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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 archop.org 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.

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Actually, I didn’t say much about Day One last night.  I can’t give a blow by blow of this event, so I’ll stick to the high points.

I’m here in Portland with Kiel Schmidt (aka Archop) attending a National Charrette Institute training on how to do a charrette, which NCI defines as a “multi-day collaborative planning event that engages all affected parties to create and support a feasible plan that represents transformative community change.”  In other words, a charrette is an event in which interested parties can participate in the planning of something (e.g. a revitalized downtown) by sharing design-related desires and insights.  (Coincidentally, while we’re here, the public meetings related to the new Downtown planning process, including a future charrette, have begun back in Fresno.)

Our instructors, Bill Lennertz of NCI, and Steve Coyle of Town-Green, are very experienced and knowledgeable.  They have a habit of answering questions with examples, which enhances my understanding.  At the same time, they’ve done a lot of work to pull out some general principles and best practices behind good charrettes.  They have also developed some great tools to help with charrette planning in particular.

Bill and Steve have made it very clear that they really do believe in the power of public, transparent collaboration among all stakeholders to achieve better plans and designs, better buy-in, and decrease costly reworks.  On the other hand, the way they have posed some of the problems and exercises reveals some indeterminacy in this stance.  For example, at times they have recommended processes of developing guiding principles or alternative plans that emphasize the role unelected powerholders and de-emphasize involvement by the communities that will be affected by the plan or design.

I really respect Steve and Bill’s experience and appreciate their insights, gained over many projects.  But I have come to realize that the charrette methods they have developed truly are their own proprietary version of charrette methods, the NCI Charrette System.  In the framework of the NCI system, the traditional relationships among clients (usually, a jurisdiction or developer), consultants, and other stakeholders still holds.  Ultimately, the consultants work for the client and the implicit focus remains on the client’s needs.  Bill and Steve argue that clients need the collaborative charrette process to achieve transformative change…but the focus is still on the client’s needs.  Hence, the community participates because their participation decreases the chance of failure.

Maybe this is enough for now.  Last day is tomorrow – looking forward to more good stuff.

Steve Coyle and Bill Lennertz

Steve Coyle and Bill Lennertz

Kiel Schmidt and I are in Portland attending three days of charrette training and certification with the National Charrette Institute.  I was going to launch right into a recap of day one, and then I realized that I should not take for granted that it would be clear why we are here or what I hoped to get out of this.

In the past year or so, I have experienced a few things that made me want some more formal training in charrette methods.  One was the Tower streetscape charrette that Kiel and I both blogged about.  If you read our critique, you will see what we found lacking in that event.  (So far, my experience at the NCI training confirms that the Tower streetscape process was seriously flawed.)  Then, last summer, I went to an event held by the city in which firms competing for downtown specific planning gig were introduced to potential local collaborators.  Several firms touted their experience and expertise running charrettes.

At the time, Kiel and I talked about our skills in community-based design research, and agreed that while we had a lot of experience, we could use more formal training in charrette methods.  Since then, Kiel and Shaunt Yemenjian founded Spacio Design Studios, and we have looked for opportunities to bring the Institute of Public Anthropology and Spacio together on community-based design projects.  So, attending the NCI training is part of a plan to increase our capacity to be a local source of excellent design planning and research.

I’ll try to blog more about the training itself and I’m sure Kiel with have a blog post up at some point, too.

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