Politics

Urban Planner James Rojas Reminds Us to Shut Down the PowerPoint

L.A. urban planner James Rojas asks ordinary citizens to think about how they interact with the city. Often, he uses toys and random objects to help them visualize their communities. Credit: James Rojas

“Commercial corridors are always in a state of flux,” Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer told a crowd of assembled urbanites on Saturday. She needn’t have. The 20 presentations at Next City’s Crafting Corridors event, held at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture, were all about change. Quick change, smart change, green change, modeled change, crowd-financed change.

Saffron may have been more provocative if she had focused on the issues highlighted in her recent article for the The New Republic on gentrification, in which she argues that the real tragedy of gentrification is that it is leading cities toward a “new kind of monotony.”

The corridors presented at Saturday’s event were anything but monotonous. Popuphood, an organization started by Oakland entrepreneurs Sarah Filley and Alfonso Dominguez, provides vacant storefronts to independent retailers for pop-up shops; Project Storefronts in New Haven similarly connects entrepreneurs in need of space with landlords who have empty storefronts. In Philly, the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation rents storefronts to hand-picked retailers at reduced rent, even if it means making no profit.

Urban planners love funk.

But the funk they love does have a certain similarity, if not monotony. James Rojas, a Los Angeles-based urban planner and the founder of the Latino Urban Forum gets that. And he’s doing everything he can do combat the tendency.

His PowerPoint was bereft of graphs or data, but deeply visual. He looked at how Latinos use urban space, showing photos of mothers pushing strollers in the street, for instance, to highlight L.A.’s too-narrow sidewalks. Photos of neighbors loitering at the front fence showed the influence of Latin American patios on L.A.’s classic front yard architecture.

He contextualized several urban trends, linking the food truck craze to taco trucks that met the needs of janitors working graveyard shifts when all the restaurants were closed. The urban mural movement he linked to Spanish colonialism in Central America, when colonists relied on pictures to communicate with locals.

“A lot of planners tend to be really top-down,” he said in an interview. For Rojas, planning needs to shift to be more about “how we physically interact with the city… how the body responds to the built environment… I think it’s missing.”

“It’s hard to talk about urban revival without wading into issues of race and class,” Saffron wrote in her New Republic piece. That’s true. And as Rojas knows all too well, that’s something that can’t be resolved with PowerPoint.

Below, find a video demonstration of Rojas’ approach to participatory planning.

James Rojas: City as Play 6-Step Design Workshop from Gilda Haas on Vimeo.

Allyn Gaestel is currently a Philadelphia Fellow for Next City. Much of her work centers on human rights, inequality and gender. She has worked in Haiti, India, Nepal, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bahamas for outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. She tweets @allyngaestel.

Tags: philadelphia, policy, politics, los angeles, gentrification, race, vacant properties, events, planning, inga saffron