I’m Maurya West Meiers, Senior Evaluation Officer at the World Bank and coauthor of A Guide to Assessing Needs: Essential Tools for Collecting Information, Making Decisions, and Achieving Development Results.
Recently in my Virginia neighborhood, community leaders and members held a charrette. You ask, what is a charrette (or charette)? Charrettes are gatherings (often time-bound and intense, with emphasis on a final push) of stakeholders to vision and map out solutions, while at the same time trying to resolve conflicts and obstacles to those solutions. It’s said to be derived from the French word for chariot or cart, and has its history traced to the word used when 19th century Parisian architectural students put their work into a cart – often in a rush – to transport to an exhibition or evaluation. Today charrettes are used in urban planning and design processes, usually with communities, and with groups ‘carting’ ideas and information to one another. The charrette process will often bring people and groups together with the goal of getting them moving quickly from investigation to decisions. This is especially helpful when they might otherwise get stuck in the process – sometimes for months or years.
How does it work? While there are many commonalities, there is no standard structure for charrettes. They are unique to the problem and group. They usually involve a facilitated process with larger groups breaking into subgroups. The subgroups work separately to understand the issues, brainstorm, and eventually come to decisions and design solutions. The subgroups then rejoin in a large group to share the subgroups’ work and generate dialogue and some initial decisions. Through this process, multiple interests and information are shared and explored. The process then continues, potentially over multiples sessions. Together members “work on the work” together, which is meant to enhance ownership, move past obstacles, and come to joint decisions. In community and urban planning situations, it’s not surprising that charrettes are seen to be a good tool where consensus is needed to get to workable solutions.
For those working on needs assessments – which emphasizes determining gaps, causes to those gaps, optimal results, and potential solutions – the charrette process can be another ‘tool’ in the toolbox to explore. In my research on charrettes and related community visioning exercises, I’ve gathered a range of resources from those who have used them and hope you find them useful in your work.
- US Army Corps of Engineers, Conducting a SMART Planning Charette: A Handbook for Project Development Teams
- National Charrette Institute (NCI) Tools and Resources
- Toronto’s Artscape Creative Placemaking Planning a Visioning Charrette guide.
- Pennsylvania Land Trust Association’s ConservationTools.org guide, Community Visioning
- Lee Highway Visioning
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