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Charrettes and the Next Generation of Public Involvement

image by Tidewater Muse via Flickr
Effingham/High Corridors: An opportunity for New Urbanism in Portsmouth, VA

If a mark of a healthy organization is its capacity for allowing internal debate and dissent, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is quite healthy, at least judged by the recent 20th annual conference held in West Palm Beach, Fla.  New Urbanism has been, in the words of founder Andrés Duany, “the least unsuccessful” recent movement in community building, and therefore has some confidence and capacity to entertain dissent.  Nevertheless, even the greatest of skeptics would have been impressed by the range of topics featured in different sessions, and the range of speakers within given sessions.  One session was particularly notable for its central importance to the evolving nature of New Urbanist project and its interdisciplinary and intergenerational panel. Great skeptics might point out some glaring absences from that panel, but the lively discussion was evidence that New Urbanist leaders are deeply committed to a future of intelligent, collaborative city building.     

“Charrettes and the Next Generation of Public Involvement” was inspired by three trends: shrinking budgets, the explosion of high-tech tools, and an increase in organized citizen participation in the planning process.  The classic New Urbanist development involves a multi-stage, multi-day collaborative design process, the charrette, which many communities can longer afford.  Crowdsourcing websites and social media generally have created new ways to advertise and democratize the design process.  Yet with that increased public involvement, there has been an increase in formal antagonism – that is, NIMBY groups and similar parties that come together in opposition to a proposed change.

Bill Lennertz, director of the National Charrette Institute, opened the session by explaining that, “charrettes are like wedding planning” – emotional, marked by sometimes-painful compromise, always more complicated than anticipated.  He went on to outline shorter alternatives to the standard seven-day, three-part charrette, as well as how the NCI has incorporated devices like as tablets and touchpads into large public meetings to better facilitate input.  While the NCI has also engaged with software companies and other innovators using the web to enhance participation, Lennertz was lukewarm on social media as such, warning that “participation industries” can be distracting.  “We must retain the power of the charrette for purposeful participation,” he continued.  “It’s about ending up with transformative change.  If you can’t figure out how to use Twitter or other social media for that change, don’t try.” 

The assembled panelists jumped on this assertion – both in support and to challenge it.  “Blogs and other forums help people start to understand the issues and speak the same language,” explained Hazel Borys of PlaceMakers LLC.  The sociologist David Brain, of New College of Florida, offered a more nuanced defense.  “We access information through networks, and that’s the potential power of social media.  As a pre-charrette tool, it can be powerful to find out what the problems might be and map out the social landscape,” he said. 

Eliza Harris, a planner at Canin Associates and popular figure among CNU’s NextGengroup, was slightly more reserved: “Social media can get people to show up, but they are not a replacement for face-to-face work.”  And Gianni Longo, a principle at ACP Visioning and Planning, who has been nicknamed the “NIMBY Whisperer” for his savvy with diffusing locational disputes, added that, “Social media are terrific for getting out the word.  But they are very one-way.  The purpose of any public participation efforts is to change minds, to come out thinking in a different, better way.  If everyone just gets to sit content with their own ideas, we fail.  Any participation process is educational.” 

The nature of participation itself is not so easy to agree upon, however.  “Don’t use the term ‘educate’ unless you’re talking to six-year-olds,” countered Ben Brown, a consultant with PlaceMakers LLC.  “People don’t want to be “educated”; they want to collaborate and feel like they’re involved as intelligent adults.” 

To involve everyone, even (or especially) non-experts, is of course one of the greatest challenges of any public participation process, perhaps even more so for New Urbanism, a movement guided by important principles.  Andrés Duany described his approach to balancing the input of a representative democracy without allowing the project to become diluted to mediocrity. “You can’t run a charrette where you approve of every input,” he said.  “You have to point out the bad ideas and elevate the good.” 

“We are a movement of principle and process, charter and charrette,” he went on.  “Begin by agreeing on the principle – for example, that kids should be able to bike to school.  Agree on principles in abstract so that individuals can’t then object to the specific [such as a bike path next to someone’s backyard].”

Gianni Longo added that it is important not to be blinded by an antagonistic mentality.  In the end, supporters are more important to a project than objectors.  “We have to find the stewards of the community and empower them.”

Duany had to agree with this sentiment, albeit in his characteristically provocative way.  “The real Zen is to seem not to care,” he said.  “If you say, ‘I don’t care where you put your school,’ they say, ‘You don’t care?  I guess it’s our responsibility.’  Then they take ownership of the whole process.  We don’t want to be shoving, so instead we make them pull.”

The power of new technology, social media, and web 2.0 to elevate good ideas is evident in every realm, from microfinance to music videos.  But community development (like wedding planning) is a more complex process that also requires empowering local stewards, compelling groups to take ownership of major decisions, and balancing democratic input with expertise.  Stay tuned for our next dispatch from the CNU, which will feature a discussion with Ian Wolfe Ross of City Design Collectivefor a look at how the challenges of New Urbanist community development can be met with a wide array of new tools.                      


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