, supplemented by desktop research on case studies in New Zealand and overseas. Seventy-two local authorities were surveyed, with a response rate of 72 per cent. The research was conducted in two stages. In stage 1 local authorities were asked whether they operated an urban design panel (or similar) for resource consent assessment. If they responded ‘yes’, follow-up questions were asked about the panel’s function, scope, terms of reference, management and operation. In stage 2, local authorities who answered ‘no’ to the question of having an urban design panel were asked to clarify why this was and what other methods were used.
This research revealed that, across New Zealand, urban design assessment takes many forms, but two main types of urban design panels are:
- an independent panel of external experts (including technical advisory groups)
- an in-house panel of external experts who function as a ‘design clinic’.
Assessment by in-house staff and specifically commissioned external peer review are also key assessment mechanisms.
The determining factors for whether or not a local authority chooses to establish and operate an urban design panel appear to be:
- 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.
External expert panels have only been established in metropolitan centres. This reflects development pressure, staffing levels, the availability of expertise, and the greater degree of urban design weight given by district plans.
In general terms, it seems that the panels of external experts that are currently operating in New Zealand are having a positive effect on built outcomes, either by improving the standard of design or by being able to eliminate poorly designed proposals from further consideration. The panels have also improved the quality of applications subsequently received, and have raised the profile and importance of urban design issues in the development community. It is evident from the survey that the greatest value of urban design review is at an early stage, preferably before a full design is developed.
Given the large range of local authority types and demographics, and the equally wide variety in the content of district plans, it would appear that allowing each authority to choose a method of urban design assessment that suits them best is a practical approach. There is also merit in adopting a flexible approach: using different assessment methods, or a combination of methods, to ensure robust advice that meets Resource Management Act timeliness requirements.
Nevertheless, from the survey it became clear that there are a number of ways in which urban design assessment and the operation of urban design panels could be improved and supported, and therefore given more weight in the decision-making process. These are encapsulated in the following recommendations.
- 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 for use.
- Provide support for nationwide training for those sitting on urban design panels, to create a consistent decision-making process.
- Investigate ways to assist provincial and rural councils to give urban design advice, particularly for projects in their area that are large or significant.
- 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.