The Problem With Charrettes

The Saint ReportPlanning and Zoning, saintblog, Thought Leadership

From NIMBY Wars: The Politics of Land Use

Family MediationBy P. Michael Saint,
Chairman and CEO &
Patrick Fox, President, The Saint Consulting Group

A charrette is a workshop at which affected parties work together to create a design or plan. Often emceed by a developer-friendly planner to discuss how to improve the project plan, a charrette is extremely time-consuming and expensive. Worth conducting only for a very substantial project, it can easily cost $500,000 and may continue for many weeks or months, a time commitment few ordinary citizens are able to make. Charrettes are of dubious value: they secure assent only from some of those who are able to attend, who examine every aspect of the project from both a macro and a micro perspective, and discuss at length and in detail every impact and a range of proposed solutions. This is the reason that such mass discussions take so long and the consensus reached is illusory at best. Such meetings, held outside of the approval or public consultation process, are actually attempts to neutralize opposition by achieving broad assent; what they in fact do is arm opponents with new issues.

Most often, a consensus-building process involves mitigation demands, concessions by the developer, and downsizing of the project. Even then, those attending the meetings do not represent a majority of voters, so there is still nothing to stop disgruntled opponents from finding fault at the public hearing or consultation, deluging public officials with opposition letters, or holding a demonstration at the construction site. The question for the developer is how many opponents did the exercise win over or neutralize, how many undecideds did it move to the support column, and at what cost? If, after a six-week process, 50 opponents were neutralized and 100 neutrals changed to supporters (highly optimistic numbers) and the consensus-building process cost $500,000, the developer spent $3,333.33 per vote switch without having achieved a critical (or even workable) mass of support. He might have done better to buy everybody a flat-screen TV.

Like the public mass meeting, the charrette approach lacks practicality. For all the meetings, vision statements, high-toned community benefits lists, and input that the planner envisions, there remains a missing element: selfishness. What’s in it for me, personally, if I support this project? There is no collaborative approach to decision making if you can’t get ordinary citizens to the meetings. Because the community involvement is not genuine, holding a charrette certainly doesn’t inoculate a project from citizen attack, much as its proponents might wish it did.

Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email:
Patrick Fox is president of The Saint Consulting Group, email: