Do Design Charettes really build 'Communicative Capacity'?

‘Charr.... what?’ Design Charrettes might offer effective spaces for community participation in urban development schemes, but do they really build "communicative capacity" in the first instance? Michael Kordas, a Scottish planner, offers insights into the workings of these design Charrettes. 

The subject of community engagement in town planning is one which has seen a great deal of coverage in recent years, especially in the form of ‘charrettes’, which represent the approved mainstream direction for these activities in Scotland. Much evidence exists as to the effectiveness of Charrettes in bringing planning professionals and the community together. However, as someone themselves undergoing a change of direction; going back to education from working in a local government planning authority, I can’t help but think that the direction of community engagement also needs a rethink.

Making choices on the futures of places can raise considerable concern with local people. Consequently, providing them the opportunity to actively participate is a key issue in governance. The provisions for communities to input into plan making were first laid out in the 1960’s. The legalistic and defensive structures which were established for professionals to respond to other’s input into their work persisted in the following decades. Therefore, until the 1990’s the main avenue for participation was presenting an objection to a pre conceived development plan (see Barry Cullingworth's book). 

Presenting plans to stakeholders in this format is no longer the preferred way of including people in the planning process. Source: Flickr

Presenting plans to stakeholders in this format is no longer the preferred way of including people in the planning process. Source: Flickr

However, a battery of policy and legislation is now in place to ensure involvement from the grassroots. While perhaps it is too early for the implications of the 2014 Community Empowerment Bill for Planning to be made manifest, most practitioners in Scotland will be well acquainted with the concept of the Charrette; events originating in the USA, and defined by the National Charrette Institute as collaborative workshops where the community are brought together with built environment professionals to decide upon a vision for a development plan or policy.

Since the first Scottish event in 2006, Charrettes have been chosen to be mainstreamed into practice, through the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative, originating in 2010. Research on the method has highlighted a two-way negotiation of ideas and values. Those who attended felt listened to, even on issues where there was disagreement. Furthermore, the professional staff involved felt they gained significantly in the design process from local knowledge and ideas.

My own involvement with Charrette facilitation teams in both a Local Government and NGO context reflects this. We found the Charrette has potential to engage the community due to its ‘hands on’ nature and condensed format, with quick feedback on the outcomes of discussion. Those in attendance can see their ideas and aspirations turn into visions and statements used to inform the planning document.

This interactivity makes a Charrette an ideal way of reaching out to groups who don’t typically engage with the plan making process. In this respect we were easily able to export the format to high schools within some of the most remote and fragile rural communities in the UK. My own "take home’s" from these events was the wealth of local knowledge within the community that planners can learn from.

Charrettes have proved to be effective ways to directly include people's ideas, concerns, local knowledge and aspirations into the planning process. Source: Flickr

Charrettes have proved to be effective ways to directly include people's ideas, concerns, local knowledge and aspirations into the planning process. Source: Flickr

Despite the benefits evident, I cannot but notice the limitations of the Charrette method. Many a time I and colleagues have been asked the question ‘Charr.... what?’. The term actually originates from 19th Century Paris where students at the École des Beaux-Arts would frantically throw their work into carts for grading. However, approaching the community with such an academic term does little to foster a common understanding and sense of openness at the outset.

No matter the moniker, it is still therefore, the planner who is approaching the community to contribute to a preconceived, structured form of engagement each time a new strategy or policy is in the works. At a number of the events I have attended, feedback while positive, has therefore also been skeptical as to whether the Charrette represents something qualitatively different from previous consultation and engagement methods. Is there, therefore, a way for planners to change how we approach this situation?

Recent research by Robert Bartels, a recent PhD graduate at the University of Glasgow, has critically approached participation and engagement through the lens of ‘communicative capacity’; the ability of professionals and non professionals to overcome the established frameworks of discussion and create a communication space tailored to the needs of the situation at hand. The study highlights however, that often, current engagement practice is too structured towards attempting to achieve consensus before such a meeting space has been established.

Planning Aid Scotland (PAS) uses the Charretteplus™ methodology to engage people in the planning process. Source: PAS

Planning Aid Scotland (PAS) uses the Charretteplus™ methodology to engage people in the planning process. Source: PAS

The Charrette is therefore ‘putting the cart before the horse’ with the result that the process is characterized by a tensions from the beginning; planners against the community; us against them. What is advocated therefore, is creating a forum at the outset where official and non official stakeholders take part in a process of ‘storytelling’. This is outlined as a process of mutual sharing of narratives, hopes, frustrations and challenges about the locality and the plan making process, establishing understanding before attempting consensus. How therefore, could the community be inspired to bring their stories to the table?

An interesting case study is provided by Amanda Rogers illustrating how the National Theatre of Wales organized a three day outdoor theatre event in Port Talbot. The content of the play was based on local narratives, with the supporting cast and stage crew drawn from the ranks of the residents. The event evoked various atmospheres through the audience identifying with these local references and in some places singing along to the chants and anthems which formed part of the performance.

Why not adopt a creative and improvised street theatre approach to wide participation in urban planning? Source: Benjamin Cabe on Flickr

Why not adopt a creative and improvised street theatre approach to wide participation in urban planning? Source: Benjamin Cabe on Flickr

Certain scenes also gave life to the politics of development within the town, including one staged around a street partially lost to make room for the M4 motorway. The street's history was described to the audience as other performers representing ghosts of the former residents circulated around. Subsequent feedback and commentary have highlighted how local residents felt the event re enabled the communities sense of identity as a positive basis for considering how the town might be in the future.

These sorts of performances and interventions might seem far from the the mainstream to decision makers and professionals in the 2010’s. However, would not so too have been the idea of collaborative workshops embodied in the Charrette seemed alien as a basis of plan making and policy development to practitioners of the past? Already, drama and narration are being woven into engagement practices being developed within the NGO Sector. 

It is these practices which clearly have the power to make local people consider their communities both in the past and future. However, a further space needs to be created whereby community and officials are brought together to mutually understand the limitations and potentials of the planning process. Perhaps only then can the work take place to create consensus through the now established mechanism of the Charrette.

About the author:

Michael Kordas is a RTPI charted Town Planner and is currently working on a E.S.R.C 1+3 PhD Scholarship at the University of Glasgow. He has previously been employed in regional and local development planning, regeneration projects, development management and built environment conservation within both Central and Highland Scotland. Michael's research is focussed on the implications of mainstreaming charrettes as the method of community engagement and he has experience in various Scottish cities. 

 

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