Charrettes go virtual: A state-of-the-art process helps a community stay-the-course during COVID-19

COVID-19 impacts inspire a virtual master planning charrette process, to be highlighted by an upcoming webinar series.

A virtual mapping exercise invites residents to place pins and comments within the planning area. Source:

Considering the need for sheltering-in-place due to COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the novel corona virus, local and tribal communities can continue to plan for the future, albeit in a virtual space. This article outlines the steps of a virtual master area plan using state-of-the-art techniques in a virtual charrette, and describes the role planners, officials and residents play in ensuring a successful online process that delivers a meaningful outcome.

To meet the challenges that sheltering-in-place can bring to community planning and design, we are seeing the transition to a 100% digital approach that simulates the interactive and interpersonal experience of a “live” charrette. In this new medium, a community can use a variety of online approaches and tools designed to produce thoughtful, place-sensitive solutions using high-quality design and planning best practices.

Existing digital resources such as websites, blogs, and live-streaming can attract more people to contribute than before while in the comfort of their own home and on their own time. Virtual charrettes and related planning events also attract more than the usual frequenters that attend public hearings and meetings regularly. Materials include live and recorded meetings, surveys, renderings, comment boards and plans that remain alive and online for the entire community to view — helping the virtual charrette to have a lasting influence.

A few questions to ask yourself before beginning a virtual charrette or planning process include:

  • Do staff, officials, partners have digital equipment and resources needed for engagement?
  • Can staff, officials provide equal access to all members of the public with regard to disabilities, access to equipment, age and more?
  • Do staff, officials, consultants have access to data and materials while sheltering-in-place?
  • Do staff, officials, consultants have the skills and training to facilitate online events?
  • Does a strong stakeholder network exist that can help to market this process?

Once these questions are answered, any perceived or real roadblocks can be readily addressed. New opportunities and partnerships may also develop out of working through these questions.

A state-of-the-art example of a recent charrette that is now 100% virtual:  the Mullan Area Master Plan Charrette in Missoula, Montana brought city and county residents together in late March 2020. The effort begins an area master plan process for approximately 2,000 acres west of Missoula that was funded in part with grants that required the project to continue moving forward. Affordable housing, environmental protection and public mistrust were three of many issues addressed by the charrette. The charrette, managed by Dover, Kohl & Partners intended to “evaluate and align land use planning and regulations, transportation elements, and plans for amenities in an area of the community currently receiving significant development pressure.” The Mullan Area charrette leaders utilized this website as the main online portal for visitors, residents, staff and consultants.

“The level of engagement was high, leading to more meaningful ideas and support for the final designs. It involved 210 Virtual studio visitors and meeting attendees, over 1,000 views of the project YouTube films in one week, and over 900 digital communications, survey participants, interactive tools, social media likes and followers.”

Planners and officials each play a role in ensuring a successful virtual experience that delivers a meaningful outcome. According to the American Planning Association’s 2020 webinar “The Golden Circle of Online Engagement,” community planners and officials need to know the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of engagement. Planners and officials should know why the engagement is needed and must share those reasons clearly with the public. Second, it is important to know how the engagement will happen from start to finish. Thirdly, planners and officials must be on the same page in understanding what services the government provides to residents and to the process. When we know that more than 50% of adults will never attend a public meeting during their lifetimes due to time and interest constraints, virtual engagement can fill a large gap between engagement and non-engagement.

To learn more about virtual charrettes as a tool to strengthen local and tribal community online planning during COVID-19,  join an upcoming webinar series hosted by the National Charrette Institute @ MSU, the Form-Based Codes Institute and MSU Extension.  This free online series includes experts from Smart Growth America, the National Charrette Institute, Dover, Kohl & Partners, the City of Missoula, and Missoula County, MT. The series begins on Tuesday, April 28 from 2:00pm-3:15pm EST. Please register on our website.

This article was published with guidance from the National Charrette Institute at MSU. For information on emergency changes regarding the Open Meetings Act in Michigan, please visit the website.

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