The charrette process as an agent for change

The term charrette is being used these days to describe anything from a fifteen minute presentation to a week-long, 14-hour-a-day design marathon. A charrette is not as simple as getting everyone around a map and handing out pens. A real charrette brings about real change —change to a plan, change in people’s understanding of a problem, and even political change. A charrette is a rigorous and inclusive planning process undertaken by an inter-disciplinary design team over a brief time period. The term charrette is derived from a French word meaning “little cart.” At the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris during the 19th century, proctors circulated with carts to collect final drawings, and students would jump on the charrette and frantically put finishing touches on their drawings. This intense burst of activity is similar to the environment of the charrette process. The result of the modern charrette is not just momentary, but profound change. After a charrette, people have been heard to say: “I have been practicing transportation engineering for 20 years and until today I never knew why the fire department needs 20 feet of street clearance,” or “Now I understand why alleys are so important,” or “This is the most exciting professional experience I have had since college,” and “I may not agree with the entire proposal, but my concerns were listened to and considered; I like how I was treated.” Achieving such change requires a carefully planned and orchestrated process that starts well before the actual charrette and continues long after it. Principles of the charrette process Involve everyone from the start. Anyone who might build, use, sell, approve or attempt to block the project should be included. When involved at the inception, people are more likely to contribute their unique talents and viewpoints for the betterment of the project. Local citizens, officials, and approval board representatives meet and work with the design team throughout the charrette to create a plan which incorporates their concerns. The charrette process gives the plan mutual authorship and a vision shared by all participants. This is especially important for those who will officially review the plan for a public agency or body. Having contributed to it, they are in a position both to understand and to support its rationale. This approach is initially more work, but, in the long run, it will save time in rework and most certainly produce a higher quality product with a greater chance of implementation. Work concurrently and cross-functionally. All design work must be done concurrently by a team that usually includes architects, planners, engineers, economists, market experts, staff, and citizens, incorporating user input, so that decisions are realistic every step of the way. Work in Short Feedback Loops. A feedback loop happens when a design is proposed, reviewed, changed, and represented for further review. The shorter this cycle, the greater the level of influence and buy-in by the reviewing parties. In conventional planning processes, the design team presents plans to the community and input is gathered through surveys or discussion groups. The designers then retreat to their office and return weeks later with a revised plan. Often during these weeks, some degree of misunderstanding occurs in the community. People who attended the meeting come away with different understandings. People, who don't like to speak in public, speak to others in the parking lot afterwards. The result is often a crystallization of opinions against the plan that send the design team back to step one. In a charrette, the participants are told to come back the next evening to review the changes, where misunderstandings are resolved before they have had a chance to crystallize. With conventional planning methods the design and feedback cycle can last up to four to six weeks. The charrette shortens it to 24 hours. Work in Detail. True buy-in can only be achieved by designing in detail. This way the critical issues surface and are addressed. This can only be accomplished by looking at the details (building types, block sizes, and public space) and the big picture (site circulation, transit, land use, and major public amenities), concurrently. Studies at these two scales also inform each other and reduce the likelihood that a fatal flaw will be overlooked in the plan. The Four Step Charrette Process Step one: start-up. The project team holds a one-day meeting to design the charrette process and reach agreement on desired outcomes of the charrette, a list of key stakeholders, outreach plans, schedules, roles and responsibilities, and the preparation plan for the charrette. The first public meeting is planned and scheduled. The underlying mission here is to ensure that all the right information and all the right people are at the charrette. Step Two: research, education, and concepts. At the charrette, the team needs to be confident that it has all the resources necessary to make accurate design and strategy decisions. To ensure this, all relevant base data are collected and analyzed, participants are educated about the project, the process, and their role in it, and input is gathered from stakeholders. A kickoff public meeting is held to introduce the project and to ask citizens for their opinions of the base data, their interest in the project, and their needs. It is essential that all participants be treated with respect. People should leave the meeting wanting to come back. Some initial development concepts are often sketched and tested in-house, as part of step two, for purposes of determining a range of feasible options, exposing areas requiring further research, and to allow the designers to get their hands dirty with the project so that they can work more efficiently during the charrette. Step Three: charrette. The design team establishes a full working studio on or near the site, complete with drafting equipment, supplies, computers, copiers, and fax machines. Design, engineering, production, marketing, sales, and all levels of project management are assembled for approximately one week. The first day features tours of the site followed by a team meeting and meetings with key individuals. In the evening a public meeting is held featuring a lecture on the principles of town planning followed by a public discussion. During the following days, a core design team is working on developing the plan while meetings are held with staff, landowners, developers, and interested citizens. The plans are continually revised in response to the constant flow of input both from participants and from other team members. The studio is open to the public at all times. On one or more evenings there is an open public review of the day's work, resembling a traditional architectural “pin-up.” These sessions provide the crucial short feedback loops. Because all stakeholders are present, everyone’s perspective is heard and the perceptions of problems change. Participants learn that the project is more complex than they first thought, and that other needs must be accommodated. People should feel that their concerns are legitimate and have been addressed in the plan. The charrette ends with a final public presentation. The entire plan is presented in slide format. For those who have followed the charrette from the first evening, the impact is dramatic. Virtually all final presentations end with a round of applause from the local participants who appreciate the sincere work of the design team, who have lived in their town for a week. Some presentations have been held in conjunction with city council meetings. At one memorable charrette held in Stuart, Florida, the council voted to accept the charrette recommendations on the spot. Step Four: review, revise, and finalize. After the charrette, the sponsors and participants must quickly review the work, make any necessary adjustments, and get back to the public for a last look. A final public review is held, sometimes on two consecutive evenings with a team work session in between. This can help to catch those who missed the charrette. On the first evening, the revised charrette plan is presented and comments are recorded. The next day the planning team makes any necessary changes to reflect the new input and presents the plan one more time. The team can then proceed to make final revisions and submit a final plan. This article is a copyrighted excerpt from the forthcoming book The Charrette Workbook, a tool for the New Urbanism, by Bill Lennertz. Lennertz is principal of Lennertz Coyle & Associates, Portland, Oregon.
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