Evolution of the Design Commission

Whether referred to as The Civic Design Review (San Francisco), Civic Design Commission (Boston), U.S. Commissions of Fine Arts (Washington D.C.), Mayor’s Design Advisory Panel (Los Angeles), or Public Design Commission (New York), major cities across the United States have established boards and commissions to ensure the design quality of our civic structures and public spaces.  Design commissions, which are typically made up of four to eleven members from the architecture, landscape architecture, planning, arts and engineering professions, are playing an integral role in the transformation of public urban spaces.  As cities continue to grow and evolve, commissions are also changing how and what they review in order to address major issues within the urban environment.  

NYC Design 1
Williamsburg Bridge tower decoration approved by the NYC Public Design Commission, circa 1903. (Courtesy of Flicker)
NYC Design 2
Drinking fountain disapproved by NYC Public Design Commission, circa 1905 (Courtesy of Flicker)

Following in the footsteps of the City Beautiful Movement, civic design commissions established at the turn of the 20th century were seen as critical in providing moral agency, social order, and civic virtue to urbanized areas (though not without social, economic, and racial injustice).  One of the oldest commissions in the United States, New York City’s Public Design Commission was originally established in 1898 as the Municipal Arts Commission.  Although, the Municipal Arts Commission was originally given oversight of public artwork and monuments displayed throughout the city, their purview quickly expanded to include the review all public structures and open space.Similarly to NYC’s Public Design Commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts was established in 1910 to review monuments, fountains, and statues located throughout the District.  The U.S. Commission also expanded its role to include the review of public buildings, parks and open space as well as the review of buildings adjacent to federal land, medals, and coins (seriously!).  Today, design commissions are increasingly focused on addressing issues around equity, sustainability, technology, and preservation within our public spaces.  


The first major project reviewed by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts was the Lincoln Memorial, circa 1922 (Courtesy of NPS)

While not as old as other commissions throughout the country, The Seattle Design Commission (SDC), formed in 1967, is similarly committed to guiding design excellence within the public realm.  The SDC plays a crucial role in the review of capital improvement projects (CIP) as well as projects petitioning for the long term use of the public right of way to ensure the quality of  physical, environmental, and social aspects within the urban environment.  Typically, the SDC will review projects two or three times during the planning and design phase.  The SDC plays a vital role in guiding project teams during early design phase, ensuring teams have created a holistic vision and collaborated with various stakeholders and community members.  Within the past decade the SDC has evolved in the way it reviews project areas of sustainability and, most recently, equity issues within the public realm.  As the city becomes more culturally, socially, and economically diverse, the SDC is constantly learning how to better serve everyone living in the City of Seattle. Listed below are several projects approved by the Seattle Design Commission in recent years:

North Precinct Police Station

Proposed design for the North Precinct Police Station. (Courtesy of SRG Partnership)

The North Precinct Police Station is located along State Route 99 in North Seattle.  The project was planned and designed by Seattle Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) in collaboration with SRG Partnership, Murase Associates Landscape Architects, and the Seattle Police Department.  In light of recent events around the country, the design team thought it was important for the police precinct not to turn its back on the community.  The design team set out to create a facility that is highly transparent, providing greater access for community members, and “demystifying” how police precincts function on a daily basis.  Through several meetings with the police and neighboring community members, the project team proposed inclusive design and programming that would involve, rather than isolate the community.  The design includes a front vestibule, which is open to the public, as well as several community rooms available for public meetings, gatherings, and exercise groups.  Instead of fencing off the building from the surrounding areas, the design team proposed using landscape features such as medium sized shrubs, trees, and boulders to create a natural barrier. The surrounding landscape also provides more onsite community gathering spaces that are not typically associated with a precinct station.  Such amenities include a  mini skateboarding area, linear park, and outdoor community gathering space.

Community space programming at the Police Station. (Courtesy of SRG Partnership)

Seattle Opera

Proposed Design for the Seattle Opera (Courtesy of NBBJ)

Located at Seattle Center, this expansion will provide additional facilities for the Seattle Opera.  The facility is designed to bring “back of the house” programming to the street front.

Facility programming is used to activate the street. (Courtesy of NBBJ)

Early site design iterations brought facility programming, including costume shops, retail, rehearsal studios, offices, community and educational space, to the edges of the building, providing a heightened sense of transparency while creating a strong pedestrian connection along the street front.  Like the North Precinct Station, The Opera facility is meant to help demystify certain operations and pique the interests of passers-by.   

Yesler Park

Proposed design for Yesler Park. (Courtesy of Siteworkshop)

Yesler Park is a 1.7 acre neighborhood park located adjacent to Downtown Seattle in the Yesler Terrace Community.  The park is a part of the larger Yesler Terrace Master Planned Community, which includes low- and moderately-priced housing units, market rate housing, neighborhood services, and a community center.  The project team engaged with community leaders throughout the planning and design process in order to create a schematic that reflected current neighborhood needs.  Most notable is the partnership between Seattle Parks and Recreation and RAVE, a community oriented service extension of the Seattle Sounder MLS organization, in creating an unstructured field for street style soccer.  Large community gathering spaces, basketball courts, RAVE court, and interactive water features are placed near the public right of way (ROW) in order to activate the edges while inviting pedestrians into the community space.  

Visualization of RAVE spot and community gathering space. (Courtesy of SiteWorkshop)

Aaron is 2015 graduate from the Department of City and Regional Planning here at UNC. His Primary interests are environmental planning, urban revitalization, and the resiliency of urban environments. Aaron has a bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Georgia and has spent time serving as a community outreach coordinator in Astoria, Queens. Aaron received a Georgia Chapter ASLA Merit Award and is certified as a LEED – Green Associate through the U.S. Green Building Council. He currently works as a Planner for the City of Seattle.  


“Design Commission – About.” 2016. Accessed April 26.http://www1.nyc.gov/site/designcommission/about/about.page.
“History of the Commission of Fine Arts | Commission of Fine Arts.” 2016. Accessed April 26. https://www.cfa.gov/about-cfa/history.
“Home Page – Seattle Design Commission.” 2016. Accessed April 26.http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/cityplanning/designcommission/.