Group dynamic is hard at work


Karen Grey pointed to a thick black line on the map of downtown Columbia covering the table in front of her. The line represented U.S. 29, the busy road that runs between her neighborhood and downtown. It was no match for her green marker.

"We need a way to make Town Center accessible to other areas," said Grey, among the hundreds who turned out for the first day of this week's "charrette," intended to hammer out a new blueprint for downtown Columbia.

After discussing the problem, the people gathered at her table Sunday agreed that the city needed a monorail. Grey drew the monorail track on the map, a thick green line from downtown Columbia, across U.S. 29, and into her neighborhood.

Columbia, of course, doesn't have a monorail, but that didn't matter. Grey's group was all-powerful, in total control of the city's future ... at least for the afternoon.

Grey and the others in her group had been given carte blanche to design concepts for a new downtown as part of the eight-day, a county-funded process to produce a long-term development plan for Columbia's core that incorporates residents' vision for the future.

According the National Charrette Institute, the use of the word charrette ("cart" in French) to describe the kind of collaborative design process being used in Columbia is believed to have originated from the carts proctors at a 19th-century Paris art institute used to collect final drawings from students as they frantically tried to finish them.

"It's a very intense and collaborative design process," said Matt D'Amico, a design consultant who led Saturday's charrette.

With guidance from urban planners, economists and transportation specialists hired to draft the final development plan, Grey and her group plumbed their collective experience of the city and their hopes for its future to come up with a plan.

"I have an image of Columbia as a living cell, with Town Center as the nucleus," said Nancy Corporon. She gestured to the map of downtown and the roads that cut through it. "This is like a cell divided."

In addition to diagramming ideas on the map, members of the group were asked to develop a list of concepts and concerns that arose from their discussion. Aside from the monorail, they agreed that more bike paths were needed. They wanted more cultural attractions and usable parks. Specific suggestions included a movie theatre that shows art movies and a petting zoo.

Environmental impacts, lack of affordable housing and traffic congestion also emerged as common concerns.

After about an hour and a half, D'Amico asked that all the groups gathered in the Wilde Lake High School cafeteria begin to wrap things up. It was time to share their vision with the rest of the participants.

Grey's group had been given a stack of pictures of different styles of buildings and streetscapes and was asked to decide which ones it liked and then tape them to places on the map where the group would like to see the structures exist.

As members of the group rushed to finish, Grey said they needed to figure out the best way for people to walk between the buildings.

Randy Clay, the group's facilitator, tried to focus the other residents around the table on the idea, even as other groups were hanging their presentations on the wall.

No one came by with a cart, but the charrette was definitely intense.

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