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Beyond Borders: Reimagining Community Planning

How do you build consensus between groups of differing ages, abilities and languages? In 2012, as an aspiring urban planner, I responded to a LA Times’ announcement heralding an innovative approach to meaningful, cross-cutting community engagement to catalyze the redevelopment of Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. 

James Rojas’ Place it! community planning techniques break down barriers of age, race, income, language and ability through storytelling and play. Courtesy of Smithsonian Folklife Magazine, 2015

Intrigued to learn more, I got off the bus at a lonely section of Glendale Boulevard devoid of trees or people on a hot day. I had reached the end of the road, where Glendale Boulevard meets the 2 Freeway. Autobody shops, street art and towering billboards provided a bit of color as cars zoomed by my bus stop across a widening expanse of grey asphalt towards the freeway entrance. 

As I walked through the doors of our community meeting, however, I encountered a very different environment. Children, seniors, immigrants and 20-somethings alike crowded around colorful tables strewn with a curious assortment of found objects: hair curlers, rubber ducks, wine corks, Lotería playing cards and chess board pieces. After a light breakfast, the bustling room quieted down and urban planner James Rojas, formerly of the LA Metro, gave us a mysterious introduction. There were no Powerpoints slides, no maps, no sharpies, microphones or podiums in sight. Instead, James humbly appeared from the side of the room and instructed us to complete two playful tasks: 

  1. Build your favorite childhood memory: We were told to close our eyes and remember a place from our childhood that gave us the most freedom and joy. Then, we were asked to use the colorful assortment of toys and recycled objects displayed in front of us to reconstruct that memory on a construction paper mat. After 10 minutes of construction, we shared our mini built environments with our neighbors around a small table, pointing to the features that made the memory endearing. We were asked to state common themes that were consistent across everyone’s memories. In this opening icebreaker, James Rojas explains, “participants learn that their first attachment to place informs their adult urban life.” 

  2. Build your dream street: We were then told to clear out our boards, push together our construction paper mats and start to collaborate to create a no-constraints version of Glendale Boulevard using the same found objects we used to create our childhood memories. Next, each participant had to describe an activity that would occur on a specific day and time of their choosing on this reimagined Glendale Boulevard. After 15 minutes of intense construction and collaboration, the results were 4 charming and creative visions for the busy arterial outside our window.

The crowd favorite was from a young boy who proposed adaptively reusing Glendale Boulevard’s autobody shops to create a special car-wash lane exclusively for the neighborhood’s goat herds, which were currently hidden away on the hillside barrios behind the commercial corridor. These “animal car-washing stations”, the nearby grown-ups quipped, could spur the environmental cleanup of land damaged from years of industrial use, provide a whimsical touch-point of connection between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking neighbors, and highlight the importance of goats and California-native plants in the fight against 13 years of intensifying droughts.

📷Community workshop participants envisioned a streetcar line along the Glendale corridor, harkening back to the 1920s, when Los Angeles had one of the largest rail networks in the world. Courtesy of: Jake Berman, 2018

Other solutions were more conventional, including protected pedestrian and bicycle lanes, affordable housing, a welcoming gateway arch and a bus rapid transit line. Seniors and transit enthusiasts in the room mused over renovating the Red Car streetcars for mass transit service, a tribute to the 1,000+ miles of rail spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the snowy peaks of the San Jacinto mountains, built by real estate developers at the turn of the century. As a wrap-up, we identified common themes, solutions and values shared across our round-robin style presentations.  

At the end of the meeting, came a surprise speech from a man who would later go on to become the Mayor of Los Angeles and a potential presidential candidate, Eric Garcetti. Garcetti concluded, “No one really walks on Glendale Boulevard in their right mind unless you want to take your life into your own hands, or you have to. But we can, because this is one of the great boulevards of Los Angeles. Thank you for being dreamers, thank you for being celebrants, thank you for being the aspiring angelenos in the City of Los Angeles.” Over the next 7 years, as Councilman and then as Mayor, Eric Garcetti would launch re:code LA, the city’s first zoning update since 1946, reverse the Los Angeles’ 10-year-ban on mural painting, decriminalize street vending, establish Los Angeles’ first pedestrian plazas called People Streets, and transparently track municipal projects on interactive maps, visual dashboards and one of the nation’s first open data websites, making thousands of public records easily searchable online. 

Participating in that innovative planning process and witnessing the results in the years to come has motivated me to keep James Rojas’ five tenets of meaningful community engagement in mind when practicing urban planning: 

  1. Storytelling allows participants to express their urban narrative in their own “language”. Storytelling promotes empathy because it places people in someone else’s shoes.

  2. Objects allow participants to think beyond words and explore infinite possibilities through their visual, spatial and emotional landscape to discover the sense of belonging. Objects broaden their communication options.

  3. Art-Making allows participants to envision, construct, and reflect on their community’s aspirations. By using their hands and creative talents, participants become satisfied because they are able to transform ideas and thoughts into tangible physical realities.

  4. Collaboration allows participants to work face-to-face, and hand-to-hand for the common good of their community. Participants realize that there are no right or wrong answers, rather how their ideas impact each other through collaboration. By building together with objects participants can quickly test their ideas physically as well as build off each other's ideas to prototype solutions together.

  5. Play allows participants to relax in a public meeting. Participants conduct inquiries and experiments in urban form without fear of failure. Plus participants can have fun with family, friends, and even strangers.

  6. Learn more about Place it! workshops through Flickr, Vimeo and this Interactive Planning Manual.

Aysha Cohen is an Urban Planner from Los Angeles, California. She is a contributing author of several Urban Land Institute (ULI) publications on active transportation, stormwater management, corridor redevelopment and affordable housing. Prior to Nspiregreen, Aysha conducted research with the Fulbright Eco-Leadership program in Canada, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Istanbul and the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies (ITS) in Los Angeles. Her research for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), “Equity in Motion: Bikeshare in Low-Income Communities”, used geospatial statistics to prioritize station-level improvements for Capital Bikeshare in high poverty areas of Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of “The Olive Tree Initiative: Armenia-Turkey”, an interdisciplinary conflict resolution group. Aysha speaks English, Turkish and Spanish.

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