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Putting Urban Planning In the Hands of the People

Last spring I moderated a panel at GOOD's offices here in Los Angeles. about public transportation and the community. As discussions about public transit and Los Angeles often do, it got pretty heated towards the end as the panelists and a few members of the audience argued about what was most responsible for preventing the construction of a major subway line running from downtown to the Pacific Ocean: a sluggish government, our auto-ingrained culture, the entire population of Beverly Hills.

I'd been to a dozen events just like this in L.A. Even if it's a room full of transit advocates who all arrived by bus, everyone has their own vision for fixing L.A.'s immobility issues. It's nearly impossible, even for the most articulate of us, to communicate what we think should be done without dissolving into a red-faced mass of well-meaning do-gooders. It's an emotional topic! But this event was different. After the panel ended, one of the panelists, James Rojas, led the audience to the rear of the room, where everyone gathered around what looked like a table covered with Toys R Us stockroom rejects. We were going to build our own L.A. transit systems. Every single one of us.

James Rojas is a nearly ubiquitous figure in Los Angeles. He's an artist who founded Gallery 727 in the downtown Arts District. He is an urban planner and a founder of the Latino Urban Forum, which gives the Latino population a voice in city planing issues. He also works at Metro, L.A.'s design-centric transportation authority, where he funds transit improvement projects like medians and crosswalks. But his favorite thing to do is stick a dozen wooden blocks, a plastic alligator, some empty hotel shampoo bottles and a few rogue Legos into the hands of anyone who will listen, and tell them to redesign their own neighborhood.

"Many planning meetings are boring, contentious, and fail to stir people's creative energy," says Rojas. Even though planners consistently work closely with groups of constituents, they're stuck with the kinds of tools they like to use: maps, words and pictures. Well, not everyone can understand a complex map. Other people are uncomfortable writing. And even the physical tools-Post-It notes, simple blocks, whiteboards-that planners use during charrettes do nothing to get the imagination pumping.

"My process gives the public the power to create," says Rojas. "Giving people small interesting objects sparks their interest. Creating a 3-dimensional world with 3-dimensional forms breaks down the planning process into simple terms and helps participants translate conceptual planning ideas into physical forms." Additionally, Rojas gives power to groups that might be disenfranchised by the typical neighborhood council meeting. "People who do not speak English or are shy are at a further disadvantage," he says. "Through the interactive map and model, urban planning becomes a fun, interesting game."


Last Saturday, Rojas's show Re-Imagining Chinatown opened at L.A.'s Fifth Floor Gallery, transforming it onto a temporary neighborhood planning storefront. With Rojas's colorful trinkets lining the walls, visitors couldn't help but reach for a Pez dispenser and turn it into a shiny blue building around the corner by placing it on the tabletop, scale model of the area. "From a disco city on the L.A. River to a large bridge that connected the Cornfield to North Broadway, the ideas were everything from whimsical to serious," says Rojas.

Like many of us, Rojas has been building his own cities since he was a kid, but didn't see a way to merge this interest with his 20 years of urban planning experience until recently. He took a class at local art school powerhouse Art Center College of Design, where professor Doreen Nelson was using model-making as a way to teach children. "I though why don't I use it for city planning!" he says. "Her class was very informative in helping develop my workshop process." In the last few years, Rojas has taken his workshop all over L.A. and even to neighborhoods form Florida to Massachusetts, tackling issues from bike lanes to street vendors.

Perhaps most interesting about Rojas's approach is that it makes you think about cities in a different way-creatively. "Art and design taps people's creative energy to solve problems," says Rojas. "Every human being uses design or thinking to solve problems in their daily life, from combing your hair to designing rocket ships. In this process I have developed, design becomes a product of thinking about the built environment."

I admit, even someone like me, who supposedly thinks about this kind of stuff everyday, was rather transformed by the whole experience. I had never been asked to envision my ideal transit system, just dutifully used the one we had.

I realized immediately that like other landmarks in L.A., if the trains or buses were the most spectacularly beautiful, high-tech, cutting-edge objects in the city, that other people would want to ride them, too. I paved my transit lines with a handful of rhinestone-encrusted gold buttons I poked through the pile to find. And I also wanted riders to feel appreciated-especially those who didn't have a choice. So at every stop, I created Love Platforms out of tiny foam cut-out hearts, where great music would be playing and free food would be passed out to those getting on and off the buses and trains. It was my little slice of mobility utopia. And you know what? Since I've built it, I've found myself thinking more and more about how to make it happen.

Now, where are we going to get that many giant rhinestone-encrusted gold buttons?

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