Hank Delcore, Ph.D. (AnthroGuy), and Kiel Famellos-Schmidt (http://archop.org; this blog post is also available there)

Saturday from 10am to 2pm, about a hundred Tower District residents and business owners gathered for a design charrette put on by the City of Fresno planning department and MW Steele Group.  Steele has the contract for planning a redesigned Tower District streetscape as part of the Tower District Specific Plan.  Saturday’s event was a day of community input, with Steele returning this Tuesday night to present some design alternatives.

We laud City Councilman Blong Xiong, the city, various Tower District advocates, and the Steele Group for putting on this event.  Mark Steele and his team listened, took some hard questions, and were willing to engage in some good give and take.

As professionals in participatory design and community design methods, we also noted some things about the program that can inhibit the quality of community input and seriously limit the degree of real community participation in the design process. This critique is intended to increase the quality of design charrettes and community input in Fresno as well as raise awareness about the potential of participatory design.

Expert focus of the event:  The organizers stated that the day was all about the participants, but in practice, the more consistent emphasis was on the expert status of the architects/planners vis a vis the participants.  After an introductory presentation on the distinctiveness of the Tower by two long-time Tower advocates, Mark Steele took the stage and talked mostly about his firm and their approach to the project.  He presented his goals for the project, despite acknowledging that the day was about understanding our goals and aspirations.  His associate, Diego Velasco, followed with the firm’s views of the strengths and challenges of the Tower District – again, topics that the charrette was supposed to probe.  Expert statements are not the best way to begin an event meant to foster community participation in the planning and design process.

It wasn’t until 11:15am that the twelve tables of participants were unleashed on the first design drill.  By that time, some participants had already turned their attention away from the stage and were fingering the maps, stickers and other supplies on the tables.  An hour is too long for facilitators to dominate the stage at a four hour event.  The long lead-in both cut down the time for participants by a quarter, and set a strong expert-focused – not participant-focused – tone.

Diversity:  The tower district is a very diverse place. It is called home by many including: African American, Asian, Caucasian, Latino, young and old, the progressive community, and the GBLTQ community. Economically, there is a mix of home owners and renters, working class through upper class and even homeless. As well, Tower is a destination for those throughout Fresno and beyond in search of unique cultural, entertainment and dining experiences.

The participants at the charrette were overwhelmingly white and weighted toward local property and business owners; the average age looked to be about 50.  Conspicuously absent were youths and Latinos, two large and important resident/user groups in the Tower.  Tower visitors from other neighborhoods were also missing.  Those who attended are important, but they are already the most likely people to have their voices and preferences heard in this process, and they have a partial view of issues at stake in the streetscape.  For example, there were probably relatively fewer public transportation users among the participants than some other Tower constituencies, an important point when it comes to redesigning bus stops and associated features like sidewalks and bike racks.

Tight format, short time:  For each design drill, the participants had 15-20 minutes to work through complex issues, like recommending placement of street furniture and other features all across the Tower District business core.  Each exercise time was followed by thirty minutes of often repetitive presentations from each table to the entire group.  The design charrette had us wrestling with important and potentially highly creative design issues, but the exercise/presentation format was too tight and the table debriefings often came off as uninspired.

Constrained approach to community participation:  Finally, with the design alternatives meeting coming up Tuesday, we wonder how much of Saturday’s charrette can really be incorporated into the process.  Again, we agree that Mark Steele and his colleagues (and by extension the city) are sincerely trying to listen.  But it’s hard to believe that Steele and company didn’t already have some designs in mind or drawn up before the charrette.  If not, then they would have to work day and night from Saturday afternoon till Tuesday night to synthesize ideas from a hundred participants and come up with some design alternatives to present – and even then, this time frame is probably too tight.  Surely they are working with the charrette data right now, but they also probably had some designs already laid on and ready for their return to Fresno Tuesday night.  This raises the question:  how much community input can really be incorporated when the goals, strengths, challenges and preliminary design work have all already been done before the community is consulted?  (In fairness, Mark has said that the design alternatives they will present Tuesday night will not be very detailed; we’re sincerely curious about the firm’s process for analyzing charrette data and incorporating it into their designs.)

What We Would Do

In our experience, facilitating dozens of participatory design charrettes, as well as observation of other charrettes and research of best practices, here’s how a truly participatory design charrette might look:

Participant focus:  At one point Saturday, Mark Steele said, “today we’re gonna make you into streetscape designers.”  In other words, the experts were ready to teach us how to do something of what they do.  But a community design event shouldn’t be about transferring knowledge about design practice from experts to community members.  Instead, we start from the principle that everyone is a designer already, without expert help.  In other words, we all have design ideas and practices related to our surroundings, including our streetscapes.  A community design charrette should be aimed at unlocking the design insights we already have (or could have, in the right context), and making those insights available to professional designers.  Professional designers apply their experience and expertise to produce the actual design, inspired by community input.

In practice, a participant focus means that you deemphasize the role of expert or facilitator.  No long and potentially intimidating statements of who has what degree or affiliation or expertise; instead, you dive right into the participatory design exercises and maximize the time that the participants have at center stage.

Recruitment means diversity:  If you open the event up to “concerned citizens and business owners,” you tend to get a self-selected group of the usual suspects, as we saw on Saturday.  Instead, we recommend targeted recruitment among all user groups to ensure a diversity of participants in the design process. This of course takes more work up front in recruiting and screening. The result is much more useful data that can more accurately influence the design process.

Loosen up the format, take your time:  Getting true participation takes time and flexibility.  We would have recommended a series of three participatory design charrettes, with smaller yet more diverse participants, and more creative exercises involving, perhaps, larger scale prototyping and methods drawn from theatre and the arts — this is after all the Tower!  (Diego said that they considered a skit-making exercise but time constraints precluded it.)  Participants could act out common Tower interactions with streetscape props. Examples we bounced around included: the bus stop, the sidewalk café, the tower rat hangout, bar hopping, Rogue, etc. This would give the designers data about our culture and spatial needs. Using audio and visual recording, can capture both the data and the process through which it was produced for later analysis.

Another method we thought would be useful is to have different tables focus on different areas of the project area. With twelve tables of participants at the event all focused on the same design drills never more focused than the entire project area, a lot of redundant results were produced. The area is easily broken into six overlapping parts. Each area is then worked on by two tables. This would get all of the project area equal focus. At Hank’s table and the three tables Kiel facilitated, we noticed input was light at the edges. Also at the 1”=30’ scale aerial photo that was the last of the design drills, it was hard to definitively place streetscape elements and furniture represented by stickers in our tool pallet that included: sidewalk cafes, potted plants, streetlights, handicap ramps, benches, bike racks, etc.

Some of these measures would increase costs at the event level.  However, we have Fresno-area expertise to accomplish participatory design and planning work and the savings from keeping the work local would more than pay for the changes we suggest.

True participation:  Let’s face it, whenever we create something, we become wedded to it: we want to defend it, sometimes not even consciously.  From talking with Mark, and Diego, observing how the community was prompted, and the tight timeline, it seems much of the design is already in place.  Community consultation should take place before any designer digs into a project or puts pencil to paper.

While we value and honor the expertise of MW Steele Group and the work done by the City of Fresno and the Tower community, this is our honest assessment of the design charrette process and how it could be improved upon. Please attend the next meeting Tuesday, July 28th 7-9pm at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre, where the design alternatives will be presented.

Tower District Streetscape Plan

Q & A with Diego Velasco

Tower District Streetscape charrette video

Bored in Fresno? Become an Anthropologist

ArcHop Construction Proceeds

Below, Tower District resident Jay Parks presents his table’s ideas from a design drill at Saturday’s Tower District streetscape design charrette while Diego Velasco of MK Steele looks on.

table 11