Public Involvement Techniques
2.B.b - Charrettes
What is a charrette?
A charrette is a meeting to resolve a problem or issue.
Within a specified time limit, participants work together intensely
to reach a resolution. The sponsoring agency usually sets the goals
and time limit and announces them ahead of time. A leaders
responsibility is to bring out all points of view from concerned
local residents as well as agency representatives and experts.
Here are the usual components of a charrette:
- Definition of issues to be resolved;
- Analysis of the problem and alternative approaches to solutions;
- Assignment of small groups to clarify issues;
- Use of staff people to find supporting data;
- Development of proposals to respond to issues;
- Development of alternative solutions;
- Presentation and analysis of final proposal(s); and
- Consensus and final resolution of the approach to be taken.
Why is it useful?
A charrette is problem-oriented. The breadth of background
of participants assures full discussion of issues, interrelationships,
and impacts. Its time limits challenge people to rapidly, openly,
and honestly examine the problem and help potential adversaries
reach consensus on an appropriate solution. (See Negotiation
& Mediation.) For example, charrettes were used to formulate
alternatives to a controversial highway project in Knoxville, Tennessee,
and a downtown plan for Jacksonville, Florida, by guiding business
and civic leaders and neighborhood people to a recommended solution.
A charrette produces visible results. It is often used
early in a planning process to provide useful ideas and perspectives
from concerned interest groups. In mid-process, a charrette helps
resolve sticky issues. Late in the process, it is useful to resolve
an impasse between groups.
A charrette enlarges the degree of public involvement in
transportation, reducing feelings of alienation from government.
It offers people interaction with public agencies and allows questions
to be asked before decisions are made. It supplements, but does
not replace, other kinds of public involvement.
Does a charrette have special uses?
A charrette calls attention to an issue. It can dramatize:
- The need for public attention to resolve an issue;
- A deliberately participatory problem-solving process:
- A public agencys openness to suggestions;
- A search for all possible approaches to a question; and
- A democratically-derived consensus.
Charrettes generate alternative solutions to problems. The
setting encourages openness and creativity. All suggestions from
the group—however outrageous—should be examined to encourage
thinking about better approaches. (See Brainstorming.)
In New Hampshires Community Stewardship Program, for instance,
volunteer experts are invited by towns to help assess strengths
and weaknesses of town planning.
Who participates? And how?
Anyone can participate in a charrette. A wide range of people
with differing interests should attend. Traditional participants
represent organized groups, but individuals with any stake in the
issue should be encouraged to attend. (See Ethnic, Minority,
and Low-income Groups.)
How people participate depends on the charrette leader.
An experienced leader assures that a range of views is heard. The
leader invites people to take a stance and present their points
of view. All participants are assured an opportunity to speak out,
and the leader encourages even the most reticent participant to
speak up without fear of rebuke or ridicule. The open, free-wheeling
charrette format encourages enthusiasm and responses.
How do agencies use the output?
A charrette sharpens agency understanding of the perspectives
of interest groups. Early in project formulation, a charrette offers
a glimpse of potentially competing demands and can be a barometer
of the potential for consensus. Thus it helps generate alternatives
and identify issues. In Minnesota and Alabama, for example, State
agencies respond to the needs of individual towns by providing experts
for weekend charrettes.
Who leads a charrette?
A leader experienced in charrette techniques is a must.
To avoid chaos in a charrette, a high level of discipline is required.
The charrette leader should be familiar with group dynamics and
the substantive issues the group faces. The leader tailors the setting,
background materials, and issues to the goal of the charrette and
elicits participation from all group members within the allotted
time. One or two staff people should be available for support to
the leader and to supply data and information.
A steering committee usually makes arrangements for a charrette.
It may be composed of representatives of Federal and State transportation
or other agencies, consultants, affected municipalities, and community
groups. The steering committee should agree upon a leader for a
What are the costs?
A charrette involves significant resources. The chief items
are sufficient space and background materials and an experienced
leader. Graphics must be used so that participants quickly comprehend
the problem and envision alternative solutions. Background materials
must be available at the start of the charrette so that no time
is lost in investigating the problem. Preparatory work leading to
a charrette is intensive, whether done in-house or by an outside
Staffing should include:
- A leader experienced in the charrette technique;
- Staffers who understand the derivation and use of the data;
- Staffers who have worked on the problem; and
- Staffers who have worked with applicable policy.
Materials can include:
- Large maps;
- Overlays to allow sketching on maps;
- Boards to display applicable data;
- Large newsprint pads and markers to record ideas;
- Photographs of sites;
- Handouts of basic goals/time limits/meeting ground rules; and
- Printed background information with background data.
How is a charrette organized?
Organization depends on the issues complexity and the
intended length of the event. This work includes:
- Obtaining agreement on the process;
- Obtaining agreement on timing;
- Determining potential participants;
- Finding an experienced charrette leader;
- Managing special funding, if required;
- Seeking out resource people;
- Sending out invitations and background material well in advance;
- Finding an appropriate space for meeting;
- Handling required publicity;
- Setting up space to encourage informal discussion; and
- Portraying issues clearly in both verbal and graphic form.
Is a charrette flexible?
A minimum of four hours is essential for a charrette focused
on a modest problem. While the average ranges from one to several
days, some agencies hold one- and two-week charrettes or organize
them as multiple sessions over a period of time.
A charrette occurs at any time in a planning process, but preparation
is crucial. Advance work can take a month or more, depending
on the issue to be discussed. Charrette materials are flexible and
should be tailored to the focus of the meeting.
How is it used with other techniques?
A charrette combines effectively with other techniques.
When matched with a civic advisory committee, it focuses on solving
a specific problem. (See Civic
Advisory Committees.) Paired with the visioning process, it
is an attractive means of eliciting ideas. (See Visioning.)
A charrette also focuses on a single issue raised during a brainstorming
session. (See Brainstorming.) In
Portland, Maine, a two-day charrette on the long-range plan followed
a transportation fair. (See Transportation
What are the drawbacks?
Because it focuses on a specific problem to be resolved or issue
to be addressed, a charrette is usually a one-time event. Thus,
the invitation list and timing must be thoroughly considered and
discussed to maximize interaction through broad-based participation.
Goals must be made clear so the expectations do not exceed possible
results. The depth of analysis from a single short session can be
disappointing. Follow-up work must be carefully considered both
before and during a charrette.
When is a charrette most effective?
A charrette can resolve an impasse. During such a use, neutral
participants should be involved to bring fresh ideas for consideration.
When a problem is immediate, a charrette is effective because people
are vitally interested in the outcome. For maximum effect, a charrette
should have the approval of elected officials, agency heads, and
community groups. A charrette is also useful:
- Early in the project;
- Following a brainstorming session;
- When focus on a single issue is required; and
- When a range of potential solutions is needed.
For further information:
|American Institute of
Architects Regional/Urban Assistance Team (R/UDAT)
|American Society of
Landscape Architects, Community Assistance Team
|Minnesota Design Team,
Minnesota Department of Trade & Economic Development
|New Hampshire Community
|Portland, Maine, Area
Comprehensive Transportation Committee
|Urban Land Institutes
Panel Advisory Service
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).