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Exploring Community Design Groups & Review Panels

Posted on 15 December 2022

Written by:

Sophia de Sousa

In the previous blogs, we have spoken about some of the big picture principles that we see as essential to meaningful community engagement in design and placemaking. In the final blog of this series, we thought it would be useful to move from the principles and objectives of design engagement and zoom in to consider some of the very practical considerations of working with a small representative group throughout an engagement process. Here we will explore some things to think about BEFORE you set up a community design group or a community design review panel.

Image Credit: The Glass-House

The Glass-House has been active in this space, both in advising those who wish to convene such groups, and in providing capacity building for those who join them. We have found that, as with so much vocabulary in placemaking, there are many types and many names for groups convened to bring members of the community into a working group to support a design process. First, let’s set out the vocabulary and some definitions that we at The Glass-House use for such groups that we like to support.

Community Design Groups

The Glass-House describes a community design group as a working group of local residents and other local stakeholders (local groups, organisations, businesses, service providers etc) who have been convened to support an engaged design process in their area. We would expect their role to be as an advisor, critical friend and collaborator to both the commissioning client and the design team for a place-based scheme, policy or strategy. Ideally, they would also play a crucial role in championing and enabling wider community engagement beyond their working group. 

Whether convened by a local authority, a developer, a housing provider, a community group or organisation leading a project, or by a design team, a community design group should wield power and agency, able to contribute meaningfully to design decision-making. This should include developing a shared vision for change, shaping and testing the brief, ideally also setting design quality indicators, selecting the design team and contributing their local expertise to each stage of design.

Community Review Panels

By contrast, a community design review panel should play a very specific role as a critical friend and advisory group, tasked with looking at schemes at key stages of design and/or being submitted to planning within a defined area or planning authority. This role is about looking at proposals with a critical eye that is complementary to that of the traditional design review panel made up of built environment professionals.  A community design review panel brings a different understanding of the locality and potentially also of specific user groups within it, and is able to bring lived experience of the area that most professional design review panels cannot. 

Community design review panels may be convened to review a specific scheme, or to give more strategic oversight to a larger area.

Both of these types of community groups/panels can add enormous value to an engaged design process, though it should be noted that a truly inclusive design process should also create opportunities of engaging at different scales and intensities with the wider community. So, whilst neither the community design review panel or community design group is sufficient on its own, each of these models can, if managed and resourced correctly, go a long way in empowering local people and organisations with the agency and a clear process to inform change in their area. They can also create valuable social value and impact opportunities for those who take part.

Some Things to Consider

Whilst every place and associated network of communities is different, we do feel there are some key considerations and some basic underlying principles that should be in place for each model to work effectively: 

What all of the above raises is the fact that each place and convened group will need to explore a number of considerations and that project managers should have clear plans in place before they even convene such a group, let alone start working with them. Beginning this collaboration without having a clear strategy for how the group will work, what they can influence and how they fit into a wider engagement programme can actually do more harm than good. 

1. Starting from values

We have found that clearly setting out values and principles for collaboration that will underpin such groups can help set them on a positive path from the outset. This is about setting out your stall for what is important to you, both as an individual project manager but also as a representative of your organisation and its wider approach, and why you value the contribution of your community design group or review panel. 

Setting out your own values can also be a useful way to embark on a collaboration with your group, as a first step towards developing your shared values system and establishing how you want to work together, building a working group dynamic.

Your shared values and agreed principles for collaboration can then provide a framework against which you can test the decisions that you make as project managers and as a working group along the way, and indeed inform an evaluation framework that is not just about statistics.

2. Clarity of process, remit and sphere of influence 

People need to know what they are stepping into when they agree to be part of the community design group or review panel. They need to understand the system in which they will be operating and what power they will wield. 

At whatever stage of a design and development journey, whether it is for a small community-led initiative, a large-scale mixed use development, or indeed to help shape large-scale growth and change in an area, people should step into a community design group or review panel understanding how they will contribute, what aspects of decision-making fall within their remit and how their contributions will be used and reported on. 

There should be a clear strategy in place before the group is convened and whilst a group, once formed, may help shape ways of working together, clarity over the remit and power to inform decision-making needs to be established and clearly communicated from the outset.     

3. A clear infrastructure to support the group and how it will operate

Any group that is convened regularly needs an infrastructure to support it. Again, regardless of who is convening the group, there will need to be a person or organisation in charge of setting and communicating meetings, capturing what was discussed and decided at meetings, and reporting back to both the group itself, the commissioning client and the design team. This infrastructure should also help maintain and enable accountability and transparency with the wider community.

4. Capacity building 

It is unreasonable to convene a group of people with no background in design or placemaking and expect them to step into the role of advisor, critical friend or collaborator without providing the tools for them to do so with confidence. 

It is therefore essential to create the time and space for the group to develop a shared baseline understanding of the principles and vocabulary of design, as well as the design opportunities and challenges of the site or area in question. It is helpful for this training to be provided by an independent specialist in building capacity in design, planning and placemaking more generally. This can create a safe space for open exploration and conversation without what can often be an intimidating presence of the appointed design team.

5. Diversity of representation 

A community design or design review group should bring together local people, groups, organisations and businesses, as well as diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds found in the area. We have also found that intergenerational groups lead to more considered and balanced discussions. Whatever the mix of people, it will be important to break down existing real or perceived power models to ensure that every person within the group has the tools to contribute with confidence, and that each person’s voice is equally valued and respected. 

The process should also build in a keen awareness that no group will manage to be truly representative of any given community, so an understanding of who is not in the room will be as important as who is present. 

6. Social value opportunities

These community panels require a significant investment of time and resources from all involved. It is helpful, therefore, to think outside the box of consultation to consider how these processes might create social value opportunities for the individuals and organisations involved, and contribute to impact beyond the simple, if hugely significant, opportunity to inform and contribute to design decision-making. 

What can membership in these groups offer participants in terms of building confidence and skills, tapping into and supporting local networks, and in supporting employability, health and wellbeing, as well as other areas of potential social impact? How might the group create pathways to impact that extend beyond the confines of the group’s formal activities?   

For those convening these groups, this is an opportunity to work with a group of local champions invested in the long-term success of an area. How can the group help the project team form relationships and networks that can help deliver the medium and long-term strategic objectives that sit alongside the built outcomes?

7. Paying participants for their time

Whether those participating in community design groups and community design review panels should be compensated financially for their time is a matter of debate among professionals and community activists alike. Some feel very strongly that participants should be able to claim a fee, and others feel strongly that they should not.

There is no doubt that local people, through both community design groups and review panels, can offer local knowledge and expertise that enriches the design process. However, as with any professional consultant who would feed into the design journey in the same way (some of whom may be paid and others working on a voluntary or pro bono basis) the answer to the question of whether community experts should be paid for their time is not always black and white. 

Whilst there should always be some reciprocity and mutual benefit built into such spaces, many are wary of turning these into “transactional” spaces. Some people may not be able to attend if their time is not paid for, others may prefer not to receive payment, either out of principle or because of the implications these payments have relating to tax brackets or benefits. 

At the very least, expenses incurred should be reimbursed, and meetings should be catered with appropriate refreshments. Caring responsibilities should also be considered and supported. 

The reality is that paying community representatives for their time simply does not occur to many of those leading projects, or their budgets for engagement do not provide adequate resources to do so. Some are wary of setting a precedent that will make it hard not to remunerate community participants in the future. Perhaps a useful question to consider, if a difficult question to answer, is at what level of engagement and commitment should a contractual arrangement kick in, and how will this affect the working relationship?

Whatever the route taken, those who convene these groups should be able to answer the question “What’s in it for them?” and be mindful of how either financially compensating or not might create pathways or barriers to inclusion. 

Think before you convene

What all of the above raises is the fact that each place and convened group will need to explore a number of considerations and that project managers should have clear plans in place before they even convene such a group, let alone start working with them. Beginning this collaboration without having a clear strategy for how the group will work, what they can influence and how they fit into a wider engagement programme can actually do more harm than good.

We really would encourage people to convene such groups to enrich and democratise design processes, but want to urge people to do so with care, with respect and with a sense of shared values and purpose.  

This blog is the fifth in a series of think pieces, which we hope will serve as prompts for discussion, innovation, reflection, and iteration around engaging communities in design decision making, and to encourage others to share ideas, approaches and stories. You can read the rest of the series here.

If this blog, or any other in  this series, spark some thinking or experiences you would like to share, we invite you to write your own blogs on these themes or simply to get in touch and explore how we might collaborate on them. You can contact The Glass-House team at

Feel free to join the discussion on social media @GlassHouseCLD.