Imagine that you're a 19th century design student at the École de Beaux-Arts in France, working feverishly on a design project that's due right now. The design school's custom is to send a cart 'round to collect final drawings from students when the deadline arrives. So the cart rolls by, and you're still working away, quill in hand, perfecting your design. You see the cart and you figure, what the hell — you might as well hop in and keep working'til the cart's done making its rounds. Along the way the cart fills up with a whole herd of students like yourself, all working feverishly away as the cart clatters through the Paris streets.
Cut to Texas in the early '90s. I'm working on a two-year initial project to re-architect a massive client/server system for a state agency. Every week the project fills a huge room with stakeholders from throughout the agency, all working collaboratively to define the new approach. I ask Judy, the project lead, how completion of the project would look. She says, "It'll look like reaching the project deadline." We would stay in the cart 'til it was done making its rounds.
I didn't realize it at the time, but that project had elements of a "charrette," an approach to planning and design named for that cart (charrette) rolling through the Paris streets, loaded down with designers finalizing their work. A contemporary charrette is far more complex than an assignment at the École — it's a planning project that engages citizens, designers, and other stakeholders in intensive sessions over a few busy days.
Although the label "charrette" can be applied to any intense period of design activity, they've been particularly successful formats for urban planning sessions. This is largely thanks to the practice of involving all the stakeholders in a given design project. That success also derives from their transparency: anyone can take a peek at the charrette's work-in-progress.
Charrettes that work are complex manifestations of collective intelligence that's been efficiently organized and orchestrated. They require careful planning and skilled facilitation. The National Charrette Institute (NCI) has gathered best practices and evolved an effective methodology. The non-profit group is dedicated to a charrette-based approach called "Dynamic Planning," a three-part process that begins with research, education, and preparation, progresses to conducting the charrette itself, and then implementating the charrette's plan.
NCI recently published The Charrette Handbook: The Essential Guide for Accelerated, Collabrative Community Planning. Andres Duany's foreword clarifies the political context for urban planning charrettes. He notes that in the early 20th century, urban planning by professionals was both trusted and effective. But in the 1940's, according to Duany, many municipalities stopped initiating planning with attention to the common good. Effectively developers started doing the planning, with city planning departments simply reacting to those plans. Duany writes,
With pressure to deliver housing quickly immediately following World War II, developers became careless and diagrammatic in their proposals, and the minimum became the maximum. And something else: The automobile was still beyond reproach, so it became the determineant of codes and standards. Whaever the car wanted it got. The old delicate urban fabric was torn apart by by big roads and parking lots and hideous new building types. The human walking was inadvertently forgotten as the measure of the community.
And those humans, walking or not, were often unhappy with decisions that were driven by economic considerations, and made without their input.
A developer's stratagy, even with the best of intentions, may be completely at odds with a community's wants, needs, and destiny. Getting input via hearings after a plan's created and has momentum is less useful than including the public in the planning process as it proceeds. This more participatory and transparent approach creates its own challenges: more voices in the conversation tend create more complexity, and require more social overhead and time for hearing, thinking, and sorting out opinions.
An appropriate response to the complexities of greater participation and more voices in the mix is clearly not exclusion, or completely top-down organization, at least where community planning is concerned. The best solutions involve an efficient organization, and a structure and methodology that ensures focused participation and follow-through. This is exactly what a charrette is all about. The Charrette Handbook is an excellent guide to the charrette approach to creating this kind of organization, complete with stories of actual charrettes, as well as templates and sample plans.
Image: An interactive design charrette, July 2007. Credit: flickr/danielfarrell