On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the town of Chapel Hill conducted charrette-style Future Focus sessions designed to understand how town residents would like to see Chapel Hill grow from the urban design perspective. The overall event was split into three sessions, one on Wednesday evening and two identical sessions on Thursday. The first session included several presentations on town growth and an urban design exercise where participants were asked to rate 50 different images on their favorableness for fitting in downtown. The second and third sessions were map mark-ups for five study areas along key transportation corridors (i.e. MLK, 15-501 and 54).
What Worked. The overall style of the event was successful. Participants were given some information and then asked to act and make decisions on that information. This model led to some productive discussions. The participation was also great. A good number of people came out to each sessions and the participation was more diverse than probably at any other Chapel Hill 2020 event that I’d been to.
What Didn’t. Though the format and level of participation were both good, the content of both the presentations and the exercises was slightly troubling. On the presentation front, there seems to be a tendency on the part of the town to constantly invite certain groups to participate to the exclusion of others. For example, the Downtown Partnership presented on the future of downtown. Why is it that their vision constantly gets so much attention? Everyone—not just the business community—has an interest in what happens downtown, and the presentations just haven’t reflected that.
Both the downtown-focused exercise and the study area-focused exercise also had some fundamental flaws. The entire downtown exercise seemed somewhat pointless to me. I found it nearly impossible to rate images of individual buildings, parks or streets by themselves. Planning is all about context, so how can we make design choices without considering the context? The study area map mark-up was a great idea, but there simply wasn’t enough time to do any substantial work. In the end, the groups had a less than an hour to talk and make decisions.