EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the book “Dream Play Build: Practical Community Engagement for Sustainable Spaces and Placesby James Rojas and John Kamp, published by Island Press. In it, the authors make the case for shaking up the traditionally hidden and often acrimonious community meeting format, proposing instead a model of community engagement that inspires connection, creativity, and fun.
From 2005 to 2008, I worked as an urban planner and urban designer for the city of Los Angeles. As I look through my memories of my journeys after the community meeting during those years, the recurring theme is a sense of acute despair. In one instance, I was returning from Venice on the I-10 freeway after giving a presentation, in a community center gymnasium, on a new design overlay for one of the ugliest streets in the United States, Lincoln Blvd. We had prepared a thoughtful presentation on, among other topics, urban design principles regarding street width to building height ratios that make the pedestrian experience more satisfying; zoning and its impact on building uses and heights; and on the concept of mixed-use buildings (shops on the ground floor, housing above). The objective of these presentations was always the same: to educate the public on the basic concepts of planning so that they could go beyond traffic, lack of parking and overcrowding. In this planned revival, residents would then come up with thoughtful ideas regarding building heights and street widths, zoning, mixed use, and other basic planning concepts of our time. A perfectly sensible approach, we thought.
I clearly remember how, after the presentation and during the Q&A session that evening, a woman jumped the commentary queue, stormed the podium and started shouting, “ I have something to say! I have something to say! What unfolded next was a tirade about having to walk past a trailer park to get to Whole Foods with her kids and that it was just not right and something needed to be done at this subject. Other comments, while less noisy, were about less traffic, more parking, and keeping building heights low and no new housing.
Another evening, for another design overlay, we gave a presentation to local residents on what a community design overlay is, and then we dispersed to stations where residents could come and ask us more specific questions. I was posted behind a table labeled “Site Planning”. A local resident who described herself as an artist parked in front of the table and marked an area on a map of downtown San Pedro and said confidently, “I’m going to build a huge sculpture here, as big than the statue. of Liberty. It’s gonna be like the Statue of Liberty, except “- and there her eyes widened-“sexiest.” She paused for dramatic effect and continued, “Yes, sexiest. Because it is Los Angeles. It’s gonna be a man” – another pause – “carry” – pause, eyes widening – “tight jeans …with maybe a cape and a guitar with lasers sticking out of it.
In the middle of his description of his planned project, I began to hear people singing and turned to my left to see that a group of medieval re-enactors, who had surreptitiously entered the meeting room during our presentation , gathered in a dimly lit corner of the room opposite the chat stations, and began to sing medieval tunes a cappella. I was visibly distracted, at which point the sculpting artist aggressively joked, “What, do you have a problem with them singing?” Needless to say, little about site planning was discussed that evening.
In yet another case, we had prepared a presentation on the principles of urban design and walkability in the hope of helping residents of a more affluent neighborhood to see that a very large development could improve the walkability of the neighborhood. After the presentation, we wanted residents to draw the type of development they wanted to see, including street sections and rough site plans. While we hoped that residents would see the error of their previous habits and want buildings without a lawnless lot line because they created a better walkable realm, residents generally chose not to draw anything and tell us at place what they wanted. : single-family homes, well set back from the street, with large lawns in front.
What stands out when I think back to those particular vignettes now is a slightly wide-eyed disbelief – not only that these things actually happened (they did), but also that we as planners really thought a presentation on the fundamentals of urban design would equip residents every day with the tools and perspectives to experience in one way or another a creative and cultural awakening in which constructive commentary on the pedestrian streets and the pedestrian-oriented development would occur. But we had made such a good presentation, I would think of my trips home while looking for what we could have done to elicit different comments. I never thought that what we were asking residents was maybe completely and wildly unrealistic. Nor did I ever think about whether it was wise or right to expect particular results from these residents.
By the time I had officially chosen to step out of the confines of life as an urban planner, I saw public involvement as something we did because we had to do it even though it was a waste of time and still generated the same return: we want less traffic, more parking lots, one-story buildings and more housing. What I know now is that most forms of community engagement generate exactly this type of feedback. Without a way to get people out of what they perceive as everyday life needs, they will invariably turn to what they know and experience every day – more traffic, changing neighborhoods and parking. rare – and then they will want what they perceive as immediate solutions to these problems.
The first glimmers of a solution to this state of affairs appeared in 2007, when James Rojas and I held our first model-building workshop together at his downtown Los Angeles art gallery. We invited anyone who was interested, with the promise that they could re-imagine Los Angeles by building it. The event was totally unrelated to any plan or project proposed by the city and was simply presented as a kind of fusion of craftsmanship, artistic creation and community vision.
The physical setup was nothing fancy and very unorganized by today’s social standards. Attendees gathered around simple folding tables with a colorful construction paper placemat in front of each chair, and we provided a mountain of found objects to one side. I set up my turntables and speakers towards the back of the room, then spun house and techno as the attendees built little models out of found objects that represented their “ideal Los Angeles. “. (The exercise of building a favorite childhood memory, now a key part of our workshops today, was added later when we started to see a pattern: city planners built perfect cities for textbooks as opposed to core cities; they were to be shaken out of this transit-driven development mindset, nodes and hubs, accessory housing units and all the other prototypical examples of practice and education in contemporary planning).