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Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy


In design thinking, the term charrette refers to a rapid fire process of generating and visualizing ideas. The origins of the word are contested, but most point to the learning and teaching methods of the 19th century Beaux-Arts architectural academies. As the story goes, students would be called forth to place their finished drawings on a hand-pulled cart, to be delivered to the teaching faculty. Thus the use of the word “charrette” by today's designers, loosely translated to “cart” in French. Charrette is an interesting term for process in design, as it can refer to an internal process (one or more designers working together to quickly generate design ideas), a public and inclusive visioning process (such as a public meeting to design a park), or anything in between. In my experience, a charrette always includes some way of spontaneously visualizing ideas, not merely writing or talking about ideas. In urban design and landscape architecture fields, designers most commonly draw or model ideas during a charrette. (Katie Kingery-Page)

A charrette utilizes an intense visioning process by which a community envisions the future it wants, brings citizens together to develop a shared image of what they want their community to become, and consciously work to achieve it. Most schools of architecture, planning and/or design teach their students to utilize this strategy with stakeholders for community problem-solving.  Charrettes transform the way people work together by building capacity for collaboration.  Experts work collectively with community members from the onset to determine viable solutions but the stakeholders manage the process throughout the implementation. The problem-solving approach begins with engaging stakeholders in a dialog about community assets, and liabilities.  Preparation is about bringing people, data, and place together within one to six months.  Encouraging a priority list of needs and wants is a critical component of the data gathering.  As issues are identified, a series of intense workshops (charrettes) for all age groups are conducted to share imaginative ideas.  This consensus, imaginative phase can take a minimum of 4 days and produce a feasible plan for implementation over a period of years.   This inclusion process utilizes a number of known tools (public meetings, SWOT analysis, photo language, 3-D modeling, vote the dots) but employs these techniques in a studio-like venue. (LaBarbara Wigfall)

For more information on this process, contact these faculty members, or visit the National Charrette Institute.