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Advisory Design Panels–The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Cities and municipalities often use design panels as a way to gain input on upcoming projects–particularly those that have an impact on the public sphere. Design panels are composed of a group of interested volunteers, usually professionals, representing a range of backgrounds including urban design, planning, architecture, landscape architecture, and engineering. The panels are rounded out with others who may include representatives from the building and development community, the arts community, police officers, advocates for people with disabilities, etc, depending on the focus of the municipality. Design panels, at their best, can be thought of as gatekeepers of the built environment, keeping an eye out for the public good.

It is also great way to get input on a project from a wide range of viewpoints, and projects often improve as a result. The panel is at arm’s-length, and its members are not subject to the same constraints as professionals who are working on behalf of their clients, and therefore not subject to the same economic pressures. It can be difficult to stand up to a client who is, say, pushing a problematic design, if they are also paying the bills. The design panel however is free to give unbiased criticism and this is one of the main advantages. Another great quality is that the panel is able to look beyond the bounds of a specific site, and make sure that the proposed project works well in relation to a broader context: neighouring sites, a wider community, a whole district.

As part of the approvals process, design panels are sometimes seen as yet another bureaucratic hurdle to be cleared. For a large and complex project, it is not uncommon to have to go back to the design panel multiple times and this process can become quite onerous, as well as costly for the client. Also, the collective wisdom of the panel really depends on the skill and experience of the members and it only takes one member who may have an axe to grind, or unreasonable requests, to really bring the momentum of a project to a halt.
I have presented to design panels and currently sit as a member on one (District of North Vancouver) and I would say that in spite of the drawbacks, it is a very valuable part of the design and approvals process, and our cities are almost certainly better off as a result.

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