What is a community design charrette?

Courtesy of AIA Pennsylvania.

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, practices of community participation and equitable development entered mainstream design processes giving rise to a new generation of socially-conscious architects and designers that shape the world around us. Today, engaging local residents is a cornerstone of many successful community projects.

Recognizing that architects already lead community engagement efforts to build better cities and towns across the US, AIA recruited a group of champions in 2018 and provided training and resources to amplify their work. Architects Jeff Pastva, AIA, of the AIA Pennsylvania chapter and Marc Manack, AIA, of AIA Charlotte are two champions leading design projects that focus on the needs of their fellow community members and include input from a variety of additional stakeholders like non-profit organizations and civic leaders.

New Cumberland is a quintessential Pennsylvania borough with a population of just over 7,000 that sits just across the Susquehanna River from the state capital, Harrisburg. Despite stagnant population growth and economic development opportunities, Pastva says the town has “good bones, historic buildings, and a desire to invigorate new life into its main public spaces.” Charlotte, NC, has quite a different challenge. The city has gone through periods of rapid development in the past decade, but according to Manack, comprehensive studies have indicated a lack of upward mobility and affordable housing.

To create a built environment that properly addresses such challenges, architects are working with local organizations. AIA Pennsylvania is working on a long-term re-envisioning project, steered by the New Cumberland Revitalization Leadership Team. Similarly, AIA Charlotte has partnered with West Side Community Land Trust and UNC Charlotte to develop housing solutions. Both have started with an engagement tactic referred to as a “charrette.” But what exactly does that mean?

“A community design charrette is a brief, intensive design study that engages diverse public interests like organizations, politicians, residents, and concerned citizens with a project that addresses pressing issues in a community,” says Manack. Pastva and his fellow project team member Michelle Brummer call it “an intense flurry of ideas, concepts, and drawings that culminate in a sketch proposal over a short amount of time.”

The word “charrette” doesn’t always resonate with those who are not regularly engaged in design activities, so these architects are finding alternatives. “Charrette is architectural jargon,” Manack admits. Speaking about the AIA Charlotte event, he adds, “In collaboration with our project partners, we decided to call ours a workshop with the aspiration of engaging the broadest possible participation in the event.”

But to Pastva and Brummer, sometimes not even more recognizable concepts like “workshop” land with the public either. “After discussing it with the steering committee, we dispatched with the term [charrette] from the get-go. We even found the term “workshop” too foreign,” they say. The AIA Pennsylvania team starting instead with asking basic questions of their participants like “what should this look like?” and “how would you re-imagine this space?”

And that’s whole point of community engagement anywayto ask the questions and give community members a voice in design. Manack, Pastva, and New Cumberland Borough Council member Don Kibler further describe how community charrettes and other engagement strategies have taken shape in their communities.

What observations have you made about residents’ reactions to your engagement?

Marc Manack, AIA: Results and scale matter. Residents in many underserved and disadvantaged communities have been subject to well-intended studies that deliver grandiose visions, but with little immediate impact. This makes residents skeptical. We took the approach to listen for “one small thing” that we could do as a follow up to the charrette to build credibility with the community.

Jeff Pastva, AIA & Don Kibler: The feedback has been astoundingly positive. From the reactions, it was clear that many attendees were not expecting or familiar with the concept of visioning a possible future for a public space. Providing a visual representation was something that people could more easily grasp and triggered a lot of discussion. Ultimately, we believe that presenting an optimistic plan and getting the community to engage in the discussion will lead to consensus and an appetite for change.

How does a charrette tie in to larger concepts of community engagement in design?

Marc Manack, AIA: It’s a vehicle for architects to use our professional expertise in the public interest.

Don Kibler: Any charrette itself is only one way of eliciting ideas from a group of stakeholders. This particular one dovetails into a larger revitalization project that will lead to an increase in the quality of life in New Cumberland. Since revitalization can be hard to articulate, holding up an image of “what could be” helps people get a sense for what is possible and build excitement around it. The ability to help people think outside the box and help them picture something that is different than what exists, is very important to a project like our revitalization.

How is your work emphasizing or elevating the role of architects and designers in your community?

Marc Manack, AIA: Leadership. It’s important for architects to initiate things, rather than merely showing up or participating. Even a small project like this shows how architects can take a leading role in transformative changes they want to see in their communities.

Don Kibler: I have a totally new-found understanding of the role and value that architects can have in an undertaking of this type. I’ve seen enough of it even at this point to see the value that visualization and dialogue bring to gaining acceptance of an idea.

Watch to see how AIA Charlotte and West Side Community Land Trust partnered to engage residents in a housing workshop. 


Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.