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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Community design review panels: how could they work? – Key Takeaways

Posted on 13 July 2021

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

(9 July 2021)
Our chat on Community design review panels: how could they work? brought together a mix of designers, community activists, council officers and researchers from around the UK to explore the potential opportunities and challenges of bringing members of the community into a formal design review space. The conversation that followed raised interesting questions such as the scope and influence such panels might have, their remit, representation and diversity of membership and the nuts and bolts of convening and supporting such a group. 

The Glass-House kicked off the conversation referencing questions we always ask those who approach us seeking advice on setting up a community design review panel:

Key Themes explored

As the discussion progressed, we delved into bigger questions around community engagement in design and placemaking, and the role that design panels play in more general terms. How would a community design review panel sit within the bigger picture of engaging communities in design decision-making? What role could design review panels play across different scales, departments and sectors? And finally, how could a community design review panel tap into and defend the values of a community and work towards the “common good?”

The Bigger Picture

They say timing is everything and traditional professional design reviews often provoke the question, “Is this coming too late to make a meaningful difference to the design?” The same holds true for a community design review panel. If there is no scope to inform substantive change in the design being reviewed, is there the risk of this becoming a tick-box exercise?

Participants were quite clear that a community design review panel in isolation would not achieve much. How it might sit within a broader community engagement strategy was deemed crucial to its success, as was the clarity of its remit and scope of influence. Given the limitations of a design review process, should we be thinking about a broader role for a community design panel, active across policy, strategic planning and scheme-based development and regulation? And if so, how can we create a common language to help better integrate this group, which recognising, celebrating and benefitting from its diversity, and for the different kinds of expertise it brings into the mix?

A resource across departments and sectors

At many of our previous chats, we have spoken about the challenges and inefficiencies of silo working and the lack of collaboration and connectivity across council departments and across sectors. At this chat, we explored the role that community design (review) panels might play in helping to bring some cohesion to community engagement and leadership in placemaking. Could this be a way to help spark and mobilise collective resources more efficiently and to support a more holistic place-based conversation?

What if rather than being associated with a particular scheme or department, a trained and empowered community design panel could be a critical friend to their local authority across all placemaking projects, whether led by the public, private and community sectors? What if they were treated with the same respect and received compensation as any technical expert would expect to receive? And what steps would we need to take to ensure that representation on this panel was diverse and as representative of the community as any group of limited size could be? How do we ensure that the most vulnerable also have a voice through this group?

We also touched on the role that a community panel could play in enabling outreach and engagement with the wider community. This group would be well placed to help set effective strategies, act as design champions, interpreters and enablers, and could offer valuable networks and connections.    

Championing the common ground and common good

The question of values was a recurring theme in the conversation. How might a formalised community design panel help us tap into the shared values within a neighbourhood as a starting point for development and placemaking rather than being at odds with other drivers? 

As one participant put it, sometimes the key barriers to engaging people in dialogue are the very questions we are asking, and the way we are asking them. It is easy to fall into technical jargon and to get so bogged down in the detail of any given scheme, that we sometimes forget the big-picture values that drive us to continuously revisit and reshape the places around us. Our key driver should always be improving people’s lives. It is useful to ground our decision-making in the shared fundamental needs and wants of our community, and perhaps the presence of the group of community representatives, or indeed a network of community panels, can help ensure those shared values become the golden thread that binds us. 

We all left the conversation with more questions than answers. Design reviews were conceived to champion and safeguard design quality in development, but are we giving enough thought to how they sit within the bigger picture of engaged and inclusive design processes? If we are to activate citizens in this space, how can we do this as part of a cohesive approach to empowering communities to play an active and leading role in shaping their neighbourhoods? This is but one tool in the box and as with any, its effectiveness lies in how the tool is used alongside others, and in who wields control.  

You can view our past chat takeaways here.

We will be launching our next series later in the summer and would like your input. Please email with your suggestions for new topics.