Want to Invigorate Community Engagement? Break out the Building Blocks.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the book “Dream Play Build: Hands-On Community Engagement for Enduring Spaces and Places,” by James Rojas and John Kamp, published by Island Press. In it, the authors argue for shaking up the traditionally hidebound 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 a city planner and urban designer for the City of Los Angeles. When I scan through memories of my post-community-meeting drives home during those years, the recurring theme is a feeling of acute hopelessness. In one instance, I was driving down the I-10 freeway back from Venice after making a presentation, in the gym of a community center, on a new design overlay for one of the ugliest streets in the United States, Lincoln Boulevard. We had put together a thoughtful presentation on, among other topics, urban design principles regarding street-width-to-building-height ratios that make for a more satisfying pedestrian experience; on zoning and how it affects building uses and heights; and on the concept of mixed-use buildings (retail on the ground floor, housing up top). The objective of these presentations was always the same: educate the public in core planning concepts so that they could move beyond thinking about traffic and lack of parking and too much density. Upon this planned-for awakening, the residents would then offer up thoughtful ideas regarding building heights and street widths, zoning, mixed-use, and other core planning concepts of our age. A perfectly sensible approach, we thought.

I distinctly remember how, after the presentation and during the Q-and-A session on that particular evening, a woman jumped the comment queue, stormed the podium, and proceeded to yell, “I’ve got something to say! I’ve got something to say!” What then unfolded was a tirade about having to walk past a trailer park on her way to Whole Foods with her kids and how that just wasn’t right and that something needed to be done about that. Other comments, while less vociferous, centered on less traffic, more parking, and keeping building heights low and without any new housing.

On another evening, for another design overlay, we gave a presentation to local residents about what a community design overlay is and then broke out into stations where residents could come up and ask us more specific questions. I was stationed behind a table labeled “Site Planning.” A local resident who described herself as an artist parked herself in front of the table and pointed to an area on a map of downtown San Pedro and said confidently, “I’m going to be building a huge sculpture here — as big as the Statue of Liberty. It’s going to be like the Statue of Liberty, except” — and here her eyes got wide — “sexier.” She paused for dramatic effect and continued: “Yes, sexier. Because this is Los Angeles. It’s going to be a man” — another pause — “wearing” — pause, wide eyes — “tight jeans … with maybe a cape, and a guitar with lasers shooting out of it.”

Midway through her description of her planned project, I started to hear people singing and turned to my left to see that a gaggle of medieval re-enactors, who had surreptitiously entered the meeting hall during our presentation, gathered in a dimly lit corner on the opposite end of the room from the break-out stations, and begun singing medieval tunes a cappella. I was noticeably distracted, at which point the sculpture artist aggressively quipped, “What, do you have a problem with them singing?” Needless to say, not a lot about site planning was discussed that evening.

9781642831498 Rojas Kamp Dream Play Build

In yet another instance, we had put together a presentation on principles of urban design and walkability in the hopes of helping residents in a more well-to-do neighborhood see that a very large proposed development could improve walkability in the neighborhood. After the presentation, we wanted to have residents draw the kind of development they wanted to see, including street sections and rough site plans. While we had hoped that the residents would see the error of their previous ways and want zero-lot-line buildings without lawns because they made for a better pedestrian realm, the residents generally chose not to draw anything and instead just tell us what they wanted: single-family homes, set well back from the street, with large lawns in front.

What springs forth when I look back upon these particular vignettes now is a slightly wide-eyed incredulousness — not just that these things actually happened (they did), but also that we as planners truly thought that a presentation on urban design fundamentals would equip everyday residents with the tools and perspectives to somehow experience a creative and cultural awakening in which constructive feedback on walkable streets and pedestrian-oriented development would flow forth. But we had put together such a good presentation, I would think on my drives home while searching for what we could have done to prompt different feedback. I never thought that maybe what we were asking of residents was completely and wildly unrealistic. I also never thought to question whether expecting particular results from those residents was wise or fair.

By the time I had officially chosen to leave the confines of life as a city planner, I saw public participation as just something we did because we had to although it was a waste of time and always generated the same feedback: we want less traffic, more parking, single-story buildings, and no more housing. What I know now is that most forms of community engagement do generate exactly this kind of feedback. Absent a way of taking people out of what they perceive as everyday needs for living, they will invariably default to what they know and experience every day — more traffic, changing neighborhoods, and scarce parking — 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 emerged in 2007, when James Rojas and I did our first model-building workshop together at his art gallery in downtown Los Angeles. We invited anyone and everyone who was interested, with the promise that they could re-imagine Los Angeles by building it. The event was completely unrelated to any plan or proposed project that the City was heading up and was instead simply billed as a kind of merging of crafting, art-making, and community visioning.

The physical set-up was nothing fancy and very un-curated by today’s social standards. Participants gathered around simple folding tables with a colorful construction-paper placemat in front of each chair, and we provided a mountain of found objects off to one side. I set up my turntables and speakers toward the back of the room and then spun house and techno while participants built small 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 one that we added later when we started to see a pattern: planners built textbook ideal cities as opposed to cities from the heart; they needed to be shaken out of that mindset of transit-oriented development, nodes and hubs, accessory dwelling units, and all the other prototypical examples of contemporary planning practice and education).

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