Like the rest of the world, Next American City can’t get enough of James Rojas.
Rojas is the Los Angeles-based and now globetrotting planner, transportation guru, artist, gallerist, scene-maker, place-maker, and paradoxically placid one-man-whirlwind.
Two years ago, as a guest blogger for americancity.org, the City / Culture columnist wrote this post about Rojas and one of his block-by-block – pun intended, if you follow the link – city-building-exercises-cum-participatory-artworks. Earlier this year, Next American City Deputy Editor Julia Serazio caught up with Rojas in New Orleans, at the APA National Planning Conference.
Now, más Rojas. Next American City issue #27 is out to subscribers and the mag’s “Leaders” section includes a one-page Q&A with the Angelino.
Rojas sat for that interview in a courtyard eatery a short walk from the location of his day job as a transportation planner for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. As someone who holds both a government agency job as well as co-founded an art gallery and works as an artist himself, Rojas fits perfectly into the City/Culture realm, where municipal and creative vocations often intersect.
“Artists are great at re-envisioning spaces and places,” Rojas told City / Culture that day – these words not fitting into the print edition piece. “One of their contributions to society is how they can easily show change – and make change – and give people fresh ideas about the same old same old.“
Rojas continued: “Artwork is really an important part of how you re-envision the city. And also, policy. How do you make systemic change? You can have quick interventions that are here today, gone tomorrow, but how do you really change the process of building the city? It becomes formulaic, instead of, “build a great place” and, “have innovative ideas.”
Rojas is impressed by recent upgrades in Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and New York City – where pedestrian progress particularly pleases him. Los Angeles, he said, lags behind those and other cities. But D.I.Y. help is on the way. “What makes L.A. unique,” Rojas said, “is that its such a messed-up place physically that it stirs a lot of interests on the creative side.”
In the magazine Q&A, Rojas names City / Culture fixtures such as Fallen Fruit, Edible Estates, Islands of LA, and Watts House Project as prime examples of people and groups undertaking creative and cross-genre city projects.
Meanwhile, Rojas’ own low-tech planning workshops – or really, play shops – fit in well with projects like those above.
His signature “Place It” happenings involve gathering groups of people together, providing them with tubs filled with everyday found objects – Legos, bottle caps, pieces of wood – and then asking them to build their ideal city. Some of the resulting works are pure fantasy, others, steeped in pragmatism. Either way, it’s a bottom-up, egalitarian approach to city planning. “People have always played with blocks, every kid,” Rojas said. “When do the workshops at high schools, before the workshop starts, kids are already building. They just can’t keep their hands off the materials. But adults, you have to push them into it – they take more time. I think it’s just a really natural way of people thinking about the world in their heads.”
Rojas has done or is scheduled to do these Place It sessions in Florida, Oregon, Boston, D.C., New Orleans (see above), Germany, Holland, Turkey, and Brazil.
That Rio de Janeiro jaunt was as part of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. World Urban Forum Conference. Rojas and attendees built, daily, interactive models of Rio and L.A.
There’s nothing to it, right? Grab some Lincoln Logs and call it an afternoon?
“It’s just a simple idea, anybody can do it. I don’t need to be flying all over the world,” Rojas said. “But the more I do it, the more people want it.”
Read past City / Culture columns here and contact the columnist.