Using Design as Community Engagement Tool for Transforming L.A.

On Monday December 8, 2014 James Rojas facilitated a training workshop for the Urban Design Committee for the American Institute of Architecture Los Angeles Chapter. This was the 2nd Urban Design Opportunities Town Hall meeting to discuss new challenges and opportunities for 2015.

A part of the meeting agenda was a workshop to illustrate how architects can use design as a tool for community engagement, education and empowerment.

The intent of the workshop is a new approach to urban planning that taps the public’s visual, spatial, and experiential knowledge of the city or the same way architects understand the city.  In Los Angeles like elsewhere, urban planning is too often a regulatory process that is constantly working against the creative verve of the city;  therefore urban planners serve as the land use police. Through regulations, the creative energy to transform LA is constantly be negotiated and crushed.

Not so in the process demonstrated in the workshop: through hands-on building with objects participants were directly involved and engaged participants—as opposed to “audiences” or passive viewers—in a creative and collaborative urban planning process.

Small objects excited, intrigued and brought people together to imagine, negotiate, and actively design a better city or community.

Through this participatory process, people documented and re-imagined the shape of their urban communities, culminating with the creation of a temporary installation that mimics the dynamic and collective nature of urban transformation. The resulting art inspired models, reflects how varied groups of players—strangers, friends—interact to create a sense of place in cities.

This tool transforms urban planning from an exercise to an experience. It raised people's consciousness of the built environment around them and how it impacts their daily experience of place. Through this tool participants investigated how memory, experience, and imagination shape their environment, and how we can capture this information to inform and shape public projects, plans and policies.

A. Icebreaker:  Build Your Favorite Childhood Memory

As an icebreaker, the participants were asked to build their favorite childhood memory in twenty minutes. This exercise revealed who the participants are, where they come from, what they value, and it underscored the need to validate these experiences. The activity began with no discussion, map, or power point presentation, and participants were assured that there were no right or wrong answers. This allowed the builders to think quickly and freely, and to take ownership of the planning process.

The participants thought first about the physical details and social connections that created their memory. To do so they were given construction paper to built it on and hundreds of small objects to choose from. Once the builders started to seek, touch, and explore the materials on in front of them, the creative process began as they choose pieces based on color, shape or texture. These objects created a visual reference point to helped them reconstruct a personal activity or experience.

The builders gather their pieces and brought them back to their tables.  The design process began once they laid out a few objects on the construction paper. Their hands began to move furiously as their memory became to take shape. For the next ten minutes the participants were in a meditative state of building a powerful memory.

After ten minutes the flurry of activity slowed down as people became satisfied with their models. They began to talk, look around at the others dioramas created by their colleagues, and pulled out their cell phones to take pictures of their beautiful models.

Once everyone completed building their memory, the group was told to stop building.  The fun and informative part of the exercise began when everyone presented their childhood memory to the group. They stated their name, the place and activity of the memory all in a minute.

The builders spoke with conviction as they told compelling, entertaining stories illustrated through the objects, colors, and model layouts. Everyone intently listened to these visceral details that engaged the group visually, orally, and emotionally.

We learned through this activity that participants came from all parts of US and Germany, yet their childhood memories were similar because they involved intimate connections to the nature, and people.  Despite geographical, racial and economic difference as children most of the participants sought fun, intimacy, shelter, and knowledge in the environment around them. Many of the memories involved physical activities like riding a bike, for the first time, or watching clouds. Many of the participants had ‘free range” childhoods where the roamed and discovered the wonders of nature from plants, animals, and places. The world was full of possibilities, discovery, and happiness, so the most mundane places like a patch of dirt, mud, a creek, or a flower became a cherished memory.

Once each presenter finished, their ideas were synthesized it into the planning framework to help participants understand how these memories connected us to the environment and eventually the urban planning process.

By sharing these personal insights participants learned a great deal about each other and participants began to bond through common themes.

Everyone had something to share and contribute.

B. Use Urban Design to Solve an Issue in LA (Group Activity)

For the next activity people worked in teams to use urban design to solve an issue in Los Angeles in 15 minutes. Because there were given no constraints all ideas were welcomed which again gave teams autonomy in the planning process.  For the first half of this activity team members discussed, and chose their opportunity or challenges. Once the teams decided on it, they begun to build solutions.

Through building with objects new urban design ideas emerged as participants negotiated the visual and spatial nature of the city.

Team members could quickly tested their design interventions with others. Proposed ideas became elaborate with the help of others and in no time the models began to take shape and fill out the tabletop.

Once the time was up each team presented their solutions, they presented with conviction and enthusiasm.  They identified the challenges, and proposed a variety of solutions.  Below are some of street design highlights from each Team:

  • Team One designed a city that connected all the unique neighborhoods in LA.
  • Team Two transformed LA into a new transportation and land use plan.
  • Team Three created temporary zip lines.
  • Team Four connected residential with commercial zones.

Participants brought a lifetime of experiences beginning with their childhood memories to their urban design solutions. They utilized their innate visual and spatial knowledge of the city in order to generate their designs. Like artists, the participants derived both satisfaction and excitement from their creations.

Their solutions were complex and nuanced, treating the city as both a mobility system and a physical experience. Most of their solutions began with the local pedestrian experience rather than with the motorist’s. The teams generated numerous reasonable design possibilities that encouraged a new way to move around LA.

Because their ideas generated the vision the meeting had greater relevance to the participants’ lives. This process helped participants develop a sense of ownership and attachment to the city that can inspire them to move forward to make this happen; or, in other words “This process can create the foot soldiers for transforming LA."

  • For more on this workshop, visit Clifford Gagliardo's blog post here.
  • All images courtesy of James Rojas, additional images can be viewed here.
Last updated: 19-Dec-2014 11:38 AM
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