Not all public participation events are charrettes

Charrette is a very specific type of public involvement system for design and planning projects. Do not be fooled by people calling every public participation event a charrette.

Charrette feedback loops used in the 101 Certificate Training materials from the National Charrette Institute.
Charrette feedback loops used in the 101 Certificate Training materials from the National Charrette Institute.

Charrette has become a popular term and many public participation events around Michigan are starting to be called charrettes. Most are not, and should not be called that. 

At a minimum a charrette lasts three days, and can be a long as seven days. But it is never a one day, or one meeting event. 

A charrette is a very intense public participation process used by planners and developers for a very specific design purpose. Examples of charrettes include:

Charrette is not just another name for a public meeting, or an event for public input on a project or proposal. It is a very specific system of first, receiving ideas and brainstorming, review by deeply involved stakeholders, having professional designers prepare renderings of what they heard. Second is to present the renderings of what professional designer prepared so the public can confirm, or correct what was prepared, then staff can go back to the drawing boards to revise the design. Third is to bring the revised renderings back for public review at a third public event to receive confirmation the drawings are reflecting the public’s concerns. After this third part further revision may take place, and then work starts on the details necessary for implementation. 

This series of three public reviews, or feedback loops (public meeting, do work, public review, do more work, public review) should occur in not more than seven days. A charrette is used when speed, consensus, and intense attention is desired for a proposal or project. It becomes the full time, or more than full time, project for designers, planners, and other staff during the period of the event. 

That intense focus on the design project is how charrette got its name. Teams of architecture students in 1800s Paris would be rushing to finish the architecture design project final exam. Often putting finishing touches on their design while riding on the chart (chariot) to bring the project to the instructor by deadline. Those students were said to be working en charrette, in the cart. This fast paced team approach to design carries forward to today’s design charrette which has become more popular in Michigan. 

Charrette has become a very formal planning process, with a national organization producing minimum best practices standards and providing training for charrette management and facilitation. People can obtain this training from the National Charrette Institute. If a community wishes to have a charrette as part of a project it is working on it may be wise to specify in the request for proposal that the charrette be managed and facilitated by people who have these training certificates. 

But we are seeing many different events in Michigan which are called charrettes, when in reality they are not. It is not a charrette if:

  • There is only one or two public meetings;
  • The three meetings are spread out more than seven days from each other;
  • There is not a system of gathering input, and then feedback, re-review, and a second system of feedback. 

According to the National Charrette Institute, the following key strategies are essential to a successful NCI Dynamic Planning Process and NCI charrette:

  • All interested parties must be involved in collaboration at the beginning.
  • A multi-disciplinary staff is teamed up.
  • A work schedule that compress work into three to seven days.
  • Communicate in short feedback loops for a very short turnaround to report back to citizens 

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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