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Charrette Train Wrecks

Editor's note: "Ask the Urbanist" is a new column that will pose an "in-the-trenches" question to one or more new urban practitioners, seeking their informed responses.

QUESTION: Vocal and disruptive NIMBYs (residents whose reaction to any type of development is "Not In My Backyard!") can distract residents during the planning process; or worse, delay or derail a project. What is your preferred method for dealing with volatile NIMBYs during a charrette?

I prefer to talk about what to do to avoid the train wreck at the charrette. If you're at a charrette with 100 NIMBYs shouting, you're in a position you should have known about. The right homework hasn't been done. The charrette shouldn't be used as a solution for that. That should have been taken care of ahead of time.

Preventative medicine is what we teach. A problem like this can be minimized by good project preparation, since more than half of "fatal" charrette flaws can be found in improper preparation.

It's important to do a stakeholder analysis early on: Who are the people who will make the decisions on the project, the people directly affected by the outcome, those who are possible supporters, and possible blockers? All these people need to be involved early and often. Identify these people early, then conduct an outreach program that uses various techniques to reach these people.

Invest in good public involvement and outreach early; it will pay dividends later, from smoother processes to saved political careers. Get out there early and talk to people, even before you have much to tell them. Then, at the point where you're confident about enough of your project -- the mission, the process -- it's always helpful to go out and engage with the public, such as a project kick-off meeting, to tell people about the project and have them contribute their thoughts. If you wait too long, you could find yourself battling the people's opinions and views. Catch them before they start investing political capital.

Underpinning all of this is a set of operating values that need to be in place: collaboration; shared learning; transparency; direct, honest, and timely communication. Work from these underlying values to connect with people.

Granted, there are people who don't want anything to happen and make a career out of stopping things. But our experience is that the root of NIMBYism, for a lot of people, is that they've tried other approaches, such as the public process, and are resorting to obstructionist tactics. Or they're just fed up with awful development. These roots of discontent fester, leaving NIMBYs on their guard; they can smell a disingenuous process a mile away. They're anticipating one. So engage the people in a truthful, real way. Often, NIMBYs are simply concerned citizens, saying, "show me."

You may still get some crazy people at the charrette, but it will be easier to marginalize them. If people do come in like that, give them special attention by recognizing the situation and deferring it: "How about if we set up a special meeting for you tomorrow afternoon?"

Gianni Longo once said, "NIMBYs saved Grand Central Station." They're not all bad people.

Bill Lennertz, principal
National Charrette Institute
Portland, Oregon

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