What is a Charrette?

Two men and a woman walk into a bar carrying a pizza in a cardboard box. They sit down, take the pizza out, turn the box over and start drawing on it. After a couple of hours of discussions and drawing they have a proposal for a revised neighborhood plan. They have just completed a ‘charrette’.

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LCA Charrette, Park City, Utah 2003

Charrettes are just about as simple as that. Sitting down with ideas, discussing and drawing. The pizza box is optional.

The charrette is a term borrowed by Andres Duany from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In the past architecture students at the Ecole were given a design assignment to complete over the weekend. The sketchbook containing the finished design was placed in a small cart (charrette) making the rounds through the streets of the Quartier Latin until midnight Sunday. Anyone failing to place their sketchbook in the charrette failed the assignment.

Duany adapted the charrette to community design processes in the 1980s. Duany borrowed from the Ecole the concept of working to a set limit of time and grafted to it the methodology of an evolving set of urban design principles. Working with Duany, Bill Lennertz organized the first charrette in The Kentlands, and hundreds more thereafter. By 2001 Lennertz had opened the National Charrette Institute (NCI) in Portland to train professionals in the charrette process.

There have been many imitators, but two features of the urbanist or NCI charrette remain its defining characteristics:

  1. The charrette team consists of a specially selected group of design professionals that works on site over a four to seven day sojourn.
  2. A particular urban theory or methodology is applied at the charrette. The planning and urban design is anything but willy nilly. Thus, a considerable amount of time is spent ahead of time preparing stakeholders on site for a successful charrette.

There has also been much confusion over charrettes:

  1. The charrette is only a process that delivers a product.
  2. The product or outcome is a plan. An urban design plan that today it is often referred to as a “Form Based Code”.
  3. The instruments used in the charrette for shaping the final plan are nothing more than a set of time tested design principles, some harking back to the earliest practices in western urbanism. Some are older than Rome.

The woman and the two men entering the bar in the opening skit of this post were not your run of the mill tavern patrons. They were trained urban design professionals and likely share diverse backgrounds in city design, including: architecture, civic engineering, planning, landscape architecture, transportation, urban land economics, and human-scale urbanism. In a real-life event, they would have completed a walking tour of the site before picking up the pizza. They would have also spent a considerable amount of time in advance understanding the place, the people of the place, its governance and economics. Finally, they would be well-versed in future trends and the baseline issues in sustainability.

Of course, a three-hour charrette in a pub might only be suitable for a very small, and possibly privately owned site. Neighbourhood charrettes typically require a full seven days to unfold. According to Bill Lennertz, a minimum of three feed-back loops are required for a successful charrette where the community, and the local bureaucracy, can provide meaningful input into the design process which is then reflected in the final product.

If you are interested in organizing a charrette in an English or Spanish speaking community please contact the author.

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