Engaging the Community by Giving EVERYONE A Voice

People too often feel unworthy and powerless in the process of neighborhood change. Why? Because planners leave the community outreach until the end, after the plans have already been agreed upon. Traditional community workshops leave the community on their heels; it’s a reactionary process that often leads to disagreement and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome. The meeting becomes a battle of competing interests where the loudest voice gets the most attention.

Another common issue is that typical community engagement practices often leave whole social groups without a voice. Immigrants, women, children, and the most underserved portions of the community typically fall through the cracks. So how can this process change to make sure that urban planning becomes a truly collaborative process that targets these underrepresented groups and asks what the community’s ideas and values are first? Ask James Rojas, Urban Planner and artist from Los Angeles, and he’ll get you to join in on one of his very own workshops.


Rojas started conducting participatory planning workshops called Place It! that aim at giving everyone a voice and empowering the community to start thinking about how to change their environment. These workshops have been so effective that the California chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) awarded Rojas with the 2015 Planning Advocate Award of Excellence. He has worked with non-profits, museums, galleries, art venues, festivals, schools, and a number of municipalities all over the country and parts of Europe to help them envision change and draw up plans and policies.

Place It! workshops involve little everyday found objects, trinkets, and toys. The participants use these objects to help visualize change. With the objects spread out on the table, the participants are first asked to use the objects to represent their favorite childhood memory. What does this have to do with urban planning? Well it’s a fun, creative way to get everyone immediately involved and forces them to think about the places where they grew up and what contributed to making that place a positive part of their memory. Many times their childhood memories are social interactions in a safe, comfortable, outdoor place. This exercise validates everyone’s opinions, allows people to connect over shared or similar experiences, and gives each individual confidence that they have something to contribute to the discussion of place.

The second part of the workshop is a group exercise where each group is asked to configure the objects, trinkets, and toys into their ideal city—or whatever area the entire room is trying to change. With their childhood memories fresh in their mind, many people are prepared to configure places that feel safe, comfortable, and that breed social interaction. It is important to note that the audience isn’t given any ideas or unfamiliar planning jargon but is allowed to participate and collaborate on their own ideas. The community takes control of the workshop and Rojas helps them formulate their ideas into concrete goals or policies for change.

Not only is the community given control of the workshop to formulate ideas, but they are also visualizing their change through objects and using their imaginations and creativity. Rojas says he uses these objects “to engage people to see, touch, experience, and use their imaginations. Unlike typical planning outreach tools — maps, pictures, surveys, and social media — the models are sculptures that capture the visual and spatial nature of how people actually experience the city.” It is all a hands-on, very engaging exercise.

During these Place It! workshops, nobody is left out. There aren’t one or two entitled individuals taking over the discussion. Rojas conducts a lot of these workshops with immigrant communities, women, and children—people of all ethnic backgrounds and cultures. There is an inclusive, equitable environment from the start.

Urban Planners need to take note of James Rojas’ workshops and the profound impact they are having on communities. Rojas says of his workshops that “by working together, and through conversations along the way, differences are peeled away to reveal shared values and examples of real experiences and needs in physical space. These values, experiences, and needs are the cornerstones of urban planning.” Collaboration and inclusiveness is key—understanding the community and what they want. In order to create better places, planners and municipalities need to continue to take steps towards equity, flexibility, and enablement. Everyone deserves a place at the table and James Rojas’ Place It! workshops provide a place to start. Visit his website at http://www.placeit.org!


Bio of Author:

My name is Charlie Simpson. I just graduated from Occidental College in 2015 with a BA in Urban & Environmental Policy. I recently finished my senior thesis analyzing Tactical Urbanism in Los Angeles. I am passionate about cities and an advocate for making neighborhoods and streets friendlier for bikes, pedestrians, and public transit. I strongly believe in planning with communities and not for them. Experience studying urban issues and planning in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Groningen (Netherlands), Berlin, and NYC have all helped shape my views. I am now living in New York City.


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5 Comments on “Engaging the Community by Giving EVERYONE A Voice”

  1. Syed S. Ahmed August 16, 2015 at 8:16 am #

    Charlie, an excelent piece of writing. I wonder if planning departments can add this approach to their outreach to communities. Do you know if NYC Planning Department or any other wants to incorporate elements of Rojas’s modle, how would they do it?



  2. John T. Keliiaa, Planner with Bluecorn Planning & Dev. August 17, 2015 at 1:02 am #

    This was an article that shows why “buy-in” is required of all participants. I took urban design with Morton Hoppenfelt (Columbia, MD & Summerlin, NV) some many years ago and one of his salient points was that to be a good urban planner or designer you first must understand architecture at some functional level. Better yet is to understand architectural programming which is the written requirements of the project. UNM has a tribal planner group and I tell them “all planners are architects” – and all architects and urban designers are planners. Planning and architecture are processes that really occur concurrently as is required for design development (DD). A visionary planner is a jack of all trades and a master of a few (hopefully civil engineering, environmental architecture, and community planning).


  3. jeansc35J August 17, 2015 at 5:41 pm #

    I don’t want a “voice” in these planning efforts. I want a byline and a paycheck in situations where I actually have some professional-level contributions to offer. This is within the scope of my career goals, and I don’t want to get involved if the people in charge intend to treat me like a member of the “general public” with no relevant educational background or career interests and post-college research. I already have one very bad experience on my belt in which one of my ideas was definitely plagiarized. This is a pattern in which the most important thing is the maintenance of the existing power structure related to the professional contributions.


  4. jamesrojas October 8, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    nice write up!


  5. Rayn Riel December 10, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    Important to also recognize there is not just one history — there are histories, “herstories”, multiple publics along the intent-outcome spectrum. Empathy, dignity, trust, humility…


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