Stepping up our game on urban design and architecture
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