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Blitzkrieg-Style Community Assistance Teams Help Build Consensus and Generate Energy

March 25, 2014 by Sue Enger
Category: Tools for Planners

Blitzkrieg-Style Community Assistance Teams Help Build Consensus and Generate Energy

What’s a community to do when faced with a difficult, multi-faceted issue that has stymied the community, perhaps for years? It may be a question about how to best renew a downtown core area, redevelop a key corridor with aging retail strips, or stem the loss of viable agricultural land. Everyone agrees that it’s time to do something, and they may even agree on many goals. But your community just hasn’t been able to get traction and build consensus on what needs to be done. To compound the problem, local governments have limited discretionary funds to address the problem.

Sometimes it can help to have a new set of eyes to take a fresh look, help bridge the divides, and bring added resources to the problem. Several organizations offer multi-disciplinary community assistance teams of respected experts, tailored to a particular community. Team members generally volunteer their time as a community service. They serve to re-boot the process, help build consensus, and generate new excitement and energy. Typically a team arrives, and, in blitzkrieg fashion, conducts an intensive schedule of situation assessment, a kick-off meeting, back-to-back individual interest group meetings, and public presentation and feedback meetings - all condensed over the course of several days. Talented students or other volunteers are often recruited to illustrate and help citizens to visualize alternative concepts and proposals. It’s basically a facilitated community conversation, and creative ideas arise. These processes are not cost-free, but the programs emphasize a collaborative approach with community members pitching in with in-kind services, materials, donations, and local expertise. And it’s not so difficult to win the opportunity for this team assistance as you may think. Here are some examples:

  • AIA

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has a 46-year history of (mostly) successes with what has now evolved into a set of “design assessment teams.” The original AIA Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) Program was developed to help communities with solutions to specific design problems. This guide provides additional program detail and useful appendices such as a self-assessment checklist, logistics, pitfalls to avoid, and a sample budget. Its newer sibling, the Sustainable Design Assessment Team, conducts a broader assessment to help local communities develop a vision and shape the community’s strategy to increase economic, environmental, and social sustainability. See the SDAT guide for more detail. Washington jurisdictions have benefited from both programs - See lists and descriptions of past SDAT and R/UDAT communities. You may also be interested in AIA’s do-your own kit for a two- or three-day charrette.


For the SDAT program, AIA contributes up to $15,000 to cover team expenses; the local community must contribute $5,000. You should probably be prepared to raise $15,000 or more, given typical costs. There is no cash match required for the R/UDAT program, and, again, AIA covers organization, team recruitment, administration, and staff time. The community must cover the costs of the program, but AIA program Director Erin Simmons notes that, in most successful programs, nearly all costs (housing, meals, meeting spaces, materials, and others) are covered via donations by local partners in the effort. When considering all in-kind donations, the true costs may be $50,000 - $60,000.


The deadline for the next round of SDATs will likely be in November (application packets will be released late summer). Applications for R/UDATS are accepted throughout the year. AIA generally does about 7-9 DATs per year, and according to Simmons, “We try very hard to accept the vast majority of received applications.”


For more information about the SDAT and R/UDAT programs email,, or contact Erin A. Simmons, Director, Center for Communities by Design at or 202.626.7492.


  • ULI

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) conducts a similar program (ULI Technical Assistance Panels (TAPS)), assembling teams with expertise in real estate, planning, and development to collaborate on complex land use and redevelopment projects. ULI’s Northwest office assembles teams that are customized for Washington communities. The ULI Technical Assistance Panels Northwest website describes the local ULI program and reports on eight TAPs conducted in Washington. The ULI panel process is similar to the AIA process, although somewhat longer, typically about five days.


ULI Northwest charges a flat fee of $18,000 for its team service, and accepts applications throughout the year. Panelists volunteer their time, but the sponsoring community is responsible for preparing briefing materials, arranging interviews with local stakeholders, and planning a study area tour for the panelists.


ULI also offers an interesting scaled-down variation. Its Project Analyst Sessions program provides you with a two-hour consultation/brainstorming session with an expert team on a specific land use challenge of concern to the community.


For more information, contact Matt Merrill, Northwest ULI Director ( or 206-224-4500) or Kelly Mann, Northwest ULI Executive Director ( or 206-224-4500).


  • APA

The American Planning Association (APA) established its first Community Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) in 1995 to help communities with visioning, plan development, and challenges ranging from social equity and affordability, economic development, sustainability, consensus building, and urban design. Ten years later, APA played a significant role in assisting Gulf communities consider how they would rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The national website contains abundant information, including process description and timelines, a flyer, an application form with a sample budget, and descriptions of community projects with final reports and profiles of team members. The Washington CPAT website includes information about the local program and profiles of community projects that received assistance on challenges such as downtown revitalization and pedestrian safety.


APA covers the costs of APA staff time, and the expert team provides its time pro bono. Communities cover other expenses. Again, projects will be more successful if in-kind services, partnerships, and sponsorships are sought to help cover costs. The Washington website notes that some levels of assistance with costs are available. The next application deadline for the national program is June 5, 2014. Contact Paula Reeves with questions about the Washington program at 360-705-7258 and regarding the national program.

Other organizations, universities, and federal agencies also offer technical assistance targeted to various program areas – beyond what I can cover in this blog. If your community is stuck or short of the right resources to handle an important challenge, consider enlisting an assistance team to take a fresh look and to bring new energy and resources to the problem.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Sue Enger

Sue served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants for many years and wrote about a variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.



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