The inherent value of a charrette: A discussion with Bill Riddick

According to author and facilitator Bill Riddick, charrettes offer transformative opportunities for public engagement and policy-change.

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Author and charrette practitioner, Bill Riddick, offers guidance to planners and facilitators.

It is for good reason that the 183-page “Charrette Handbook” of 2014 begins with defining a charrette: it can mean different things to different people. Social scientists know it as a process where policy problems are identified and solutions are developed in a public democratic fashion. Trained facilitators define it as an intensive public event that revolves around community design or policy change requiring thoughtful preparation, followed by diligent implementation that can take months or years. Government officials define a charrette as a chain of workshops, design studios and public meetings in a process that leads to a new policy or project that many residents had input designing and hopefully will have input in implementing. Members of the public hear the word ‘charrette’ and might pull it up on Google, then drift to forums, slideshows, plans, maps. People may even discredit the process, and recall times when they attended public meetings where their thoughts and ideas were ignored by people in positions of power. At Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, we offer multiple resources about charrettes and 'charrette-like' public engagement activities, and we were pleased to hear of a new Webinar Series that highlights these important tools in any planner or practitioner toolkit.

The 2022 National Charrette Institute (NCI) Webinar Series is bringing together practitioners and public alike to discuss the nuances and challenges of charrettes. The best way to start the conversation is to spend time with Mr. Bill Riddick, who visited with NCI Director Holly Madill recently to kick off the Webinar Series. Mr. Riddick is a lifelong charrette practitioner, interpreter, manager and author who uses charrettes to identify and work through community issues. Charrettes are best known for developing new plans and projects revolving around the built environment, but for Mr. Riddick, a charrette brings success into the social realm: bridging gaps between people, helping to identify the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ that people hold within themselves when faced with change. And Mr. Riddick has received his fair share of lumps and successes while managing charrettes over five decades.

To truly know a charrette is to know that small miracles happen when people who care about their community come together, sharing their fears and desires while building strong connections. But one thing is certain: it can be a struggle. People have to be present and willing to talk, and the most logical charette-based tools must be used at the correct juncture. In one famous instance, showcased in the 2019 Hollywood film, “The Best of Enemies,” and 2007 book of the same name by Osha Gray Davidson, the first day of a controversial 1971 10-day charrette involving school desegregation in Durham, North Carolina, was, as Riddick puts it, “The worst workday I have had in my whole life!”

For Riddick, Durham charrette facilitation involved community members from many walks of life who were emotionally charged about the issue. Riddick had headstrong, single-minded individuals for charrette co-chairs, who Riddick says, “handed me all sorts of junk.” As a facilitator, Riddick collected himself after that first day and kept faith in the charrette process. Throughout the ten days, he helped the co-chairs and other members of the public identify what they had in common, identify their ‘yesses’ and ‘nos’ on school desegregation and began to mold some solutions. A notable ‘miracle’ did occur at the end of the Durham charrette, but that is best left to the movie and book to divulge.

 A New York Times article from 1971 wrote about the Durham charrette shortly after it ended. The article subtitle announced that “a biracial school forum is an educational experience.” In its most basic form, that is true. But for practitioners, facilitators, government officials or members of the public, a charrette is much more than a forum and is more than educational; it can be transformative. Mr. Riddick’s experiences prove that a well thought-out engagement process is valuable. The bulk of the work is on the shoulders of a flexible and talented trained facilitator who creates a safe place for people to share their input.

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