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The Charrette as an Agent for Change

By Bill Lennertz
for New Urbanism: Comprehensive Report & Best Practices Guide,
3rd Edition. Ithaca: New Urban Publications, 2003. Pp. 12-2-8.

New Urbanism is a holistic approach to healthy transformative community change. It challenges all development conventions, including codes, transportation standards, and finance mechanisms. It also challenges peoples’ perceptions regarding growth, for example, “density done right can make things better.” Early on, New Urbanists recognized that success required that everyone affected by the outcome be included in the planning effort from the beginning.

charrette cart from ecole de beaux artsThe answer is the Charrette. The Charrette is a multi-day planning process during which an interdisciplinary professional design team creates a complete and buildable smart growth plan that reflects the input of all stakeholders who are involved by engaging them in a series of feedback loops. The term “Charrette” is derived from a French word meaning "cart" and refers to the final intense work effort expended by art and architecture students to meet a project deadline. At the École des Beaux Arts in Paris during the 19th century, proctors circulated with carts to collect final drawings, and students would jump on the charrette with their work and frantically put finishing touches on their drawings. This intense burst of activity is similar to the atmosphere of the Charrette process described in this article.

Charrettes offer much more than just a quick fix. The result of the modern-day Charrette is lasting, transformative change. After a Charrette, people have been heard to say: "I have been a transportation engineer 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 creative 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 results requires a carefully planned and orchestrated process that starts well before the actual Charrette and continues long after it.

The Nine Principles of the Charrette Process

The term "charrette" is overused and often misused. While the NCI Charrette refers specifically to a comprehensive, intensive development plan to bring transformative change to a neighborhood, some people use the word to refer to a single debate or Saturday afternoon meeting over the fate of a neighborhood. The following nine strategies are what differentiate an authentic Charrette from other planning processes.

1. Work collaboratively

A charrette creates a long-lived plan based on each individual’s unique contributions. The charrette plan is envisioned and authored by all who participate. Having contributed to it, participants are in a position to both understand and support its rationale. This includes anyone who might build, use, sell, approve or attempt to block the project. Local citizens, officials, and approval board representatives meet and work with the design team throughout the Charrette to create a plan that incorporates their ideas and concerns. The Charrette process gives the plan mutual authorship and a vision shared by all participants. 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.

2. Design cross-functionally

All design work must be done concurrently by a cross-functional team, which usually includes architects, planners, engineers, economists, market experts, public staff, and citizens. This results in decisions that are measurable and realistic every step of the way. This cross-functional team working together from the beginning further assures elimination of rework because the design work is continually reflecting the wisdom of each specialty.

During the Charrette, the collaboration of the design and development disciplines also help to produce a set of finished documents that address all aspects and phases of a project. Detailed designs are undertaken individually or in small groups. At other times, larger caucuses occur, and often there are simultaneous meetings. Periodically everyone gets together for a briefing, discussion or presentation.

3. Use design to achieve a shared vision and create holistic solutions

Design is a powerful tool for establishing a shared vision. Drawings help illustrate the complexity of the problem and can be used to resolve conflict by proposing previously unexplored solutions that represent win/win outcomes. The charrette design team specializes in capturing ideas quickly in drawings that help educate and focus the discussion. One of the most important ground rules used throughout the Charrette is “talk with your pen.” This applies not only to designers but to all Charrette participants.

4. Work in detail

Lasting agreement is based on a fully informed dialog. True buy-in can only be achieved by designing in detail. This way, critical issues are brought to the surface and 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.

5. Constrain work schedules

The Charrette is purposely designed to apply reasonable pressure through a series of deadlines. This time compression facilitates creative problem-solving by accelerating decision-making and reducing unconstructive negotiation tactics. Having a little less time than is comfortable to complete a task forces people to abandon their usual working patterns and “think outside of the box.”

6. Communicate in short feedback loops

Regular stakeholder input and reviews quickly build trust in the process and foster true understanding and support of the product. A feedback loop happens when a design is proposed, reviewed, changed, and re-presented 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 various methods such as surveys, or small 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. Any misunderstandings are resolved quickly 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.

During the day, and often late into the night, the Charrette studio is a forum for ideas with the unique advantage of this immediate feedback. At the same time that someone is designing a street, another is locating a tree, and an engineer is determining the effects on drainage. Questions about design problems are answered on the spot. Most importantly, simultaneous brainstorming and negotiation during a Charrette can change minds and encourage unique solutions to problems. The number and variety of solutions and ideas generated and considered is far greater than those under conventional planning methods. A better product results from this creative effort.

7. Work for at least four to seven consecutive days

Four days is required to accommodate three feedback loops, scheduled at least a day apart. Three loops are the minimum required to facilitate a change in participants’ perceptions and positions. Only simple projects with little controversy should be attempted in four days. More complicated projects typically take seven days.

8. Work on site

Working on site fosters participant understanding of local values and traditions, and provides the necessary easy access to stakeholders and information. The design team sets up a charrette studio either in the neighborhood or on or near the site. The studio is a temporary office and community meeting space that serves as the headquarters for the process. Close proximity to the site is important to make it easy for people to participate and for the design team to have quick access to the site. Charrette studios have been located in empty main street storefronts, community centers, high schools, and armories.

9. Produce a buildable plan

The Charrette differs from visioning workshops in its expressed goal to create a buildable plan. This means that every decision point must be fully informed, especially by the legal, financial and engineering disciplines. The success of a community’s work to plan and build together hinges on the implementation tools such as codes and regulating plans. Plans that sit on the shelf contribute only to citizen apathy.

The Three Phases of Dynamic Planning

The Charrette is the central element of a larger comprehensive process called Dynamic Planning. There are three phases in Dynamic Planning: Research, Education and Charrette Preparation; The Charrette; and Implementation. The most common cause for project failure is not a poorly-run Charrette; it is usually due to incomplete preparation, and/or inadequate follow-through during the implementation phase. The following steps detail the Charrette process:

Phase One: Research, Education and Charrette Preparation

charrette project site tourThe first task is to ensure that the entire project team develops the best project process. 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 is to ensure that all the right information and all the right people are at the Charrette.

During 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 is collected and analyzed, participants are educated about the project, the process, and their role in it, and input is gathered from stakeholders prior to the Charrette. A kick-off public meeting is held to introduce the project and to ask citizens for their opinions on 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. They should feel that their participation is critical and will make the project better.

Some initial development concepts are often sketched and tested in-house, prior to the Charrette, 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.

Phase Two: The Charrette, "The best plans are made by many hands"

charrette studioThe 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 an open public discussion. As the charrette continues over subsequent days, the design team works to synthesize and refine the themes that emerge. This synthesis takes place through a series of design testing feedback sessions with stakeholders. There are scheduled meetings with special interest groups, such as neighborhood associations and business owners, and there is a public, mid-course “pin-up” session. This pin-up session is the event at which the designers take their drawings right off their desks and pin them up on a wall for peer review. It is in these sessions where the creative interaction between various interests occurs. In fact, these sessions can often become quite heated as the detailed alternatives are debated. Frequently, it is during these discussions that solutions emerge.

This cycle of design and review continues over the course of the Charrette. A high-energy, productive atmosphere is created in the studio by this type of interaction. Designers often work late into the night, joined by interested citizens, engaging in spirited debates about the merits and problems of various alternatives.

The Charrette catches people who usually slip through the cracks. The day and night meetings accommodate people's various schedules. Over the three days, word gets out to those who may not have heard of the event, and they start showing up.

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 powerful short feedback loops that are crucial to the success of the Charrette. 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 there are other needs that must be accommodated. People should feel that their concerns are legitimate and have been addressed in the plan. Since it is not uncommon for more than 60% of the participants to come to every session, they see the evolving rationale behind each decision.

final charrette presentationThe Charrette ends with a public presentation. The design team presents all elements of the project including master plans, building designs, economic and transportation impacts and strategy, and an implementation action plan. Everything needed to move the project forward into implementation is addressed at a sufficient level of detail. For those who have followed the Charrette from the first evening, the impact is dramatic. The atmosphere reminds many of college design studios where weary students present their set of finished drawings. Many of the presentations end with a round of applause from the local participants who appreciate the sincere work from 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.

Phase Three: Implementation

After the Charrette, it is important to quickly review the work, make any necessary adjustments and get back to the public for a last look. The longer this period lasts, the greater the risk of failure. To the greatest extent possible, critical stakeholders should be kept in the loop by being involved in the testing for market, financial, physical, and political feasibility. Within no more than 45 days following the Charrette, a final public review is held, sometimes on two consecutive evenings with a design teamwork session in between. This can help to catch those who missed the Charrette. The two meetings also allow people who felt left out of the Charrette the opportunity to see their concerns addressed before the final plan is adopted. 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 they present the plan one more time at a public meeting on the second night. The team can then proceed to make final revisions and submit a final plan.

A Few Helpful Charrette Techniques

Bus Tours

Get all interested parties and key stakeholders on a bus and visit places that can serve as models for the project. These tours can be invaluable in getting a shared set of visual references for the Charrette. For example, when the discussion turns to something as specialized, yet critical, as curb radii, referring to that particular corner in Leesburg can quickly bring clarity to the problem.

Crowd Control

How do you handle an unpredictable flow of people visiting the studio and get anything done? A core production team needs to be working continuously. Therefore, it is crucial to have a person dedicated to greeting visitors. Information is delivered to the design team from the greeter and those attending meetings with stakeholders.

The Charrette Gallery

One way to involve a large number of visitors is to establish a gallery of ongoing work at the entrance area of the Charrette studio. When visitors arrive they are greeted and shown the ongoing work without disturbing the design team. The greeter explains the work and records their ideas. Of course, anyone with an important role, such as adjacent landowners or political representatives may need to work with a designer, but generally these people are involved through scheduled meetings.