Imaginations at work

The word “charrette” can’t be found in many English dictionaries, but it’s clearly entered the language. Urban planners and designers across the nation are familiar with charrettes and are embracing them as a way to involve the public more directly and actively in the planning process.

Although some armchair critics like to pooh-pooh charrettes by saying the word is just a fancy French way of saying “workshop,” that’s not quite the case. Yes, a charrette is a workshop, but it’s a workshop of a particular kind. It involves a well-defined circular process of developing ideas, organizing them and then refining them in a group process that can be quite effective at generating creative, imaginative approaches that are also practical. Plus charrettes have the benefit of generating community support early in the planning process.

If you doubt that charrettes can be effective, we recommend you take a look at the report that’s just come out on the five-day Chico Downtown Access Planning Charrette held here in late March. A link to it can be found on the city of Chico’s Web site (, and a copy is available at City Hall.

As we report in our lead Newslines article in this issue ("Taking a creative path,” page 12), the 89-page report is chockablock with interesting ideas for improving not only the downtown parking situation, but also downtown life in general.

You may not agree with all of the report’s recommendations, and city staffers may determine that some are not feasible. But at the very least it presents a thorough analysis of the current parking and circulation conditions downtown, one that should form the basis of any thoughtful discussion of the issues. It also presents, we believe, sufficient creative ideas—from switching downtown streets to diagonal parking to putting in parking-meter pay stations that accept credit cards and cash—to jump-start a lively community discussion of where to go from here.

That’s the important thing. To this point, Chicoans have been focused on a single controversial proposal, to construct a new parking structure downtown. Downtown merchants say it’s the answer to a lack of parking, while opponents say it’s not needed and would be an esthetic and financial disaster. What the report makes clear is that this narrow focus on the proposed parking structure has kept us from seeing a wide range of other possibilities.

The several hundred Chicoans who participated in the charrette did so in a spirit of open-mindedness and imaginative problem-solving. They have given us a tremendous foundation for continuing their work. Let’s do so in the same spirit.