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(For more background, go back to my two previous posts.)

Kiel Schmidt and I just got out of the National Charrette Institute course on their NCI Charrette System.  Bottom line:  we’re psyched.  We’re psyched to learn how much we already knew, and psyched to add to our skills the robust planning and management tools that NCI has to offer.  Most of all, we’re psyched to put on a full blown charrette in Fresno, because we’re convinced that it’s a great tool for producing plans in a collaborative way, with good buy-in all around, fewer reworks, and lower costs .  Here are a few highlights from the last few days.  (Check out Kiel’s viewpoint at as well.)

I came in thinking that a charrette was a part of the design or planning process.  Now, I’ve concluded that the charrette, or the charrette system, IS the design or planning process.  The prep work, stakeholder outreach, public meetings and workshops, production of design alternatives, settling on a preferred plan, and producing renderings and other deliverables at the end — all of this is part of the charrette system.  If you execute it well, you’ve completed 90% of the planning work, and — here’s the real selling point — all with intense public and stakeholder involvement, resulting in a very high chance of successful adoption and execution.

Right at the end today, someone asked Steve Coyle, “If I’m a consultant and I’m telling a client about this, in five words or less, how would I make the case for executing the NCI charrette system?”  Steve answered, “You can’t afford not to.”  Five words – that guy is good!  After hearing from the presenters, and the seasoned planning and design professionals at my table who have been using the system, I’m convinced of its value.  The NCI Charrette System has a track record of producing plans and designs that communities, jurisdictions and developers buy in on and — collaboratively — get behind.

One thing to think about:  As I said in a previous post, our lead instructors, Bill Lennertz and Steve Coyle, definitely believe in the power of public, transparent collaboration among all stakeholders to achieve better plans and designs, better buy-in, and decrease costly reworks.  However, the way they talk about public participation sometimes paints the public or the various stakeholders less as indispensable players in the process and more as obstacles to be overcome.  This may stem from the highly contentious nature of planning – and Steve and Bill have been thrust in the middle of some very contentious situations.

Another thing to think about:  The NCI Charrette system emphasizes preparation for the charrette, and they give consultants a wide range of tools and tips for getting to know the communities where they work.  Bill characterized it as a process of coming to see the “obstructionist neighbor” as a real person with a point of view – and he called on us to spend the time to be able to see that of all the stakeholders.


On Tuesday night, MW Steele returned to the Tower District to present a first draft of a redesigned Tower streetscape.  The draft design is in part the result of a design charrette that Steele and the city put on last Saturday.

Tuesday night was a good chance for us to get more information about the process Steele used to take the input from the charrette and come up with a design.  It turns out that after the charrette was over, Mark Steele and Diego Velasco stayed in Fresno to look at the results.  For example, they showed us pictures of them laying out and looking over our designs in the corridor of their hotel.

Steele definitely showed that they are serious about community input for their design.  They broke the charrette results down into a list showing how many tables asked for what features.  They also came up with six guiding principles that any design should follow (e.g. historical continuity, pedestrian friendly, etc.).

One of the most intriguing items they presented was an interpretation of the unique layout of Tower streets.  They called it “The Zipper,” referring to the way north south streets do not cross directly over Olive Avenue, but instead dog-leg, creating a zipper pattern when viewed from above.  The only streets that go straight through are Van Ness and Wishon, the old streetcar routes.

Steele presented one design rather than a set of alternatives, apparently because the input seemed to lead in one clear direction.  The major features are a north-south pedestrian corridor from Fulton just south of Olive to the businesses along Fern Street, liberal use of sidewalk pop-outs, and two traffic circles at Van Ness and Olive and Wishon and Olive.

The north-south pedestrian corridor was a big hit with the 80 or so attendees Tuesday night, but the traffic circles generated some concern.  I for one am very skeptical about the utility and authenticity of traffic circles on Olive Avenue.  (City Traffic Engineer Bryan Jones spoke approvingly of circles as traffic calming devices.)  The biggest problem with the proposed traffic circles is that they do not fit the historical context of the Tower.  You can see a recent piece by the Fresno Bee’s Mike Osegueda and the large number of comments for some of the issues involved.

Mark Steele reported that sidewalk pop-outs and traffic circles were among the most popular features that came out in the streetscape plans that participants developed Saturday’s charrette.  However, the materials we had to work with virtually assured this outcome.  In addition to maps of the Tower business core and paper cutouts and stickers of various street features, we were also provided several sheets of paper with a few specific features on which to elaborate.  One was an intersection with pop-outs and the other was a traffic circle.  Not surprisingly, these features cropped up in a large number of designs we produced at the charrette.

Check out Kiel Famellos-Schmidt’s posting on the draft designs for more.

Hank Delcore, Ph.D. (AnthroGuy), and Kiel Famellos-Schmidt (; 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

On Feb. 5, the Anthrogeek, six anthro students and I were down at this month’s ArcHop exhibit, a full-scale model of a small efficiency unit that, if built in a proposed development here, could be the first stop for people leaving homelessness in Fresno.  We were there, with architect/collaborators Kiel Famellos-Schmidt, Shaunt Yemenjian and Mike Pinheiro, for opening night, as members of the public came through to view the model and give us their thoughts on high-density, affordable downtown living.  The event was a success, crowded and bustling, with plenty of people willing to blab to our students who were on hand with notebooks, pens and cameras rolling.   This past Feb. 14-15, we started Phase II of the project, with two participatory design workshops for homeless people who might eventually end up in these units.  On Saturday, anthro student Elfego Franco, Kiel and I went down to Roeding Park where the folks at Food Not Bombs put on lunch for homeless people on the southwest end of Fresno every Saturday.  Al Williams, a local homeless advocate and former homeless person himself agreed to recruit some folks for a workshop the next day at 2pm.  We then met Mike and went to the downtown homeless encampment known as “Little Tijuana” to recruit for the 10am workshop.  This means we went up to about 15 homeless people, sight unseen, to explain the project and see if anyone was interested.  Despite some wary looks, most were, and we agreed to see them the next day.

We went back to Little Tijuana on Sunday, picked up nine participants and headed over to Broadway Studios where the model is located.  During the three hour workshop, which we did inside the model itself, we experienced an amazing degree of openness and engagement from everyone present, including the four primary Spanish speakers, thanks to Elfego’s translating capabilities.  At 2pm, we had similarly fine results with six more participants.  As I’ve said before, my job carries the privilege of being allowed a peek at other peoples’ lives.  In the workshops, we drew, talked, and acted out skits aimed at getting at the way the participants thought about home and housing, and how they would like their first home out of homelessness to be.  Everyone agreed that any homeless person would be tickled to have a roof over their head, an observation made all the more poignant by the three days of heavy rain we had preceeding the event.  But the participants also shared with us some significant design insights that Kiel, Shaunt and Mike will incorporate into future designs.

After the second workshop, I went home and changed into some nice clothes and made the geographically short but socially looooooooong ride to north Fresno, to the church where my future mother-in-law, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, was speaking about how to support each other in times of grief.  The transition from talking to people who have next to nothing to sitting among fifty fresh-faced people in Sunday best made my head spin.  We live in a strange society.

Though my Sunday night at church was the product of a personal connection, the radical shift I made across the social terrain of Fresno from 10am to 7pm could have easily been the result of my professional life.  I traverse that terrain every week and sometimes every day.  My current projects are putting me, the Anthrogeek, and our students in contact with Fresno State undergrads, homeless people, affluent magazine readers, and car salesmen.  Bored with life in Fresno?  Come join us.

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