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A New Vocabulary for Planning
This National Bike Month, we're asking, "With so many reasons to ride, what's yours?" We're listening to and highlighting your reasons here, and we're also looking at the people, places and policies answering that question from our Winter magazine. This, written by Adonia Lugo, looks at planner James Rojas' take on discovering the definition of "home."
Sometimes, in the rush to spread proven strategies, we overlook the brilliance of inventions born of necessity.
Not James Rojas; he lives in the space between intentional design and the happenstance of the everyday, and he wants us to join him there. Each of us carries a lifetime of days spent in many kinds of streets and neighborhoods.
It all adds up to knowing what feels like home. That’s what Rojas encourages people to explore in his urban design workshops. It might be a workshop participant’s first time being asked to build a model of a childhood memory, or of an ideal street for biking and walking.
As I’ve seen in Rojas’ workshops in Los Angeles, Seattle, and most recently Pittsburgh, what people come up with might look wildly different than what a trained urban planner or engineer sees. And that’s the innovation: Rojas has created a method for eliciting people’s ideas about what feels right in streets without asking them to learn a specialized vocabulary. Participants build their models first, using the tiny found objects he carries in boxes from city to city.
Only after they’ve spent time translating memory into material are they invited to describe what it is they’ve created. It’s empowering to facilitate activities where people can define their own street problems and solutions.
Rojas’ work shows how to start from scratch, recognizing that each individual is an expert about her or his own life. How do we then connect this knowledge to the expert solutions we can offer as advocates? And what novel expert solutions will new ideas spur? Despite its emphasis on the human scale, the placemaking design conversation sometimes comes across as a technical rather than cultural project.
Rojas knows that placemaking happens in a personal context, in the flesh.