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Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with Pratt Cassity, a faculty member in the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia. He is also the Director of the Center for Community Design and Preservation, a service-learning program where students and faculty in landscape architecture, historic preservation, and environmental planning work on real-world projects. We're going to talk about his experience as an educator and about the role of feedback in public engagement. This is our conversation series about critical evaluation across disciplines, and I hope you enjoy it. Here's Pratt:
Pratt Cassity: In environmental design, we work with communities using a tool called charrettes. It is a participatory process that involves the public, involves professional disciplines, and from our perspective is a great teaching tool where we can plug students in so that they can get a taste of the real world but also apply the things that they're learning in class and in studios at the College of Environment and Design.
MC: What does a typical charrette look like?
PC: No two are the same, which is really the exciting part about it, and it's the scary part about it, too. It involves a series of steps introducing the project, introducing people to the community, introducing the community to the process, then moving slowly through that design sequence. Formulating ideas, formulating alternatives, having feedback at very specific stages of the process, feedback from each other, feedback from the project sponsors. The most important part that's really different than what students get in a studio is that you actually get feedback from the public because it is a real project in a real place with real impact.
MC: Where does that feedback first occur in the life of a project?
PC: Oddly, it occurs before we ever get there. I know that sounds a little strange, but the community has to recognize that there is an opportunity or a problem and that there needs to be a solution arrived at, at some point. So there's a little bit of a self-analysis that's going on with the client, and a little bit that happens with the student, too. Our charrettes are presented and offered to students either on a voluntary basis or they can get credit for participating in the charrette. So the student has to go through a little bit of a back and forth and a little bit of reflection, am I ready to show my wares in the real world in a real place with real consequences, do I have the time? So there's a little bit of back and forth before we ever start. Quite definitely there is feedback at the very beginning. We always start out with a public information meeting, generally very well attended. There's an old line among people who do charrettes that, all you have to do is have people show up for the charrette to be successful, and to a certain extent that's true because you're going to have people supporting the project and people opposed to the project no matter what it is. That first session really gets all the cards on the table and allows the initial back and forth. Asking all the real obvious questions, but then also we use the time to try and pull out little dirty secrets, or things that they would never tell the typical tourist but they're going to tell us because we're planners and designers.
MC: And is there a protocol to that exchange? Is it like a debate?
PC: No. It's generally a facilitated meeting. We keep 3M flip charts in business. It's the old-fashioned, write it on paper, stick it on the wall, prioritize it, and then begin to come up with solutions. After that first session we have a series of drop-ins, the public then comes back, looks at the work as it's going along, and gives feedback at those points. Ultimately, there's the final presentation, at the end of the charrette, no matter where we are in the process, hopefully we're at a point that we would call finished, but at that final point we present our alternatives, our solutions, and get the public's response to it. Thus far, we've conducted probably about 90 charrettes in Georgia, which is astounding, I can't believe that myself. But I'll say that there has not been a negative outcome, just the process of getting people in the same room and talking to each other gets them closer to consensus than if they hadn't met or talked at all.
MC: What would you describe as the main benefit of the charrette?
PC: Well, there are quite a few. I would say you have to look at who benefits from what. Certainly the stakeholders, the community, benefits because they're getting a lot of professional attention at a very specific problem during a set amount of time. The students get this real world feedback, it's astounding to read their post-charrette reflection. It's always "I never knew." All of their sentences will start with this sense of discovery, something that they didn't know from being in a typical classroom or a typical studio.
MC: Can you talk about some of your first charrette experiences?
PC: We had a really interesting, almost partnership made in heaven. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs had just developed a new program for very small towns, population 3,000 or less, it was called the Better Hometown Program. DCA, Department of Community Affairs thought that it would be a good idea for each of these communities to have a good design lesson when they entered the program. They took on about three to five cities every year so they would pick a couple of those communities and offer them charrettes from our shop, from the University. We would put together teams, spend three to four days in that particular place, and then deliver a final product after that charrette experience. So it really was a great relationship with a state agency that benefitted the hungriest birds out there. Small towns are the ones that generally lack professionals who live there, or design professionals. They often are the ones that get smaller grants, have access to smaller funds, and they're often ignored, they're looked over. So, this was giving them big city design at low to no cost for that community. The first charrette we did, the very first one we did under this program was in Blackshear, which many people don't know where Blackshear is, but it's right on the edge of the Okefenokee, so it was a complete - students were transported, they felt to a different place and a different time. It was in a swamp, in the winter, and the issues there were quite different than the ones that they had been assigned in studio classes, but the outcome was something that the community was ready to implement. Almost immediately, which was a good thing. Some of the earlier ones that we also did were with places that gave students an experience that we just could not make up on our own. One of the towns in the Better Hometown Program was Plains, Georgia. So we were able to work with Mr. Carter and his family to really move them further along in their vision and dreams about what was happening in Plains, and we actually helped the Carters visualize and conceptualize the bed and breakfast [Plains Historic Inn] that they opened right in, if you can call it downtown, Plains.
MC: It's a small town.
PC: Right in the center of town. It actually had a very positive experience in making students realize that even people who were former presidents care about the place where they live. There's a visual component to that.
MC: Was part of that program to show a process the communities could adopt themselves? Do they do their own charrettes now or some version of it?
PC: Not particularly. There is a positive component in having outsiders come and do this that, I don't really know how to put my finger on it but it's almost the magic of charrette because we don't know them, they don't know us, there's a little bit more freedom in information exchange because there's no baggage, and we can leave town. We can say the things that locals sometimes can't say and that opens doors. Sometimes those things very much need to be said.
MC: Sounds like there's a political dimension to this.
PC: Always. You peel back a layer and what you find beneath it, the politics. And that's something that you can't make up in the studio. You've got to really see local politics to understand it. And they get a big dose of that through charrettes.
MC: Let's talk a bit about the difference between how charrettes happens in the classroom and how they might happen in the real world with a community.
PC: When you're in the classroom you're not on stage. You're on stage when you present your final solution or your final design project. When you're in a charrette, you're always on stage. Being on your toes all the time is something that students have to learn to be successful in the real world. They also have to learn to work as a team. Often in the classroom you are encouraged to do things singularly and express yourself in unique and special ways. In charrette, you're taught to listen, react, and work as a team so it's a very different experience and there's a very different level of criticism that comes from the ideas. Generally in a studio or a classroom critique setting you'll have professionals and faculty. In the community setting you often don't know who you'll have but you're guaranteed to always have a cast of characters. Often it's the mayor and council and people who are involved in economic development but John Q. Public always shows up. Lots of kids participate in it and that's something we're definitely missing here on campus. Our students are so rarely exposed to either the very elderly, the very poor, or the very young. You kind of hit the middle of the road here. So, taking them out in the field in a different place shows that slice of life just a little more vibrantly.
MC: Can you talk a little about the technology involved? You mentioned flip charts, I'm imagining models or sketches...
PC: Yeah, fast drawing is the key. Fast, loose hand drawing. As long as we do charrettes, as long as we've worked with higher levels of technology, it really is the eye-to-eye, smile-to-smile, hand-to-paper, the old tools tend to work best in charrettes. We've used more contemporary technical advances but they tend to take time and there's a reality among the public that we've discovered over the years that the hand drawn, a little bit messy, a little bit clumsy rendering sells an idea a lot better than the highly precise and calculated look of computer-aided design. For engineering and implementing a project that's the way to go, but for getting the initial vision communicated to the public, it's those hand drawings that make all the difference. Our students even realize that in projects they they work on outside of studio or that they work on as internships. They'll often do their design using computer technology but then they lay trace paper over it and hand trace it for their final presentation. That hand-drawn human component makes all the difference. I think that's especially true for small towns. If it looks too slick people begin to get suspicious of it.
MC: Right. I would imagine for a student, especially, it would be really seductive when you have all these digital tools...
PC: It's always the case. They quite love to show off the things that they've learned that is the newest program or the most cutting edge, but they'll find that sometimes there are places you still go in Georgia that we don't get cell phone reception and we don't have reliable internet hookups. We've applied the charrette model in this putting the classroom in the community approach in developing countries and we've used charrettes in Thailand, in Ghana, in Haiti, in India, and South Africa and that same process works just as well. Communication is a little different in different settings but face-to-face, hand graphics, have proven in each case to be the easiest and the most relied upon by local folks. They feel they're real if it looks a little clumsy. That goes against intuition a little bit - certainly took us a while to figure that out.
MC: What are some of the cultural differences you've noticed through moving the charrette model to different countries?
PC: The great thing about it is that the tool remains valid. There are different techniques that you have to use in gathering the information and then putting the information out at the end, based on cultural patterns. Whether or not it must be presented to village leaders first before it's even presented to local government, if there is a particular minority or opposing view in the community you have to be very cautious with those. Peculiarities of place and - that really is great for students, when they learn that there are certain things that go into a design that is primarily for people who are Muslim, compared to people who are Catholic. Space is affected by those peculiarities and that, I think, makes the charrette even more rich and valuable when you really do get into those specifics that change solely because of place. And it happens in Georgia, too. If it's a community in the mountains or one of the barrier islands you have a very different response to the individuals and how you present information and how you gather it. Students always notice it quickly. We've been lucky enough to involve a lot of international students so we've done the internationalization of the charrette in reverse. We've had a couple of classes that have gone through our landscape architecture program that had a high proportion of Chinese students. We've had those in the charrette class and it has been astounding to see the difference in approach and the richness that they bring to this because they have an unbiased eye. We find over and over again that there's an awareness that can't be created with online resources or with readings and things, like the reflection pieces will say "I didn't realize that buildings in certain conditions were seen as a negative part of a community" or "public housing in America looks like middle-class housing in China." This idea of space is especially different, that public space and private space - we take great luxuries with that in America. It is a very highly valued commodity in other countries, so there's always this learning curve about what you can do with what appears to be unlimited space.
MC: What happens after the charrette? Does the project continue?
PC: It really depends on the project. Sometimes the charrette is that visioning tool that communities need to begin a journey toward implementation. Often times communities use the charrette as a way to synthesize a lot of information and then come up with the best alternative, so they're much closer to the implementation phase. Depending on where that is, we might have a longer relationship with a particular place. Whether it's through other community education events, presenting the results of the charrette to the Chamber of Commerce, presenting the results of the charrette to a local school group, or we can really be pretty much at the end of the process and pass this visioning process directly on to professional firms. We worked with the City of Suwanee and Suwanee was growing, it's a metro Atlanta growth, and the need was a larger downtown. They had a very small downtown around the depot, very typical, almost mountainous Appalachian in its appearance. The idea going in was to expand the town where it was and there just wasn't room to do that. So we explored a lot of alternatives and we eventually said a new town center might be the best way to accommodate this growth. If you go to Suwanee today, town center and new City Hall and the new amphitheater is all right there. It really was one of those phenomenal processes that students could see their ideas being built because they were so close to implementation that they were ready to run with it when we had finished. So with every charrette we finish at a different place in their implementation process.
There are even a couple of charrettes we've had revisits to, that they wanted to further refine a particular idea. I'll give you an example: Sandersville, we had done community work for the front facades of the buildings, and Sandersville downtown was looking pretty good. They had identified a problem in their strategic planning process that the rear entrances to the buildings and the alleyways were underutilized and that they weren't so attractive. They wanted ideas about how to improve the alleyways, so we actually did two charrettes, working on the front of the buildings and one working on the rear entrances. Another example that I always forget about, but it comes with typical things that happen in life but things that are not always good. We had worked with Sumter County and we had done quite a bit in working with their Main Street program and some of the neighborhood associations. Downtown Americus was looking great and then, I don't know if you remember, they were hit by a horrible tornado and lost the hospital and lost several key elements of neighborhoods, trees, street trees, and front porches. We were able to work with both Fanning Institute [J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development] and Carl Vinson [Carl Vinson Institute of Government] to get them a little closer to doing repair after that tornado. Just because you come up with a solution doesn't mean things can't change drastically. So we're seeing the repair from natural disasters happening, unfortunately, a bit more than we would like to.
The perfect example of that is the work that's being done that all started with a water charrette that we did for Tybee Island, that was about 10 years ago. If you've been reading in the papers now, Tybee has been undergoing a great deal of studies, much of it coming from Carl Vinson Institue, on sea level rise and the fact that Tybee is so flat and so low it will probably be one of the first places in Georgia affected by any change in sea level. The management of water on that island has literally become a matter of life and death. When we approached it from the charrette point of view it was one of just managing stormwater, how can we best manage stormwater. Now it really is, how can we best protect our property from rising sea level.
MC: Does that mean that the make up of your team changes? Do you bring in people with different kinds of expertise?
PC: We've very lucky in the college that we have one undergraduate program that is Landscape Architecture, but we have 3 graduate programs. One in Planning [Environmental Planning & Design], one in Historic Preservation, and one in Landscape Architecture. Each of those graduate program students come in with another discipline usually. Not the same degree program as they're entering. So we've got more complex graduate students generally with two perspectives: their earlier academic career and then their graduate. And then the undergraduates bring this look, this freshness that we don't see in the more jaded graduate students. Even with just the resources of our college we get a pretty great cross-section of talent. If it is a particular problem that requires experts in disciplines that we know we won't be equipped to handle, we always invite those people. We've been successful in using alumni to help with the charrettes. We use regional resources, whether it's local planners, housing experts, other university faculty. We've even been pretty successful in partnering with different disciplines on campus. We've used real estate [Terry College of Business Real Estate Program], we used the housing program in Family and Consumer Sciences, we've used negotiation and facilitation folks at Fanning. We really try and match the problem with the best resources of the university, and it's tough. It's a time commitment. Not everyone can give up three days or more to go to a particular place and work on a project with students, so we'll have them use their expertise as drop-ins. They'll come and visit for maybe the feedback loops or a particular design phase.
MC: So there's a core team at work on design solutions, but then they're getting some time with experts along the way that check the progress
PC: Exactly, and give them that critical analysis that can only come from experience. The freshness in the eyes works both ways. It's sometimes very good for the project but it's also very naive in some cases so we like to get a reality check.
MC: And how are the charrettes captured? Are they recorded?
PC: Full range - we've been doing charrettes in our college for so many years now that we've really seen the shift in technology mean that we are presenting our work in different ways in the end. In the beginning we used the more typical responses, a report that summarized the process, boards, mounted boards on foam core that we would have laminated that would go up in the local library or City Hall. Then we started to see newer technologies come in and we were able to use those, whether it was PowerPoint, the recording of the final presentation and showing them on local cable access, or actually developing websites for our final product.
One of the most interesting old-school techniques that one town decided to do was take, actually put our final product in traditional newspaper layout and then they used that just as an insert to their regular paper. The local paper decided they would publish it for free and distribute it to everyone in the community and it got the word out in a way that we have never seen before. Still, in that community people read their local newspaper.
MC: What advice would you give someone who is about to go through the charrette process?
PC: That's one of our questions on our questionnaire we give students when they complete a charrette, what would you tell a student who is thinking about taking the course or participating in a charrette. Nine times out of ten they will say, "come in with an open mind." We tend, and design schools tend to teach students to be independent and to really defend their designs and be able to speak intelligently about what they created, but in the charrette process it requires them, sometimes, to be willing to cast their design aside and work on someone else's idea. Coming in with an open mind for sure outweighs all the other responses. Openness gets the best solution.
MC: Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Fernando Deddos and featured music by The Noisettes.
Recorded on July 29, 2014.
Transcription by Lisbeth Wells-Pratt