5 Ways Planners Get Charrettes Wrong

(Credit: National Charrette Institute at MSU)

Design charrettes are, in theory, a valuable component of the urban planning process that help communities take a little bit of ownership over the changes coming to their streets. At their best, charrettes bring together everyone who cares about a complex design problem — residents, business owners, city planners, engineers, decision makers — to collaborate and compromise, ending with a solution everyone values.

In practice, that is often not the case. City planners announce a charrette, but don’t do enough outreach. Only a few community members show up. Those who do attend get a jargon-laced presentation from engineers. Community feedback is taken, but not incorporated into the final design.

Participatory design is an important piece of equitable urban planning. A well-executed charrette can help facilitate that goal. A poorly executed charrette can further the stereotype that city agencies only pay lip service to community concerns. With that in mind, I talked to several experts about the common mistakes they see in charrettes and ideas for running better sessions.

Your Charrette Must Be a Charrette
“One problem is the word ‘charrette’ is used for all kinds of different events, most of which are not what we would call a charrette,” says Bill Lennertz, founder of the National Charrette Institute (NCI), a nonprofit that provides charrette trainings and consulting.

The word is often used to describe an evening outreach event that solicits community feedback or even a one-day design workshop, neither of which qualify under NCI’s definition. According to Lennertz, a true charrette requires one to nine months of prep time and educational outreach, takes place over a few consecutive days so facilitators can give immediate feedback to participants, has the stakeholders in the room necessary to ask the right questions or answer them, and produces a usable final design.

Do More and Better Outreach
Putting in more than half a year of prep time into a charrette might seem extreme, but Lennertz says its crucial for success.

“Everyone should walk into a charrette already understanding what they’re getting into and trustful about the engagement,” he explains. “It takes pre-education, a lot of listening and building empathy with all of the people involved. If people have that sense of trust, the project gets done.”

Often, doing the prep work requires partnering with established community organizations that can help agencies reach the people they need to reach. Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition Advocacy Director Monique López says, “That’s fine, but the grassroots orgs are not compensated for their time to do so. They end up doing the work that the agency should be prioritizing.”

López credits L.A. DOT for not doing that. LACBC and TRUST South LA are helping the DOT with safe streets outreach and engagement to find out what south L.A. residents need for safer walking, biking and transit riding in their communities. The agency is providing staff support, materials and a budget to the organizations to help get the work done.

Set (Realistic) Expectations
“When you have a room full of designers, community members, engineers and every other background you can end up with wild ideas. That creativity can be good, but you have to figure out how to make it actionable,” says Jeff Aken, a planner with the city of Redmond in Oregon.

Part of accomplishing that comes from having the right people in the room. “Often a viewpoint is missing. People historically left out of the process are missing. Key engineers are missing. Decision makers are missing,” says Wayne Beyea, NCI interim director.

You need the planners and engineers and architects who can clearly explain that someone’s suggestion would require a zoning change or someone who can explain that an idea for a pedestrian bridge is beyond the scope of the project budget or an engineer who can explain why certain elements are required for legal or safety reasons.

Similarly, you need to establish parameters — how much can the city spend, what is the scope of the project — to ensure the final product matches what gets discussed in the charrette. “Charrettes need to produce something that can actually get done, not just pretty pictures and visions,” Lennertz says. “When you create projects that can get done, you then build more trust in the project.”

Communicate More Clearly
The fields of planning and design and engineering are filled with jargon. Sometimes, that jargon is necessary for explaining extremely specific things, but that doesn’t mean a term is decipherable to the layperson. López says that she often sees excessive use of engineering language, unclear project renderings and other elements that an average community participant might not understand, making it harder for them to give meaningful feedback.

Similarly, López says when the city is working with communities where English is not the first language, there needs to be better consideration of literacy levels. “We have to build a charrette that accommodates different literacy levels and languages people speak, to engage people in more meaningful ways.”

Provide Real Feedback
Lennertz says one of the most critical mistakes people make is treating a charrette as a one day or one evening event. Instead, charrettes should take place over several consecutive days (NCI says a minimum of four) to allow for a feedback loop between community and agency. Those feedback loops provide the sort of back and forth that lead to a final design that all parties can sign off on and that an agency can actually implement.

“One of the reasons charrettes fail is that people underestimate how much skill and thought need to take place in a collaborative design process,” he explains.

All of that preparation, a multiday charrette, community outreach and follow-up, is a major commitment of time and money. But Beyea says if done right, charrettes will save time and money in the long run. “The underlying purpose is to transform the way people work together and build trust in whatever community setting it is. … You need trust to make sure people don’t fight to block the project.”