Saturday, January 25, 2014


“Charrettes” as one path to citizen participation in urban planning

by Larry Geller

It is very possible for the citizens of Honolulu to plan their own city, working alongside architects, urban planners, and other experts. One methodology involves “charrettes,” which are more or less formal methods of planning designed both to permit community participation and (ideally) to result in community buy-in for the resulting plan.

Now, by “participation” I do not mean simply attending an HCDA meeting downtown. True participation or involvement means going down the design road together: architects, city planners, urban design students, ordinary people, and both current and potential future residents of a place. In order to do that, professionals assist by helping to bring those without formal training up to speed. This takes time and some patience. It takes an investment up front before anything is planned or decided.  At some point, all participants will be speaking something of a common language, and then the work product has a chance of fulfilling the needs of each participant—and of the city at large.

Both the theory and practice are well developed—community participation is nothing new. Note that the community is not expected to create models or drawings or perform functions that professionals are trained and equipped to carry out. The professionals will do all that—later.

In order to cover a little bit of the ground, I have had to do bring myself up to speed, as best I can—by reading at least enough to understand what it is, in a general way. One source I am fond of is the book Designing Community: Charrettes, master plans and form-based codes by David Walters, Elsevier, 2007.

I’d just like to snip a bit from the introduction, to give an idea of the possibilities and demonstrate the depth that is possible (that is, beyond parking downtown to attend a one-hour meeting).

In his intro, Walters does many things, including discussing the meaning of “community.” I’ve snipped a small part. In this segment he also introduces the concept of “charrette”:

To residents of a neighborhood, ‘community’ is often
a way of defining their shared values (or shared income
levels) as distinct and separate from adjacent areas, and
the term may be used for either positive or exclusionary
purposes. . . . A modern idea of community is one which applauds
and nurtures individual choice and personal autonomy
and which recognizes the irreducible pluralism
of modern society. This idea of community as a dialectic between the individual and society, especially when linked to physical
space in the city, has a long lineage in planning and
urban design practice, and this book examines relationships
between physical urban form and the social
activities and attitudes of citizens as they affect, guide
and challenge the work of design and planning professionals
in Britain and America. The role of public participation
in planning and urban design is crucial in
this regard. The days of the detached ‘expert’ handing
down his plan to a grateful and awed public are long
gone, and deservedly so. However, in their place are
confused and often bruising debates between planners,
politicians, designers and the public about priorities
for urban growth or infill development, open space,
traffic, schools, parks, affordable housing and a host of
other urban issues. To help resolve these issues, this book
describes and highlights some effective techniques
using the design ‘charrette’ format of public involvement
in planning decisions. … intensive, inclusive workshops,
lasting several days, that involve a variety of professionals,
elected officials and citizens from the
community working together to hammer out concrete
design proposals or master plans for future action.

This leads to the second principle of urbanism upon
which much of the urban design theory and most of
the practical examples in this book are based: ‘traditional
urbanism’ provides the best armature for diverse
and multicultural civic life to flourish, as envisioned
both by British government policies for ‘sustainable
communities’ and American New Urbanists’ ambitions
for more socially just and environmentally sustainable
cities. Spaces such as the street, the square, the
boulevard and the park fulfill this role because they
are inherently human scaled yet neutral and nondeterministic.
Their universality as common spatial
types allows them to fade into the background and
permits public life in all its diverse forms to take center
stage. This is important – the only real point in making
urban spaces is to provide places where people of all
types and ages can live out full and interesting lives as
citizens in a now globalized society. The myriad of
small, diverse acts that together create community are
best achieved as pedestrians, meeting and interacting
with friends, acquaintances and strangers in the street,
in the square, on the campus, in the park.

Aha…there’s more to do than simply establish height limits, connect sewer pipes and set “affordable” prices for little boxes perched high up in buildings of steel and blue glass.

There’s a limit to what I can snip and what you’d be willing to read, so let me close with a little more from the Introduction, from a point just after the history of charrette has been explained. I think this segment demonstrates the objective and the expected benefit of the process:

The distinction about what constitutes a proper
and effective charrette is more than simple semantics.
The process itself comprises an important planning
tool that is especially relevant in resolving contentious
planning and architectural issues in the diffuse, confusing,
contradictory and politically charged world of
the post-industrial city. Therefore, a more profound
reason for writing this book, which in many ways is a
follow-up to and elaboration of themes in Design First,
is to expound the relevance of the charrette as a planning
and design methodology particularly well suited to
the complex and conflicted planning issues in contemporary
American and British urban development.
But charrettes are only one topic examined in this
book. They are the public participation component
of a tripartite urban design and planning methodology
whose companion techniques are a renewed
focus on urban design master plans, and the resurgence
of ‘form-based zoning’ (USA) or ‘design codes’
(UK) whereby the design contents of community
master plans are given legal weight. Charrettes provide
the forum for meaningful public participation in
planning; master plans derived from these charrettes
establish and communicate the community’s vision
in detail; and form-based codes provide the legal framework
for implementation of the visions. This last item
is particularly important: the codes provide citizens
with some reasonable confidence that their community’s
efforts cannot be easily subverted by developers
and errant politicians. Developers also profit from a
higher degree of certainty in the planning process and
local politicians gain from having very clear guidelines
by which to measure future development and change
in their community.

For Honolulu, a parallel process might be to research how some other states and municipalities implemented regimes of rent control and rent stabilization during or after the Great Depression. While opposition to comparable comprehensive regimes would be strong today, we do have some unfinished business with regard to homelessness and affordability of housing for average citizens. Should “affordable” condos be under some kind of control, or should the owners have the right to “flip” them at great profit in the future?

We can work on these issues together. Certainly, politicians are not going to make a present of affordable housing to us, not while “Land and Power in Hawaii” (still a great book) casts a controlling shadow over the market.

This is our home, we have the right to design it as we wish.


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