Charrette Theory for People in a Hurry
Sustainability: An Imprecise but Useful Concept
The word sustainability brings essential social, ecological, and economic objectives together into one imperative. In the real world, the social, ecological, and economic realms interact with one another in complex and unpredictable ways. The charrette method can accept this multitude of often conflicting objectives without becoming paralyzed by complexity.
Sustainability, as a term, defies precise definition: it is open-ended. Similarly important and powerful terms, such as justice, patriotism, freedom, truth, beauty, God, and faith, also resist clear definition in direct proportion to their power to inspire. The names of concepts that defy simple definition are often the words that most powerfully motivate individuals and cultures.
This is not to say, however, that attempts to define such concepts have not been frequent and wide-ranging. Sustainability is no exception. The most widely accepted definition of sustainability comes from the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Report), which defined "sustainable development" as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
This elegant formulation conceals a number of complexities. The most fundamental of these reside in an implied limit on planetary resources and in the possibility that the flow of nature's services could become unbalanced. In short, an ecological view of the physical planet underlies the sustainability paradigm. This view contradicts the still prevailing schools of economic development theory that see the earth and its resources as without absolute limits.
From Watchlike Precision to Messy Complexity
Most credit the work of mid-twentieth-century naturalists and scientists such as Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), Sir Arthur Tansley (1871–1955), and Eugene Odum (1913–2002) for helping to initiate the shift to an ecological worldview. Those who hold to that view focus on the interrelatedness of animate and inanimate systems and on the subtlety of the nutrient exchanges that sustain them. Ecological thinking represented a departure from the still influential mechanistic model of cosmic order. Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and his followers imagined the universe as akin to a great watch, a mechanism of immense precision that responds predictably to causative forces. This assumption still dominates the majority of academic research efforts and underlies the assumptions of most of our planning and design disciplines.
From an ecological perspective, the world is not that simple. The gears in Newton's cosmic watch never changed shape and size in response to energy and nutrient flows. The watch itself never morphed into a larger, faster, more diverse, more complex machine over time in response to those flows, nor did entire functions disappear to be replaced by apparently unrelated functions. But such transformations are observable everywhere in nature at a level of subtlety and complexity that transcends simple mechanics.
Humans Make It Even More Complex
Brundtland's definition of sustainability contains a second complication: humans. The ecological worldview, as groundbreaking as it was, seldom seems comfortable including humans inside its framework. Equipped with either a strictly biological or a romantic view of nature, many ecologists have perceived human settlement as an impediment to ecological integrity. Forward-looking thinkers have acknowledged that this view is unnecessary and unproductive. John Lyle, for example, challenges the belief that human activities always require "mitigation" when they affect the natural landscape: "Rather than mitigating impacts, we might create ecologically harmonious development that by its very nature requires no mitigation, recognizing that humans are integrally part of the environment." Green architect and sustainable development proponent William McDonough believes that "sustainable development is the conception and realization of environmentally sensitive and responsive expression as part of the evolving ecological matrix."
In this way, then, human activities can lead to an increase in sustainability. This is a new and powerful idea, but it complicates matters. Although many components of the global machine can change their form or function as a response to changing energy and nutrient flows, humans seem unique in their ability to understand these flows and change them for the better—that is, with the intent of benefiting both the human community and the long-term health of the ecosystems that sustain it.
As if the addition of a conscious party, humans, were not complication enough, the definition of sustainability adds one even more daunting complexity: time. Brundtland's definition of sustainability includes an intergenerational responsibility. The long-term multigenerational effects of any decision must be considered before immediate needs are met. Coming up with solutions for immediate urban design problems that consider both humans and the long-term health of their environment can be a daunting enough task, but adding an intergenerational responsibility threatens to make such problem solving almost impossible. How can we deal, in our complex and multilayered democracies, with such challenges? Democratic public process models are needed wherein citizens can both understand these complex relationships and create ways to capitalize on them in their communities.
We Are Handcuffed by Our Methods
Our largely linear and mechanistic methods for solving local and even global problems seem ill suited to the task. For example, opposing camps of scientists are now debating the extent to which human activity is contributing to climate change. Both sides come armed with complex, sophisticated climate models. These models attempt to capture the "mechanics" of climate, assuming that climate is describable in mechanical terms. Newton lives on in these computer models, whatever their complexity. But the results remain inconclusive. Meanwhile, political leaders and those they represent still demand scientifically verifiable "proof" before they are willing to contemplate any new restrictions on the economy—proof that climate models can never supply, at least not before Greenland melts and the oceans expire.
John Lyle makes this point more simply: "The question is often asked: How much of this pollutant or that activity can the environment absorb before it becomes unacceptably damaging or life-threatening? This is like asking how many times one can beat a person over the head before he will die.... This is difficult to answer with any accuracy and usually not the most useful question anyway."
Methods That Fail Globally Fail More Spectacularly Locally
This same mechanistic thinking is observable at the municipal scale. The Pruitt Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri, built in the 1950s and abandoned in the early 1970s, is but one tragic example of this methodological failure. The Pruitt Igoe housing complex was designed to conform to French architectural theorist Le Corbusier's elegant but narrow formulation for a modern urban utopia. Provide enough air and light for all citizens, he said, and all will be well. His formulation excluded other cultural, social, and behavioral influences. He missed, or chose to ignore, the intimacy of connection between people, buildings, and streets that Jane Jacobs so famously described in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As a consequence, the project soon became uninhabitable and derelict.
Even more tragically, at the same time Pruitt Igoe was going up, many of St. Louis's most efficient and walkable neighborhoods were being torn down—all to make way for highways to farmlands that were soon to be suburbs. Each of these projects was a "rational" solution to a narrowly defined problem—one a solution to deal with a "housing" problem, and the other to deal with a "transportation" problem. The planners for each of these projects, probably quite brilliant within their own defined disciplines, did not (or could not) consider the connection between their two projects. Their linear methods and narrow problem definitions made it impossible to see that connection.
These failures in St. Louis were failures of method. The narrow and mechanistic methods chosen, so effective for getting men on the moon and exploding atomic bombs, proved surprisingly ineffective for solving the smaller but more nuanced problems facing urban North America. To solve such layered and complex sustainability problems, a more inclusive method is required. A design charrette is nothing if not inclusive. A design charrette can handle both the physically quantifiable elements of the problem and those that cannot be quantified.
Working with this much complexity comes at a cost: in the face of so many variables, we can never be certain that we have found the perfect solution. Perfect solutions, in the sense that scientific methods require, are possible only for very narrowly defined problems containing a limited number of variables. Any method for creating and implementing sustainable urban designs must accept all relevant variables from all three realms—social, ecological, and economic. We believe that the sustainable urban design charrette method meets this criterion. We further believe that sustainability problems, by their very nature, demand an inclusive and synthetic problem-solving process—precisely because they are divergent problems of the kind discussed below.
Sustainability Is a Divergent Problem, Not a Convergent Problem
Although they have phrased it differently, various philosophers, from Aristotle to Merleau-Ponty, have discussed the existence of two different kinds of problems: the convergent and the divergent. E. F. Schumacher, the British economist famous for his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful, describes these concepts in an accessible and succinct way in his 1977 book A Guide for the Perplexed. As he put it, convergent problems tend toward a single and perfect solution: the problem is described, evidence is collected, and the problem is solved. He uses the invention of the bicycle as his example, suggesting that it provides an elegant solution for the problem of "how to make a two-wheeled man-powered means of transportation."
Schumacher suggests, however, that many other problems are more complicated. For example, "the human problem of how to educate our children" has two apparently supportable but opposing solutions. One solution would have us provide an atmosphere of discipline sufficient for experts to transfer information to children. If we are actively seeking the perfect solution implicit in any convergent problem, we might conclude that the perfect school would be one characterized by perfect discipline—that is, a prison. On the other hand, equally persuasive are those who find, on the basis of good evidence, that children respond best to freedom and find their own way to knowledge. In this case, the perfect school would be one that is characterized by perfect freedom—that is, "a kind of lunatic asylum." How, asks Schumacher, are we to resolve this contradiction?
There is no solution. And yet some educators are better than others. How does this come about? One way to find out is to ask them. If we explained to them our philosophical difficulties, they might show signs of irritation with this intellectual approach. "Look here," they might say, "all this is far too clever for me. The point is: You must love the little horrors." Love, empathy, participation mystique, understating, compassion—these are faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of any policy of discipline or of freedom. To mobilize these higher faculties or forces, to have them available not simply as occasional impulses but permanently, requires a high level of self-awareness, and that is what makes a great educator.
Charrettes Provide a Method for Solving Divergent Sustainability Problems
Charrettes can help solve divergent sustainability problems. To be worthy of the name, a design charrette must elevate the contradictions inherent in the divergent questions confronted in our drive toward a more sustainable city to a level higher than "logic" or "proof"—it must create an atmosphere in which contradictions can be resolved not by proofs, but by empathy, intuition, understanding, and compassion. Elevating and resolving these contradictions through the agency of empathy, understanding, and compassion is not something you do alone. You do this with others.
The goal of any sustainable urban design charrette is thus to produce a design that embodies the higher-level empathy, understanding, intuition, and compassion of the design team in the form of a sustainable and implementable urban design plan. This is not to say that the resulting plans will perform poorly against measurable performance benchmarks, against traditional "proofs." On the contrary, we suggest that holistic, sustainable design solutions are best produced in an open-ended atmosphere in which empathy, understanding, intuition, and compassion can emerge. Such a broadly influenced design is unlikely to be perfect, but will probably perform better against a broad range of metrics than would a design produced by a small group of technical experts working within a narrow project scope.
The Design Part of the Charrette
Design charrettes are not planning exercises. Design is a key word worthy of additional attention. Since sustainability problems are, by definition, the manifestation of how social, ecological, and economic variables interact, the method used to solve sustainability problems must acknowledge and manipulate these interactions with the intention of producing a more sustainable city. Design as method meets these criteria.
Where linear methods become paralyzed in the face of multiple variables, design is comfortable. Even simple design problems have many variables and an infinite number of potential outcomes (modernist form-follows-function mythology notwithstanding—see the seminal work of Colquhoun to understand how this mythology operates. Designers must accept the seemingly impossible challenge of determining every aspect of a physical space. Design cannot be "perfect" in all respects. An exceptional design is that design which comes closest to a perfect answer in a form that transcends the problem, raising it to a higher level through empathy, understanding, and compassion.
We often imagine the author of such a transcendent solution as a solitary genius. The truth is more complex. Increasingly, design is a collaborative activity, performed in teams. Everyone on the design team is a designer, including those without design training or experience. Design charrettes make citizens with a stake in their community (stakeholders is the inelegant but descriptive term) members of the design team. Their own empathy, understanding, and compassion fuel the creative collaborative process and allow the group to transcend the status quo.
The Charrette Part of the Design
Citizen stakeholders and public officials must dominate sustainable community design charrettes. Every identifiable group that has a stake in making the city more livable for current and future generations must participate in providing sustainable solutions for that city. All of us are familiar, however, with public consultation processes that similarly involve stakeholder groups, but break down under the weight of endless controversy. In this more usual circumstance, the elected officials in the community make their decision amid conflict, choosing the narrow interests of one side over the narrow interests of the others. Such a system does not resolve conflict, but rather institutionalizes it. Such a system cannot provide transcendent solutions grounded in empathy, understanding, or compassion, but only status quo responses—responses that, at best, produce dis-integrative "split-the-difference" solutions or, at worst, beggar one side of the conflict to the benefit of the others.