Back in the heady days of the Sydney Olympic Games, a rare opportunity occurred in relation to the quality of the built environment in NSW. Appalled by the ugly buildings lining the route between his home in Maroubra and his city office, Premier Carr took a personal interest in the design of apartment buildings. At that time, I was Chair of the Urban Design Advisory Committee (UDAC), and we were asked what could be done to improve the situation. Given strata title laws which make the demolition of apartment buildings almost impossible, then their design quality is a matter of long term public interest, and given the Government interest we needed to propose some actions which were achievable, precise and effective.
No one remedy exists to achieve better design. Rather than attempting to prescribe or define attributes of good design we looked at the issue in another way. We determined that three key circumstances influence the quality of our built world.
First, and foremost, is the ability and skill of the designers. Good design cannot occur without good designers. Competency in design needs to be understood, recognised and delivered as a valuable resource to the community.
Second are the requirements for more intelligent and effective controls over development processes. None of us wishes to be over regulated. Achieving a balance between individual and collective interests is at the core of this matter. Any effective controls have to recognise the value of and nurture creativity while protecting the public against unacceptable impacts. This is all the more difficult a challenge as this is all about values.
Third is the matter of development assessment. The quality of assessment under local government current processes is highly variable. Council officers often have little or no design training. Councillors are subject to political pressures, and are often ill equipped to make judgements on design issues. This situation leads to much frustration.
Following industry forums, public consultation, and regular meetings with the Director General of Planning and the Premier, a comprehensive report was published (“Achieving Better Design”, Urban Design Advisory Committee, 2000. Subsequent legislation SEPP65 was gazetted in July 2002, at its core the intention to elevate design as a measure in the planning system. In September 2002 an important supporting document was published (Residential Flat Design Code Urban Design Advisory Service, 2002). This is the ‘how to’ document of achieving better urban design, sustainability, architectural design, and landscape design outcomes.
The SEPP requires all residential developments over two storeys, or four dwellings to be designed and certified by Registered Architects. This proposal places considerable responsibility on architects, and with it comes the obligation to ensure education and skill levels are adequate. In parallel, the Architect’s Act was amended to provide mechanisms to recognise the value of existing practitioners who are adequately skilled but not Registered Architects.
The SEPP provides more rigorous requirements for the preparation of Development Applications. With the question of assessment, the SEPP provides for the introduction of expert advisory panels for Councils. This is intended to bring a greater level design judgement to the assessment process and de-politicise the process. The advice of panels is made public, and can be considered in the instance of a court challenge.
Those of us interested in the quality of towns and cities need to work towards better design outcomes through more intelligent planning processes. We need to ensure there is a confidence in design as an agent for a better and more sustainable world. Importantly, we need to sustain the interests of politicians in design. These NSW reforms are an important first step and other states could benefit from similar legislation.