by Hank Delcore (aka anthroguy) and Kiel Famellos-Schmidt.

Over at archop.org, we offer our take on the results of the Downtown Community Charrette held on May 10-15, 2010, by Moule & Polyzoides and the City of Fresno.  Here we assess the charrette process.

City staff and the MPA team obviously value public input.  Stefanos Polyzoides, Craig Scharton and the consultants and staffers consistently emphasized the need for and value of public participation, and took steps to make this a reality.  The prodigious outreach efforts by MPA and the city paid off with strong attendance all week, particularly in the evening sessions.  The heart of the public participation process was in the evening of May 12 (Wednesday) with over one hundred people present.  There were significant public-consultant-city staff interactions on May 13 and May 15 (Thursday and Saturday) as well.

The charrette did, however, miss some excellent opportunities to tap into the creativity and knowledge of the community participants.  We do not believe these flaws were the result of a lack of will to generate public input, but rather stem from some subtle choices in the way the charrette process was structured.

The charrette included noon consultant presentations on May 10-14 (Monday-Friday), interactive evening sessions on May 11-13 (Tuesday-Thursday), and a final presentation and some interactions on May 15 (Saturday).  The noon sessions were expert presentations with Q&A, but did not involve significant chance for creative public input beyond asking and discussing.  The evening sessions were more open, but in varying degrees.

Results of a "dot vote" on draft policy recommendations; participants use dots to identify their priorities.

On Tuesday, May 11, most of the session was devoted to MPA presentations.  We had about 30 minutes for interacting with the consultants along a wall of pin-ups with current work products (e.g. proposed parks and open spaces).  The MPA consultants were highly accessible and open to interaction and debate.  However, pin-ups have limited utility for generating creative public input.  The consultant stands with a work product pinned to the wall behind him.  Members of the public approach the wall and discuss the product with the consultant.  MPA’s consultants were certainly open to interaction – but the proxemics of the situation did not match the interactive intent of the session.  Proxemically, the set-up is defensive:  the consultant “makes a stand” with the work product behind or beside him.  Also, considering other contexts in which people confront rectangular or square things mounted on walls – art museums, a friend’s house – the thing-on-the-wall is almost never meant to be actively altered.  You don’t walk up to the Mona Lisa and start scrawling your suggestions on it.  Thus, while the discussions along the wall Tuesday night were often open and smart, very few participants wrote on the work products.  This is what we mean by a missed opportunity for creative public input.  Finally, the pin-up tended to result in a series of one-to-one conversations of attendees and consultants:  someone walks up and engages the consultant while others listen and wait their turn.  Sometimes those waiting joined the conversation – mostly not.  Hence, the pin-up did very little work of community building – something breakouts facilitate much better.

Wednesday night saw the first breakout sessions of the week.  Each downtown community had a table with a map of the area and a poster board for writing.  Community members congregated around the table and facilitators (drawn from the MPA team and city staff) presented them with preliminary policy recommendations developed from the stakeholder and community outreach process and city staff input in the months before the charrette.  For example, one proposed policy item for west Fresno read, “Introduce middle income infill housing in traditional development building patterns.”

May 15, 2010: Community input breakout for west Fresno.

The breakouts saw some lively discussion, which the facilitators invited and encouraged.  But again, the structure of the breakouts worked against creative interaction.  First, the breakouts occurred around tables with maps and at least the potential for participants to put marker to map and point, draw or otherwise convey their views.  Some tables had this kind of interaction, but most did not.  Most activity was focused on discussion and writing input on the poster board.  For a design-oriented event, then, this was a very “talky” breakout session, hence sacrificing the potential creative insight that comes when you actually invite people to interact with the materials.  Second, the structure of the discussion was very close-ended.  In other words, participants were given a list of policy items and invited to say “yes,” “no,” or “let’s talk about this one.”

In any information-gathering context, presenting an existing answer tends to bias the response toward the existing answer.  (Some tables were more open-ended than others, but the session never broke free of close-ended parameters.)  Several tables roiled with discussion – a good thing – and some policy recommendations were altered or added.  But, predictably, most of the policy recommendations that went into the process came out of the session unchanged.  Third, we question the utility of presenting community members with recommendations in planner lingo, like “infill”, “wayfaring” and “adaptive reuse.”  Specialist language can be off-putting and dampen community members’ willingness to participate by signaling to them that they lack the knowledge to contribute.

How could the breakouts have been better structured?  People gathered around a table have the potential to become co-imaginers and co-creators of possible future communities. A good breakout session starts with a clear agenda, but it doesn’t present the “answers” up front.  A table with maps, markers, blank paper, post-its and colored dots is an opportunity for community members to creatively and visually imagine their community.  We know that some people are more comfortable with visual or spatial interactions than with verbal exchange.  The beauty of a good breakout is that anyone can talk, or draw, or scrawl, or point – but all these possibilities need to be part of the parameters of the breakout from the beginning.

One rationale for the relatively “talky” nature of this charrette was that downtown community issues are heavily driven by policy.  We agree that the necessary emphasis on policy accounts for some of the relative de-emphasis of interactive design activity – but not all.  For example, in the full session Wednesday night, before the breakouts, one west Fresno resident wondered how the proposed open space policies would affect the agricultural character of his neighborhood.  Instead of talking about his question, a breakout session could have engaged him and others in actually showing the consultant team, spatially, with map and markers, how they understand the character of west Fresno and invite an interactive exchange on how policy might affect it.  Another area where interactive design activities could have been useful was around form based code (or “regulating code”).  The consultant team and city staff have done some stakeholder and community outreach on possible future codes but never engaged community members who went to the charrette in any design activities around FBCs.  This was a missed opportunity to go beyond stakeholder outreach and access the fine-grained local knowledge of community members about the streets and buildings they experience day by day.  We understand MPA intends to come back with future community input sessions once the FBC/regulating code is drafted; however, we wonder how open-ended the process could possibly be that late in the game.

Let’s be clear:  the May 10-15 charrette did deliver on its promise of community participation in the downtown planning process.  We sincerely congratulate the city and MPA on an informative and – to a fine extent – interactive week.  We hope that our input here is taken constructively for future community involvement in the urban design and planning process.

Want more pictures?  Tons of them are at the Dept. of Downtown and Community Revitalization’s facebook page.

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