View all publications

4. International comparisons

There are a number of well-known international examples of urban design panels. The most prominent of these operate in large cities or over large metropolitan areas. Two examples are profiled here to show two different types of panels. Seattle (in the USA) operates urban design reviews in a manner more familiar to the New Zealand context, being a city-led approach to specific development projects.

The English Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) panels have a much more wide-ranging scope, and operate both regionally and nationally. For projects of regional or national significance, this ensures high-quality advice is given on projects that have the potential to have major impacts on either the locality, the region or the nation as a whole. The only opportunity for this level of scrutiny that currently exists in New Zealand is the consideration of projects of national significance either by a board of inquiry or by the Environment Court.

The use of urban design panels is gaining impetus worldwide as the importance of good urban design is given more emphasis by city governments. Other panels operating in various locations (which have not been examined in detail for this study) cover a similar range of options, from application-specific assessment to regional advice.

4.1 England, UK: Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) operates a free design advisory service in the form of review panels offering expert independent assessment of schemes at an early stage. The Commission assesses schemes of national importance, or that have a significant effect on the local environment, or that set standards for future development. CABE is a statutory body, but it gives non-statutory advice within the planning process.

The CABE National Design Review Panel conducts design audits of specific developments and has published guidance reports on retail developments, tall buildings, urban housing and master plans. This national panel was established in 1999 and has conducted around 3000 reviews. The panel is made up of leading members of England’s architectural, built environment and creative communities. CABE’s design review provides advice on up to 400 schemes per year, of which about 80 are presented at the monthly presentation panel.

There are also a number of other review panels for specific projects (eg, London 2012 and the Eco-Towns panel), and CABE is also affiliated with eight independent regional design review panels, with which they work to provide consistent, good-quality design advice across England. CABE works with these bodies to allocate schemes that are submitted for design review to either CABE’s design review panel or one of the affiliated panels. Information on incoming schemes is shared to ensure they are reviewed at the appropriate level.

CABE has also published guidance and resources on their website about operating successful design review. 7 There are two types of CABE design review processes: presentation panel reviews and internal reviews.

Presentation panel reviews

In panel presentation reviews, schemes are presented to the panel by those involved. This can include architects, local authorities, clients or other organisations. Up to six panel members attend each presentation panel review meeting. Before the presentation, CABE’s case officer for the scheme will have visited the site and met the design team and others involved. Presentation materials include architectural models, plans, elevations, computer-generated images and other contextual information. After the presentation, panel members discuss the scheme with those involved. The chair then summarises the panel members’ views. Six to eight schemes are normally reviewed at every meeting.

Internal reviews

In internal reviews, schemes are reviewed by a chair of the national design review panel, a member of the panel and design review staff. Reviewed materials can include architectural models, plans, elevations, computer-generated images, and other contextual information. Up to 24 schemes every month are reviewed in this way.

Panel outcomes

After either sort of review, a letter containing the panel’s views is sent to the designers and the local planning authority, and it may also be copied to other relevant parties. CABE’s advice on a scheme is informed by both the panel and by CABE staff. If a scheme is the subject of a planning application, the review letter will be published on CABE’s website. All other reviews are confidential. Regular review and monitoring are a part of all CABE panels.

4.2 Seattle, USA: Seattle Design Commission and Seattle Design Review Programme

The city of Seattle operates a number of citizen-led boards appointed by the mayor and city council to review the design of projects. There is one Design Commission, seven Design Review Boards, one Planning Commission, four Historic District Boards and one Landmarks Preservations Board. The Design Commission and Design Review Boards are highlighted below.

Seattle Design Commission

In 1968 the Seattle City Council created the Seattle Design Commission 8 after urging from many groups, including the American Institute of Architects, who were concerned about the design quality of the city’s buildings. The Commission advises the mayor, city council and city departments on the design of capital improvement projects as well as projects on city land, in the city, rights-of-way, or constructed with city dollars.

The Seattle Design Commission’s responsibilities include:

  • conducting project reviews
  • capital improvement projects
  • right-of-way projects
  • major projects, including transportation infrastructure and master plans
  • making recommendations to officials on the city’s projects
  • holding design workshops to explore solutions for projects
  • publishing issue papers on design-related topics.

The Seattle Design Commission consists of 10 citizens, each of whom has a background in a design profession. Commissioners are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. The term of appointment is two years, which begins in October and may be renewed once. Decisions of the Commission are advisory and non-binding.

Several staff from the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development work part time to support the Design Commission. They facilitate the Commission’s strategic direction, schedule project reviews, and record minutes of the Commission’s meetings, communicate the Commission’s recommendations to the mayor, city council and city’s departments, recruit and train new commissioners, and provide administrative and planning support for the Commission’s special events.

Seattle Design Review Boards

The City of Seattle developed the Design Review Program in response to the city’s building boom of the 1980s, when hundreds of new, poorly designed or out-of-scale multi-family and commercial buildings cropped up throughout Seattle’s neighbourhoods. Citizens, designers and developers all bemoaned the city’s development process. The lack of flexibility in the city’s zoning standards did not allow for creativity in design or recognise unusual lot or siting configurations.

The city was determined to address these problems. After almost two years of study and deliberation by a citizens’ advisory committee and city staff, the city council passed Seattle Municipal Code 23.41 in 1993, which created the Design Review Program. 9 The city council also adopted design review guidelines – beginning with the Design Review Guidelines for Multifamily and Commercial Buildings – for developers, designers and Design Review Boards to use.

There are seven Design Review Boards, created in 1994, which are neighbourhood-based. There are five members per board, making 35 in total. Panellists are appointed by the mayor and council for a term of two years, which can be renewed. Each board meets twice a month. Decisions have advisory/regulatory status due to the link with the city’s design guides.

The Department of Planning and Development’s Design Review Program and its boards review private development projects in Seattle. Only commercial and multi-family developments that exceed a certain size threshold in certain land-use zones are reviewed at this stage, but the Department is developing a new review process to apply to townhouse development.

The Design Review Program was created to:

  • encourage better design and site planning that enhances the character of the city and ensures that new development fits sensitively into neighbourhoods
  • provide flexibility in the application of development standards
  • improve communication and participation among developers, neighbours and the city early in the design and siting of new development.

The Design Review Board reviews projects at public meetings at least twice: at an early design guidance phase and a recommendation phase. For smaller projects, the Department of Planning and Development assigns a design review planner to perform the review instead of the board.