Popsicle freeways, plastic parks: participation in urban planning. In conversation with James Rojas

James Rojas and Anna Davidson (twitter: @acdavids)

James Rojas and I met at the Congress for New Urbanism in Dallas, Texas. James gave a presentation on Latino/a Urbanism – the myriad of ways in which Latino/a cultural influences transform U.S. urban fabric. James is an urban planner, community activist and artist. He previously worked for Metro (the public transportation agency in Los Angeles), and now runs public-engagement community visioning workshops entitled Place-It. This summer I took part in his session Create Your Ideal Freeway through Art and Play. As my research takes a feminist materialist lens to consider power and mobility on Los Angeles streets, we spoke about how his method of engagement might allow for more accessible envisioning of future cities.

Picture1 Participants build favourite childhood memory, at Place-It workshop, Los Angeles, June 2015, (Photo: James Rojas)

Anna: At the Place-It workshop I was struck by the open-endedness of your first question: “think back to your favourite memory from childhood”, and the instruction to use plastic props available to ‘build’ this memory. All the memories recounted by workshop participants involved family, friends, and some form of space of play – the seaside, grass, water in a pool – the memories seemed so far removed from the freeways we were to envision in our next exercise. I’m curious how this initial open question might allow for wider accessibility. As you phrased it; everyone has been a kid, so this is something anyone could talk about. You mentioned this being particularly empowering for women you’ve had in your workshop, why do you think this is the case?

James: If we want to bring better, more comprehensive data to our search for urban planning solutions, we need to consider different outreach strategies and visioning tools to engage women in meaningful ways. Acknowledging that need is the first step. Most urban planning public outreach meetings become competitions among different interests, in which the loudest person or the biggest group wins. Not everyone likes to play that game, nor should they be forced to. Collaborative experiences and activities — not competitions — are what we need if we want to detect everyone’s needs and goals. This activity also validates everyone’s personal experiences, which may not be planning related.

Anna: I’m interested in your notion of ‘better comprehensive data and solutions for urban planning’. If the aim is to build cities that are collaborative experiences and activities, perhaps then citizens need to have a say in what the definition of ‘better data’ and urban solutions are? From a feminist perspective it could be argued that strategies to better include women (or others with less access to political power) in current practices may be helpful, but it is the practices and aims that may ultimately need to change. Your workshop leads to that point too: Some of the visions presented by participants represented spaces that are playful, safe, “full of love” …These aren’t visions you commonly hear as top priorities for cities.

James: What I observed from these workshops is that urban space is thought about, and experienced in different ways.  What makes people happy, secure, and function in cities is both physical and their own perception of that space. It’s fairly straight forward to understand the physical form of urban space but we all seem to carry a mental state of urban space that is shaped by our experiences, memories, needs, and desires that may impact how we use that space. This is what I find interesting. In places like LA, often they will hire an urban designer to fix a space and they fail because the space becomes their own and not a collective design process.  So, for example, many public spaces in LA like Pershing Square are not female friendly. However at the same time you have rich spaces like Boyle Heights where immigrants have retrofitted spaces to meet their needs. This is driven by the mental space in their minds based on previous experiences.

I was thinking how the role of the city center is evolving from being an economic power to a place to live.  Besides places like London and New York which still retain their commercial business districts most downtowns have seen an increase in housing and the jobs and retail is out in the suburbs. This shift calls for a change of planning. For example most transportation systems like freeways were designed to bring workers and shoppers in and out the cities, however this model is becoming obsolete.  With this change comes a paradigm shift in how we plan for living in cities rather than working in cities.  My method attempts to capture this shift.

Anna: This shift towards seeing urban living as a desirable, profitable ‘new frontier’ was really highlighted at the Congress for New Urbanism in Dallas, and it was clear that property developers and urban planners were excited about the prospects for increased urban density, increased walkability, cycling and public transport usage. I was concerned by what this means for lower-income residents already living in these areas. In Los Angeles, for example, I’m thinking of areas like Highland Park that have seen displacement due to gentrification. It raises the question of who can be part of a collective design process now in, say, Highland Park, if they no longer can afford to live there? Do gentrification and displacement come up in your workshops?

James: The Place it, collective design process is a way of giving displacement closure by allowing us to learn how these places lost impacted our lives. Places that we hold dear are like people because we develop emotional and physical relationships with them and they become integral parts of our lives. The way these places are physically, socially and culturally structured shape our bodies, and emotions. They become a blueprint on how we view, create, and interact with the environment around us.

Displacement is like a sudden death because something we once valued is abruptly taken away from us. Enduring places are like people and are interwoven with physical responses and memories created by interactions with other people in a place. When a person dies we have a funeral, an eulogy and reflect back on that person’s life and how they impacted us individually and collectively.

However when we are displaced because of outside forces there is often no closure. We leave and disperse with an individual loss and collective sadness or pain that is rarely reflected on.  We never learn how these places, like people, impacted our lives and how to bring closure to the removed place. By bringing closure to places we can learn what we valued from it and how we can reproduce the same environment elsewhere.

The first activity for the Place It workshop is for people to build their favorite childhood memory because this is a place that matters to us. The childhood stories help people bond and create empathy for each other. By building the memory participants investigate the physical form of the built environment that shaped that memory. From an architecture/design/planning perspective the physical details of these models inform us on how we interact and value the world around us. This is important information because we can understand places we value and reproduce those places elsewhere. When my family neighborhood was demolished I was able to go back later on and study what was lost and how it shaped my life. This understanding gave me closure for my family’s displacement by highlighting what that space represented. Unlike the death of people that have closure, places that we lose rarely do.

Anna: Your thoughts show that we can’t think of places as being tied to a map, a country or a street, just like we can’t think of mobility as simply a body moving from place A to B. As you say, places shape who we are and we carry them with us, equally our movements and displacements shape and identify us (as in the term “migrant”). It also makes me think of the tensions between mobility and displacement – especially how a mobility infrastructure can mean some people’s displacement or confinement, at the same time as others’ enhanced mobility (for example, the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem  train, or in L.A. the freeways built through Boyle Heights). At the Place–It session, I thought of these political questions because I found it difficult to design an ‘ideal’ car-based freeway, one that doesn’t pollute, doesn’t kill people and doesn’t displace and break up communities…I guess partly because these questions are about historical context (who lives there?) and future impacts (who will benefit or be harmed?), whereas focusing on designing the freeway, felt like an exercise outside of time and place. I wondered also, given how bodily/’sensory’ and interactive so many childhood memories are, whether the freeway comes up in your workshop as a favourite childhood memory? Is a freeway a ‘place’ in that sense? Or is it the car?

Picture2A freeway underpass designed at the Place-It workshop (Photo: James Rojas)

James: For Americans after WW II the newly constructed freeways and cars were a sign of progress, technology, and access. The single-family house, and car was the new (male) gadget. Gas was cheap, there was plenty of free parking and no traffic made freeways the ideal travel mode for many. Freeways also opened up hundreds of miles of land for affordable housing.  Local Sunday family drives became an event and trips to destinations like the beach or visiting friends and family were common.  Many Americans grew up making cross-country road trips visiting national parks, or out of state family members.

For people who grew up in this era of the family drive, driving became a favorite childhood memory for a few especially in California where freeway construction and development was innovative and massive. Most of these people were too young to drive, but being with family, conversing, listening to music, playing games, and gazing out the window looking at orange groves in the California sun made it a visceral experience.

For example these are some stories and models that illustrate this point. A woman built a model of the State of California and spoke about the family road trips they would make up and down the state. One woman built a model of a street with trees and spoke about her father driving her around LA teaching her the names of the trees they saw. Another woman spoke of her father driving her around LA showing her the latest new buildings.  A woman built a car model and spoke about the evening drives and conversations she would have with her father during this time. A man built a model of a farm in Pomona, California when they were building the freeway through it.  He said they played with the sewer pipes and the razed dirt.

Freeways and cars in themselves are not special places but it’s the interactions with others and visceral experiences people created through this infrastructure that have become enduring. Today congestion, the price of gas, expensive lodging, cheaper flights, and lack of parking prohibit this type of mobility. People see driving as a negative experience and rarely build freeways and cars as their ideal city.  However access to places, being with family, social interactions, the open air, are mobility values for people. Maybe freeways and cars can inform the next generation of mobility infrastructure.

Picture3A cycle and pedestrian freeway, designed at the Place-It workshop (Photo: James Rojas)

Anna: I can’t help but ask, given my group designed a bicycle & pedestrian ‘freeway’ (above): Have you found that bicycles feature in participant’s memories or in their future visions of cities?

James: Bikes often appear both in people’s childhood memories and in their ideal city. Learning how to ride a bike is a rite of passage for many children and it frequently comes up as a favorite childhood memory. When we are children our body dictates actions to our brain and from what I have observed through the workshops is that riding a bike as a physical urge, a challenge, an accomplishment, an extension of walking, socializing with friends, and a way to explore the world around them.  Adults will talk about the hours spent learning how to ride a bike: “And than it happened” that euphoric experience of accomplishment.  Recently an African American participant built her favorite childhood memory and it was learning how to ride a bike on an asphalt lot in NYC. Or participants will talk about the places they would go with their friends. One man said every summer he and his friends would ride their bikes to Chicago’s lake-front to see the downtown skyline and lake.  One woman from the Caribbean said that in her village there was only one bike so everyone took one-hour turns riding it and rode as far as they could during their turn.

From what I have observed, bike infrastructure is frequently constructed in people’s models for their ideal city, this is for various reasons such as improved mobility, health, sustainability, social equity or enhancing the experience of the city.

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