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Charrettes are typically a potent combination of modern design studio and town meeting, with a dash of the teamwork from an old-fashioned barnraising mixed in. Most start with a hands-on session for citizens and continue in an around-the-clock, energetic push until a plan is finished about a week later. A charrette can be a breakthrough event that helps overcome inertia and creates a meaningful master plan. Properly executed, this technique can produce a master plan that is more useful, better understood, and more quickly produced than one formed by other methods.

What is a charrette?

A charrette is a meeting to resolve a problem or issue. Within a specified time limit, participants work together intensely to reach a resolution. The sponsoring agency usually sets the goals and time limit and announces them ahead of time. A leader’s responsibility is to bring out all points of view from concerned local residents as well as agency representatives and experts.

Charrettes are rapid, intensive, and creative work sessions, usually lasting a week or more, in which a design team focuses on a particular design problem and arrives at a collaborative solution. Charrettes are product-oriented. The public charrette is fast becoming a preferred way to face the planning challenges confronting American cities.

Here are the usual components of a charrette:

  • definition of issues to be resolved;
  • analysis of the problem and alternative approaches to solutions;
  • assignment of small groups to clarify issues;
  • use of staff people to find supporting data;
  • development of proposals to respond to issues;
  • development of alternative solutions;
  • presentation and analysis of final proposal(s); and
  • consensus and final resolution of the approach to be taken.

Why is it useful?

A charrette is problem-oriented. The breadth of background of participants assures full discussion of issues, interrelationships, and impacts. Its time limits challenge people to rapidly, openly, and honestly examine the problem and help potential adversaries reach consensus on an appropriate solution. For example, charrettes were used to formulate alternatives to a controversial highway project in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a downtown plan for Jacksonville, Florida, by guiding business and civic leaders and neighborhood people to a recommended solution.

A charrette produces visible results. It is often used early in a planning process to provide useful ideas and perspectives from concerned interest groups. In mid-process, a charrette helps resolve sticky issues. Late in the process, it is useful to resolve an impasse between groups.

A charrette enlarges the degree of public involvement in transportation, reducing feelings of alienation from government. It offers people interaction with public agencies and allows questions to be asked before decisions are made. It supplements, but does not replace, other kinds of public involvement.

Does a charrette have special uses?

A charrette calls attention to an issue. It can dramatize:

  • the need for public attention to resolve an issue;
  • a deliberately participatory problem-solving process:
  • a public agency’s openness to suggestions;
  • a search for all possible approaches to a question; and
  • a democratically-derived consensus.

Charrettes generate alternative solutions to problems. The setting encourages openness and creativity. All suggestions from the group — however outrageous — should be examined to encourage thinking about better approaches. In New Hampshire’s Community Stewardship Program, for instance, volunteer experts are invited by towns to help assess strengths and weaknesses of town planning.

Who participates? and how?

Anyone can participate in a charrette. A wide range of people with differing interests should attend. Traditional participants represent organized groups, but individuals with any stake in the issue should be encouraged to attend.

How people participate depends on the charrette leader. An experienced leader assures that a range of views is heard. The leader invites people to take a stance and present their points of view. All participants are assured an opportunity to speak out, and the leader encourages even the most reticent participant to speak up without fear of rebuke or ridicule. The open, free-wheeling charrette format encourages enthusiasm and responses.

How do agencies use the output?

A charrette sharpens agency understanding of the perspectives of interest groups. Early in project formulation, a charrette offers a glimpse of potentially competing demands and can be a barometer of the potential for consensus. Thus it helps generate alternatives and identify issues. In Minnesota and Alabama, for example, State agencies respond to the needs of individual towns by providing experts for weekend charrettes.

Who leads a charrette?

A leader experienced in charrette techniques is a must. To avoid chaos in a charrette, a high level of discipline is required. The charrette leader should be familiar with group dynamics and the substantive issues the group faces. The leader tailors the setting, background materials, and issues to the goal of the charrette and elicits participation from all group members within the allotted time. One or two staff people should be available for support to the leader and to supply data and information.

A steering committee usually makes arrangements for a charrette. It may be composed of representatives of Federal and State transportation or other agencies, consultants, affected municipalities, and community groups. The steering committee should agree upon a leader for a charrette.

What are the costs?

A charrette involves significant resources. The chief items are sufficient space and background materials and an experienced leader. Graphics must be used so that participants quickly comprehend the problem and envision alternative solutions. Background materials must be available at the start of the charrette so that no time is lost in investigating the problem. Preparatory work leading to a charrette is intensive, whether done in-house or by an outside specialist.

Staffing should include:

  • a leader experienced in the charrette technique;
  • staffers who understand the derivation and use of the data;
  • staffers who have worked on the problem; and
  • staffers who have worked with applicable policy.

Materials can include:

  • large maps;
  • overlays to allow sketching on maps;
  • boards to display applicable data;
  • large newsprint pads and markers to record ideas;
  • photographs of sites;
  • handouts of basic goals/time limits/meeting ground rules; and
  • printed background information with background data.

How is a charrette organized?

Organization depends on the issue’s complexity and the intended length of the event. This work includes:

  • obtaining agreement on the process;
  • obtaining agreement on timing;
  • determining potential participants;
  • finding an experienced charrette leader;
  • managing special funding, if required;
  • seeking out resource people;
  • sending out invitations and background material well in advance;
  • finding an appropriate space for meeting;
  • handling required publicity;
  • setting up space to encourage informal discussion; and
  • portraying issues clearly in both verbal and graphic form.

Is a charrette flexible?

A minimum of four hours is essential for a charrette focused on a modest problem. While the average ranges from one to several days, some agencies hold one- and two-week charrettes or organize them as multiple sessions over a period of time.

A charrette occurs at any time in a planning process, but preparation is crucial. Advance work can take a month or more, depending on the issue to be discussed. Charrette materials are flexible and should be tailored to the focus of the meeting.

How is it used with other techniques?

A charrette combines effectively with other techniques. When matched with a civic advisory committee, it focuses on solving a specific problem. Paired with the visioning process, it is an attractive means of eliciting ideas. A charrette also focuses on a single issue raised during a brainstorming session. In Portland, Maine, a two-day charrette on the long-range plan followed a transportation fair.

What are the drawbacks?

Because it focuses on a specific problem to be resolved or issue to be addressed, a charrette is usually a one-time event. Thus, the invitation list and timing must be thoroughly considered and discussed to maximize interaction through broad-based participation. Goals must be made clear so the expectations do not exceed possible results. The depth of analysis from a single short session can be disappointing. Follow-up work must be carefully considered both before and during a charrette.

When is a charrette most effective?

A charrette can resolve an impasse. During such a use, neutral participants should be involved to bring fresh ideas for consideration. When a problem is immediate, a charrette is effective because people are vitally interested in the outcome. For maximum effect, a charrette should have the approval of elected officials, agency heads, and community groups. A charrette is also useful early in the project, following a brainstorming session, when focus on a single issue is required, and when a range of potential solutions is needed.

For Further Information

National Charrette Institute

Charrettes for New Urbanism
Victor Dover, Dover, Kohl & Partners, Town Planning

The Neighborhood Charrette Handbook: visioning & visualizing your neighborhood’s future
Dr. James A. Segedy, AICP and Bradley E. Johnson, AICP

Meaningful Public Involvement: Charrettes for Community Change
National Charrette Institute for the National Association of REALTORS

Resource Link: www.fhwa.dot.gov/reports/pittd/charrett.htm

Much of this text was adapted from information about Charrettes found on the website of town planners Dover, Kohl & Partners (www.doverkohl.com) and the U.S. Department of Transportation website.

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