Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Urban Design in the Commons

Build a Better Block in Norfolk, Virginia (image: Virginian-Pilot)

The design charrette as part of implementation

The contemporary incarnation of the design charrette has attempted to take design, architecture, and planning out of the studios and academies and into the vernacular lives of the places in which we work. It has taken great strides to break down the silos between professional specialties and to reconnect the "expert" to the lay person, whose previous role had only been to deal with the expert's professionally built results for about thirty years. These intense, collaborative design sessions have lead to quick testing and decision making for long-ranger visions. At the end of a four-to-six day charrette, you typically have a plan to further refine and advance. It has proven to be a highly effective approach. 

But the charrette is evolving into another dimension and taking on a much bigger role. No longer a one-and-done flash in the pan, the model for a charrette, like great neighborhoods, is becoming a succession of ideas, events, 3-dimensional testing, and discoveries. It is less presentation and more on-going conversation about the places we live. Whereas it used to be "look over my shoulder a tell me what you think" (although it is tough to overstate how revolutionary even that was), it is now an on-going methodology for rebuilding social capital, capacity, and owner responsibility into the future of a place.

The charrette, therefore, has the opportunity to actually be part of the implementation, an early adopter of the reactivation it imagines for our neighborhoods, towns, and cities. This is not too undifferent from the activation surely associated with the original scene created by the little carts wildly scurring around collecting student work (the term "charrette" refers to the cart that was frantically pushed around the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris to collect architecture student's final drawings).

The original charrette scene was all about activity and buzz in common areas.

Instead of a cart, the charrette is now a vehicle for creating change, not just inspiring it. The new model for the charrette, then, takes on these additional characteristics:

    Design charrettes must necessarily set up shop in or around the public space(s) it hopes to activate. We used to think we were flexible because we could work any time, anywhere in offices, board rooms, city planning department conference rooms, and even unairconditioned church basements. Now, however, it is paramount that they be on-site and part of the activity of a neighborhood. They become, in fact, a neighborhood "town hall." 

    A recent design charrette for the Norfolk Downtown Arts and Design District was held in this storefront. along the main spine in the emerging district (Image: Virginian-Pilot) 

    With the charrette on-site, the team and the end-user are brought face-to-face with the place they hope to change. This not only makes people confront the place they are working in, but it doubles to actually create a buzz on the street in what is often a forgotten place. It is the first step to reactivation.  
    Being on-site and bringing people together unlocks the ability to test ideas, even if in a temporary way. Doing so further breaks down the divide between the designer and doer and reinforces the public space activation that we are all trying to pursue in the first place. It is real-time market research showing that if you create places for people, you generate immediate feedback loops dictating where and how to deliver authentic places with lower risks and higher upsides. 

    Real-time testing of design ideas (image: Build a Better Block) 

    Bringing people together to try ideas, talk about them, and design/refine new strategies has with it an enormous ability to build organizational capacity amongst a community that is too often left buried under the weight of the complexities of long term visions. Through identifying short-term action that can lead to long term change, everyone is able to be engaged, leveraging each of their abilities to accomplish something extraordinary and unexpected. 
    Just as cities don't start with 100-story skyscrapers but, rather, with much smaller buildings, charrette processes must be discovery-driven in that they start small, generate early returns on investment, create a new context for development and afford yet another chance at investment. This must be ongoing. The week long charrette must be transformed into a self-reinforcing sequence of conversation, design, testing and action. 

In the last month, I've held part or all of design processes in a mobile truck (Pittsburgh), an empty storefront (in Norfolk where they managed to turn the electric and water on for us) and in the central concourse of a shopping mall that is at the heart of an emerging urban center (Calgary). In each their own way, they have helped re-shape the charrette model to not only project the reactivation of our neighborhoods, streets, and public spaces, but to be the reactivation. 

The TalkPGH truck in action in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville.

Open house in Southcentre Mall in Calgary