Community charrette: A proposal


As we reel under the excruciating pressures of the coronavirus pandemic and feel the impact of other global events in West Marin, it has been suggested that we need a forum of some kind to discuss issues of concern so that we’re able to better respond as a united front. 

I have a suggestion for such a discussion, which borrows from the “charrette” process of L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, a practice dating to the mid-1800s. The best definition of a charrette I’ve read comes from “A Handbook for Planning and Conducting Charrettes for High-Performance Projects,” by Gail Lindsey: 


“Charrette (shar-ette) n. 1. A small cart. 2. A collection of ideas. During the 19th century, students of l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris would ride in the cart sent to retrieve their final art and architecture projects. While en route to the school in the cart, students frantically worked together to complete or improve these projects. The meaning of the word has evolved to imply a collection of ideas or a session of intense brainstorming. 3. An intensely focused activity intended to build consensus among participants and to develop specific design goals and solutions for a project, and motivate participants and stakeholders to be committed to reaching those goals. Participants represent all those who can influence the project design decisions.”


About 40 years ago, I participated in a similar process sponsored by the Marin Arts Council. I like to tell my friends that it was the most fun I ever had, sitting in a room full of screaming strangers—not quite the Avalon Ballroom or the Fillmore, because we were all pretty sober, but upbeat and positive. I recall making new business prospects and a couple of friends in the process. Based on the two-day event, the arts council put together a mission statement with specific goals and plans for implementing them and some publications as well. 

I believe the charrette concept would work well for West Marin residents as we consider what our community will look like beyond the current crisis and into another generation or two. What will have happened between now and then? How should we respond to warnings of climate change and migration, for instance? Are there immediate public policy issues we need to address? 

The charrette process offers the best architecture to support a particularly democratic process that encourages every resident to participate and be heard. Using the Socratic method, through a series of questions, participants can define an issue, examine its manifestations and arrive at a creative resolution. Participants represent many world views and share perspectives from which creative solutions can emerge. 

At a time when all humanly perceivable cycles—biological, seasonal, historical—seem to be freewheeling past one another, this proposal presents artificially-generated cycles-within-cycles that provide a slower rhythm, an artificial pulse and a more concentrated effort. It is a process designed to draw people together so that instead of reacting from a place of fear, frustration, isolation and possibly violence, we are uniting in a place of empowerment and mutual respect while honing the critical thinking skills needed for a productive response to unexpected challenges. We make new acquaintances, form new networks and find common ground more quickly. This in itself reduces the chance of shock, fear and confusion during a crisis that too often leads to poor judgment and catastrophic action. And besides, it can be a lot of fun. 

I would like to convene a community charrette once this current episode has expired so that we can debrief and plan for the next one. Let’s look at the protocol for the charrette, which identifies the participants and how the event will be convened.

Community charrette: An intense brainstorming process using the Socratic method to address urgent or ongoing issues of geographically defined communities. The objective is to build or rebuild and reinforce communities by acquainting their members with each other in a process that encourages them to work together toward a common goal. 

The geographically defined community: A community charrette is geographically defined and is adaptable to almost any population. West Marin is defined by several zip codes representing the unincorporated parts of the county, most of which are devoted to food production. All property owners, business owners and residents of these areas will be invited to participate. We can begin with individual towns and grow to include two or three zip codes and eventually the whole region. 

The venue: A public facility such as a community center or school gymnasium that can ideally accommodate 10 to 15 tables, plus room for observers and facilitators. Refreshments would be potluck-style. If a public facility is unavailable, the charrette could take place on blankets in an open setting like a park or beach. 

The participants: Participants and facilitators (non-professionals) are all members of the community and are volunteers. There is no collecting of personal information or individual profiling; there are no mailing lists gathered and there is no website. All communications and discussions take place in the public arena. Young people especially should be encouraged to participate. Parents, teachers or family friends and neighbors can vouch for underage participants and non-resident property owners.

The participants will be asked to show a government-issued I.D. to prove their residency. People without one can be vouched for by others, and this I.D. process can be eliminated in future charrettes once people are better acquainted. 

In order to expose participants to each other’s values and world views and to get as many perspectives on an issue, participants are defined by their occupations and seated accordingly. Occupations, among other things, are an expression of values and sense of place in society. Upon checking in, participants go to a table or wall where they find several lists of occupations identified by colored chips or beads. They are asked to choose the color that best represents their occupation, look for a table that does not yet have their color, and sit there. As an alternative, people can be told to sit at a table of participants whom they don’t already know. 

Tables: Each table seats six people. One person, the scribe, stands at an easel and records answers on a tablet. 

The facilitators: Facilitators are responsible for the logistics of facility rental, liaison with the media, preparing questions, conducting the charrette itself and gathering and tallying answers and delivering them to the local media. They will be participants at subsequent charrettes. The subject matter of the charrette will be decided by the community in public media. 

Cost: There is no money exchanged except for the facility rental and that would be covered by donations at the door. 

Now, to the process. The action begins with a thesis or question. There is no wrong answer. Facilitators will have prepared questions for the process, but they will modify a question in order to follow the direction of the answers. The questions will examine all aspects of the topic at hand and options for addressing it and will seek to reach a satisfactory resolution. The resolution itself will reveal community sentiment about an issue, call for some kind of action, or call for another charrette. 

The questions: The process allows five to six questions per cycle, or up to 48 questions in a day. The questions are designed to vigorously tease apart definitions and concepts so that the participants are clear in their understanding. The questions could begin with, “What is community?” “What is a community?” “What makes this community unique among communities?” “Are those unique features adequate to sustain the next two or three generations of its stakeholders?” “Are there issues that need addressing as a community?” Or, in light of recent events, “What just happened?” and “How can we be ready next time?” 

The template: The template describes the cycles of activity, each of which represents one hour. Each hour is divided into six segments of 10 minutes. Each segment consists of five minutes of answering questions and five minutes to relay the answers to one of the facilitators, stand up and stretch and visit with others at the table. These segments repeat until five questions are answered and 50 minutes have passed. At that point, participants take a final break to fill the rest of the hour.

When the next cycle begins at the top of the next hour, a new scribe is assigned. Facilitators may want to subtract a segment and lengthen the break during the middle of the day. The cycle repeats as many more times as was agreed on for that charrette. Should a segment be interrupted, the process pauses and continues at the start of the next segment. Strict adherence to the clock is essential in maintaining focus throughout the process. At the end, surveys from both participants and observers are collected and, together with the tallied answers, are summarized for media release. 

Electronics: In order to keep participants focused on the process, no electronics, cell phones or other media are allowed in the room. The level of energy should be high and sustained throughout the day. 

Evaluating the results: The process should be transparent in order to encourage a public dialogue through the local media. As many observers as can be accommodated should be allowed if they are willing to do an evaluation and if they agree not to interfere or interact with participants. A sustained field of energy and concentration is essential. 

I encourage people to think about what can be accomplished with a community charrette. Anonymous answers will be recorded, tallied and published in the local newspaper and broadcast on the local radio station, where the rest of the community can evaluate and begin a public dialogue. Outliers, those who generally don’t participate in public events, should be especially encouraged to participate because they often disrupt stale thinking and old patterns of behavior that no longer work. 

I think answers are often found in the questions we ask. With the intelligence and talent and resources we have here, we should be able to address almost any issue. It should be productive and fun.


Ann Read, a former commercial artist and blue water sailor, has lived in Inverness since the 1940s.