The Charrette as Environmental Learning Space

The urbanist charrette was the first challenge issued to the Modern planning paradigm. Striving to inject transparency, urban design principles, and meaningful participation into the planning process, the role of the charrette has evolved from exposing professionals to the subject site, to Educating about Sustainable Development (ESD), or ‘good’ urbanism.

We chose to host a charrette for several reasons. If we are to get the urban design right, then our designers must know the aspirations of the people, and have a direct experience of the place. However, looking beyond the design professions, we found purpose in using the charrette as a new kind of learning space:

It is acknowledged that direct experience with a concept or problem, followed by opportunities for observation, reflection and negotiation leading to further inquiry [in the charrette space], presents the richest form of learning …about good urbanism, and sustainability.

David Zandvliet, Environmental Learning and Experience: An Interdisciplinary Guide for Teachers. British Columbia Ministry of Education. 2010 (p. 8).

The process of applying the elements of good urbanism to a site by designing for livability, social mixing, and sustainability is best understood through the hands-on experience provided by the environmental learning space of the charrette. Fostering a collaborative exchange the charrette gives participants the understanding of how a sustainable development emerges from local values of community, and values of place. Participants have the opportunity to experience the people, and the place first hand before working, and testing for themselves, how the long-established principles of good urbanism fit the locality.

Thus, the charrette space sets up as a learning experience for Educating about Sustainable Development (ESD), or good urbanism. We have come to see how the Vancouver Historical Quartiers Charrette is a process that can be repeated with different groups in the community as part of the planning process, or taught in the classroom in a scaled-down format.

As part of the community planning process, the charrette space can be used to Educate about Sustainable Development, or good urbanism. By providing first hand exposure to the neighbourhood and its people, immersing participants in the principles of sustainable urbanism, and having participants themselves applying the principles to the site, the charrette will educate about options and alternatives that may not have been otherwise considered. By inviting each sector of the community to experience environmental learning for themselves, the planning process can build a consensus vision of place at the same time that groups and individuals learn about the new planning paradigm. Such a community-driven process might complete with a public dialogue where each of several charrettes convene to share their experiences, seeing in the aggregate results individually obtained. Strengths and weaknesses, similarities and differences, might then weave together into an emerging vision of place.

In the classroom, the same learning process can be engaged with a scaled-down ESD project. The direct experience of a nearby place can be followed by time spent in the classroom in critical analysis, negotiation, and further inquiry, thereby immersing school children in the learning experience of the charrette. Children, and young adults can be expected to develop a new understanding about a place that may form part of their everyday experience, waiting just outside their school’s front door just by experiencing that place through the lenses of sustainable development, or good urbanism.

© Lewis N. Villegas, Vancouver, January 2012

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