Step­ping up our game on ur­ban de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - JA­SON THORNE Ja­son Thorne is gen­eral man­ager of Plan­ning & Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment for the City of Hamil­ton.

Den­sity with­out de­sign equals dis­as­ter. That is a com­mon adage among pro­fes­sional plan­ners, ar­chi­tects and ur­ban de­sign­ers. As ci­ties in­ten­sify, how we build and de­sign build­ings and the spa­ces around them be­comes more and more im­por­tant.

High qual­ity ar­chi­tec­ture, land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban de­sign can cre­ate value in a city. Good de­sign draws peo­ple, at­tracts in­vest­ment, and fos­ters civic iden­tity and pride. It is through care­ful at­ten­tion to the de­sign of our ci­ties that we en­sure that our short-term goals of growth and de­vel­op­ment con­trib­ute to a long-term vi­sion of city-build­ing.

The chal­lenge for city plan­ners is how do we reg­u­late and en­force high qual­ity de­sign? One of Hamil­ton’s re­sponses was to es­tab­lish a De­sign Re­view Panel (DRP).

The DRP was launched as a pi­lot project in early 2014 fol­low­ing a mo­tion of City Coun­cil by Coun­cil­lors Ja­son Farr and Chad Collins. It is com­posed of a group of pro­fes­sion­als who are ap­pointed vol­un­teers with back­grounds in plan­ning, ar­chi­tec­ture, ur­ban de­sign and land­scape ar­chi­tec­ture. The DRP re­views ma­jor de­vel­op­ment ap­pli­ca­tions for cer­tain parts of the city, such as the down­town and West Har­bour, as well as iden­ti­fied civic projects through­out Hamil­ton, and pro­vides ad­vice to ap­pli­cants and the City staff who are re­view­ing the ap­pli­ca­tions.

The DRP doesn’t make de­ci­sions, nor does it dic­tate what ac­tu­ally gets built. And in their com­ments DRP mem­bers aren’t try­ing to achieve any sort of con­sen­sus about a par­tic­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tion. They sim­ply pro­vide ob­jec­tive, mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary ad­vice that is mo­ti­vated by a pro­fes­sional com­mit­ment to ex­cel­lence in all as­pects of city­build­ing.

This month, the DRP pi­lot pro­gram ex­pires, and City staff will be rec­om­mend­ing that this ad­vi­sory panel be made per­ma­nent.

While City poli­cies and by­laws are im­por­tant, they are in­suf­fi­cient on their own. Good de­sign can­not be cod­i­fied. It can­not be dic­tated with rules and num­bers and for­mu­las. These tools can es­tab­lish the pa­ram­e­ters for de­vel­op­ment, but de­sign ex­cel­lence re­quires cre­ativ­ity, bold­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity to the unique con­text of each pro­posed build­ing. Get­ting to de­sign ex­cel­lence re­quires de­bate, dis­cus­sion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

That is where the value of the DRP lies.

The panel mem­bers’ ad­vice chal­lenges both ap­pli­cants and City staff to push harder and de­mand more with re­spect to the qual­ity of de­sign in our city. It is peers work­ing with peers to up their col­lec­tive game. The mere ex­is­tence of the DRP as part of the de­vel­op­ment re­view process is a strong sig­nal to the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity that, when it comes to ur­ban de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture in Hamil­ton, “good enough” is not good enough any­more.

On be­half of City staff, I’d like to thank panel chair Vin­cent Colizza and the vol­un­teers who made up the in­au­gu­ral DRP. The de­vel­op­ment projects that will soon be built in our com­mu­nity are bet­ter thanks to your ef­forts.

De­sign ex­cel­lence re­quires cre­ativ­ity, bold­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity to the unique con­text of each pro­posed build­ing. JA­SON THORNE

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