Swapping the traditional planning process for a vibrant ‘pressure cooker’ situation that brings government, the community, industry and experts together can lead to innovative and ultimately more sustainable solutions.
Professor Rob Roggema, an internationally renowned design expert and landscape architect, is a proponent of using a ‘design charrette’ to find solutions to complex urban design problems.
The term originates from 19th Century Paris, where the School of Beaux Arts used a cart, or charrette, to gather up architecture students’ work on the day of an exhibition, reflecting the high-pressure situation replicated in today’s charrettes.
Roggema, who is Professor of Sustainable Urban Environments at the UTS School of Architecture, says a charrette relies on two things: bringing a cross-section of stakeholders together, and a tight deadline.
“If you have a design problem or a spatial problem of some sort, you include not only residents but also industry and other experts in the design process to come to solutions,” he explains.
“The design charrette works as a pressure cooker for the involved people – they come together for a couple of days or a maximum of a week. In that period, they need to come up with design solutions for their problem.”
Compared to a regular planning process, the outcomes of a design charrette are often unexpected and new – which is exactly the desired result.
“When you work in a regular process, it often consists of a series of meetings, and the series of meetings needs to end up in a plan already, or a document or a policy for the future,” Roggema says.
“If you do that with the different departments people often start fighting about, ‘I think it's to be this’ and someone else thinks ‘It needs to be something else’, which is not unifying or not a common goal that you can achieve. Sustainability is always somewhere there in the middle, so everyone has a little bit of the pie but it's never integrated as a whole.
“In a charrette, people start working together because they are forced to come up with an integrated product at the end of the week. Generally, what I have found is that the sustainability of the solutions is higher than in a regular process, because in a regular process certain departments are often in organised as silos.
Getting your hands dirty
Roggema says that although not every charrette he facilitates is the same, there are some common components.
“The way I mostly do it is to put people together in a room and work with them in a very tangible way. They need to make drawings and pictures and do all kind of creative stuff in order to forget about their rules and regulations and the policies that they have at the back of their minds,” he says.
“I always end the design charrette with the most tangible of all exercises that I know – working with Plasticine. Everyone gets these pieces of colourful clay, and normally they work in groups so there is also a little bit of a competition between the different groups for who can make the most beautiful model of the future.
“What happens in that conversation is that because people are working with their hands and using their different brain half to do that, they don't use rationality as their primary way of working; they use their emotion and intuition.”
Avoid repeating the mistakes of the past
Roggema will discuss the elements of a successful charrette when he presents at IPWEA's Sustainability in Public Works Conference
“I will show a couple of examples of projects that I did with people, like a very interesting project in the very small town of Sea Lake in north-western Victoria. We worked with the residents on how they actually saw their town under climate change, because they experienced a big drought, and sometimes there’s flooding,” he explains.
“They started working and thinking about how to solve those problems together instead of everyone solving their own problem.”
As a native of the Netherlands, flooding is an issue close to Roggema’s heart, and one that he thinks will become increasingly important for cities to address with design.
“One of the solutions may actually be – and residents have proposed that in some of these design charrettes – to create a space that can flood during heavy rain, specifically designed for filling up with water, and if it's not raining you can use it for something else – a soccer pitch or sport field, for example,” he says.
“I often give people an example from the Netherlands where they design these water squares, which is an ordinary square where people can play basketball, for instance. But as soon as it's raining, that square can fill up as a water basin and doesn't flood the rest of the city. After the rain then the water can be released from that space and the place can be a square as normal again. So, that kind of ideas people tend to find very interesting and want to have in their environments in order to prevent the negative impacts from a potential flood.”
It may sound like a kooky idea. But, as Roggema explains it, if we aren’t thinking differently, we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
“We need to search for something that is counterintuitive. What we tend to do is find a solution for something that we remember from the past. But generally, that past has brought us to the problem we have in the first place. If we try to solve it with the old methods and the old approaches, then we might even increase the problem.” Don’t miss Professor Rob Roggema’s presentation 'Creating Resilient Communities: Engagement through Design' at the Sustainability in Public Works Conference, 14-15 May, Sydney.