I wonder if it’s a pivotal moment about how we do better cities up here…well, half way up the Pacific coast.
And it has to do with design panels and development assessment…an issue other Australian cities and towns may well have resolved some time ago.
The ground-breaking Urban Land Development Authority, its functions now re-shuffled and absorbed into a government departmental structure (and in some respects recently re-affirmed), had an approval process with:
• no appeal rights for refused applicants or third party objectors to approved projects, and
• guarantees of a swift decision once formally lodged.
So you want to get it right before you lodge.
The lead-up to lodgement time therefore involved external design advice to the Authority, and therefore an often highly interactive design-strong dialogue with the developer, from within a group of rather senior consultants from several disciplines.
That’s not new around Australia and indeed built here much more on the powerful previous work of the South Bank Corporation’s design panel than on the parallel early steps of the much more limited (in scope, operation and resourcing) in the early 2000’s of Brisbane City.
The process of the ULDA (now part of the Queensland DSDIP state agency) often, perhaps usually, worked in enhancing the design quality of projects, in macro and micro scales and many developers agreed their proposals had been improved by the dialogue.
The independence and overt experience of panellists in theory should offer some confidence to both developers and third parties that appropriate design issues are being taken seriously and not ignored, by lack of skills or interest or priority. And so it has seemed, so far.
But, from my experience in this, how any such system works, in total and on occasions, must vary and depend on such obvious issues as:
• the clarity of the vision and its detailing within the statutory instrument for the area
• therefore whether the expert panellist is comfortable with the content of the vision and the ambiguities and freedoms it often has
• the willingness of the developer’s architects and other advisers to engage in dialogue that might challenge ‘their iconic vision’
• the determination of a panellist to keep pushing for better outcomes, rather than back off out of some courtly sense of professional courtesy
• the classic understanding of what is personal style (of either the project’s designers or the panellist) and what is important civic function
• the balancing act between design issues to insist upon and creative suggestions offered
• the quality and time available for the dialogue…an issue said to be hard for some agencies
• therefore which projects to offer the process, and
• how early in the life of a project the dialogue begins, before design offerings are entrenched and costly.
Outcomes are patchy
So of course outcomes are patchy, both between and within agencies. It is after all, an interaction between humans, not a computer printout, and about the design of cities which, as we know, is hardly a human endeavour based substantially on detailed and on-going research.
All too frequently it is a process not routinely reviewed, reflected on, open to external dialogue about attitudes and approaches, or used to amend visions or controls.
It is however surely a process familiar to developers of master-planned precincts who care about the quality of offerings from others before selling. The Kelvin Grove Urban Village certainly was.
In the end, it depends on agreeing the Value of Design. And here in South East Queensland there seem to be contrasts. A fascinating exercise is underway in the Southport precinct where Gold Coast City appears to have removed many ‘planners’ constraints’ such as plot ratio or height to encourage development with greater CBD credentials – just as the exhilarating Light Rail system is about to deliver. So how much design intervention and with what clarity of purpose?
There is a range of really interesting projects across the state in which urban design issues are central. And yet, at the same time, it feels as if many are uncertain about the State Government’s understanding of and commitment to Design. For many, there is the concern that ‘Design’ is perhaps seen as expensive lipstick, rather than as an essential value-adding, risk-reducing practical process that is critical to the economic vitality, environmental appropriateness and, surely, community well-being of the state.
The Government is however well advanced in developing, with substantial citizen consultation, a Queensland Plan, with nominally a 30 year vision. To what extent will the role of the design of our cities and towns be evident in it?