Viewpoint (December 01, 2005)

2005 might be remembered as the year of the Design Review Panel. Providing independent expert advice on the quality of architecture being considered for development approval, Design Review Panels include architects, landscape architects, urban designers, planners and engineers. Working most effectively at an early stage of the process, Design Review Panels are meant neither to act as enforcers of city by-laws, nor act as lightning rods for controversial projects. They should act as facilitators for the planning process of a municipality, be that discretionary–as in Vancouver, or as in the case of Toronto–and as described by urban planner Joe Berridge: “a state of unregulated chaos.” George Baird recently remarked that “design review is not and cannot be a substitute for a strong planning framework in a city.” Baird adds that “structural planning, land use, density, and relationship to transportation cannot be resolved via design review. They must be resolved prior to design review kicking in and if they aren’t, the design review process will unravel.” Design Review Panels are an important enabling device to promote architecture. They should be encouraged, even if provincial commissions must be created to assist municipalities in improving their overall planning vision to allow for better design.

One option to support the successful implementation of Design Review Panels is the creation of a commission. A commission is an arm’s-length non-statutory body that is useful for collaborations across and between levels of government. A very useful model to study is the Commission on Architecture in the Built Environment (CABE). Set up in the UK in 1999, CABE is a powerful commission originally designed to support the Prime Minister’s commitment to promote good design on publicly funded projects. Advising on 80 development schemes in its first year alone, CABE reviewed nearly 500 projects in 2005. Using its Design Review Committee as one arm in the process of development, its responsibilities also include advocating for greater housing densities, advising on tall buildings and improving the viability of financing private-public projects ranging from urban regeneration to waterfront development.

In Toronto, the subject of design review has received lukewarm reception, mostly out of fear, pessimism and a lack of new ideas. I recently had the honour of moderating a panel sponsored by the Ontario Association of Architects (OAA), where 400 people came out to listen to five experts present their views on the merits of Design Review Panels: Vancouver architect Bing Thom, urban planner Joe Berridge, developer Howard Cohen as well as Toronto architects Bruce Kuwabara and George Baird. Each of the panelists spoke from his respective area of expertise. If anything, the panelists were effective in revealing some of the many weaknesses in Toronto’s planning vision, including a lack of leadership and commitment to supporting reforms that could improve the quality of architecture produced in that city.

The frustrations expressed during that evening session is what the OAA wanted to hear as they prepare for negotiations with the provincial government over reforms to help municipalities across Ontario improve their abilities to evaluate development proposals. The OAA should be commended for its efforts and it is hoped that they will work with other provincial associations in reforming planning legislation across all provinces. The ultimate goal is to encourage the development of workable independent advisory panels in both large and small municipalities that promote higher quality design proposals.