‘Slow charrette’ for slow times

New Urban News

Jul-Aug 2010

Issue Date:

Thu, 2010-07-15

Page Number:





Washington, DC-based planning consultant Jeff Speck moved himself, his wife, and their 21-month-old son to Lowell, Massachusetts this April for what he calls a “slow charrette” — a full month of working on a plan for Lowell’s future development while living in a converted mill downtown.

It’s the kind of arrangement that could hold advantages for some planners and communities as the nation slowly comes back from a deep recession. The Lowell Plan, a nonprofit corporation responsible for setting the city’s course, had Speck and family live in the former Boott Mill in an apartment donated by the WinnCompanies, a major rental landlord in Lowell that supports the planning effort.

“As much a fan as I am of the traditional week-long charrette method, it’s a far cry from a month of total immersion,” Speck says. The schedule called for four weeks of Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays filled with meetings booked by the client, including a midweek meeting of the steering committee and a weekly two-hour meeting with the entire city planning staff.

“Living there afforded the luxury to take one’s time, literally s-l-o-w things down,” Speck told New Urban News. “I had a three-hour lunch with the newspaper editor — tell me that would happen in a standard charrette! We also walked our kid to daycare, had meals at people’s houses, had neighbors over for drinks, and really got to play at being citizens.”

Speck, former director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts,  conducted a public meeting early in the visit, encouraged people to send suggestions to him via the city manager’s blog site, and brought in two subconsultants: James Wassell for renderings and AECOM for transportation planning. In September he is to complete work on the Downtown Evolution Plan, which aims to guide the next stage of development of the 105,000-population, former textile-manufacturing center, 30 miles northwest of Boston.

Among the ideas being considered:
• Sprucing up areas between the city’s canals and the old mill buildings.
• Buying or leasing the canals and using them to generate energy.
• Converting Market Street, a major downtown street, to two-way traffic.
• Improving conditions for pedestrians through such initiatives as tree-planting and the addition of sidewalk cafes.
• Turning vacant space into a boutique hotel.

In a commentary in The Lowell Sun, Kendall Wallace, chairman of Lowell Publishing Co., said, “There are thousands of new people living in the city, many in the downtown area, occupying lofts and condo units in rehabbed buildings. … They want progressive development and will likely be the biggest backers of the types of proposals Speck will likely champion.” Wallace observed that “city government has been sharply split over the last several years,” but recently the Council has given the city manager, Bernie Lynch, a clear majority of support.

“This sort of process is not for everyone,” Speck says of staying and working in a community for a month. “What makes it work is a client who is willing to trust [its] city to an individual planner, albeit one with a lot of experience who listens well.” Because he was hired by a private nonprofit organization, the contracting was simpler than it would have been under government auspices. The cost, undisclosed, “was about half of a typical big-firm downtown master plan fee,” Speck says.

Tom Low of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company says this mode of working is suggestive of “Slow Urbanism” — an unhurried approach that can bestow close attention on specific spaces and their uses and can involve local groups in pleasurable civic gatherings, including field trips to great towns and neighborhoods. Low notes that South Florida architect and planner Victor Dover moved his family to Port Royal, South Carolina, for a summer several years ago to produce a successful downtown plan for that community.

“My hope,” Speck says, “is to conduct one a year for the rest of my career, with the caveat that it has to be a community that needs help but also a place where it’s fun to live. Tysons Corner need not apply.”