- A future development site and the site of a Shape East design review
I have a master’s in urban planning from an American university, but relocated to the UK a few months after graduating. The planning system is very different here, so it was a challenge trying to find a niche. Ultimately, I ended up at Shape East, the centre for the built environment in the east of England. I started working for Shape East as their Design Support Manager in February, a job with a description that continues to evolve as I learn to think more and more expansively about what Design Support can entail.
“Design support” is broken down into two broad categories – design support and design review. Design review is a particular process of peer review, wherein we provide a panel of built environment professionals (architects, planners, engineers, landscape architects) to offer their commentary on a scheme that is about to be submitted for planning permission. Usually, the planners at the relevant office will suggest to the architects or developer that some peer review would be beneficial, or a controversial project will undertake it voluntarily with the understanding that it will help quell opposition. Design review is a formal meeting with a particular protocol, and Shape East is part of a national network of design review providers, each with their own discrete reservoir of panel members. Many of the architects on the panel are Kind of a Big Deal; others have a particular specialty. The idea of design review is that a higher level of scrutiny will result in a higher degree of design quality, a premise I believe in. My role is to organise all the design review meetings, take notes, and then summarise the recommendations for the local authority and the design team – the finished product is a letter, usually about 1000 words long, that is an official record of the 2-ish hour meeting (including a site visit) and the suggestions made by the panel of architects Shape East provides.
Design support is less specific. It can happen at any time during a project’s development, up to the point where it receives planning permission. Recently, we held a meeting with some important people in a small seaside town to help them develop a brief for a new public square. We also helped a design firm work with a local town council to redesign the facade of an economic regeneration project.
The best part of my job is that I’m a believer in the value of our product. Design review isn’t always helpful, but in many cases it makes a huge difference in the finished product and almost always results in positive changes to the design. And design support is even more important, because it typically involves getting people outside the design and planning community involved in the process.
Design support, which typically focuses on a single development, is one half of what Shape does. The other half is more general education – we offer walking tours, public lectures, and other resources (many of them web-based) to help people learn about architecture and design. Historically, Shape had done lots of outreach in schools and with young people, and at present we’re collaborating with Kettle’s Yard, a local art gallery, on outreach related to the construction of a new gallery space.
To my mind, the opportunity to get constructive criticism is one of the few pros of a planning system that is painfully vague and subject to personal opinion. The UK is fairly unique, I think, in having providing so many opportunities for designers to get input from a “critical friend,” often from big-name design professionals and, at the very least, from designers that have been vetted and selected for their suitability for the project. At Shape, about one in four applicants to the panel were ultimately chosen, and the competition for the position of chair and vice chair was stiffer. My job is to try to convince people to avail themselves of this expertise.