By James Rojas
Since the November elections, many folks, especially women and minorities, are on edge. People are hurting and looking for how to engage and heal communities.
As an urban planner, I find that much needed community engagement has become more difficult. Can urban planners take on a new role and become healers, providing meaningful engagement that peels away differences and helps us find common goals?
I learned that people become positive when they use their imaginations and their hands to create, make, and do. When we start by doing something rather than just talking, we inspire hope that what we are doing will turn out well.
We humanize the urban planning process when we use story telling, objects, art making, and play to break down barriers posed by language, age, ethnicity, and professional training. The process can create a safe space for everyone to come together, listen, share, collaborate, and bond. This is especially important for those who have difficulty expressing their feelings (not just their views) in a public setting. Through this process participants can find common values and generate cutting-edge ideas and solutions for their communities.
Assume that everyone is an urban planner with something to offer. Members of the public who participate in the planning process need to be supported in working together and in developing a shared sense of ownership over their places. This is particularly important for women and people of color. Planning professionals who want to access and use crucial community knowledge must start with an effective engagement strategy rooted in respect for difference.
We live in a world in which people’s experiences are not always highlighted or respected in the urban planning outreach process. Humanizing and relaxing the community meeting format to integrate storytelling, imagination, objects, and hands-on activities allow for all voices to be expressed in a variety of different ways.
Participants personalize the planning process based on their experiences. We can give them a sense of ownership and attachment to each other and to place by focusing their skills on critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and civic literacy. In acknowledging their skills, we validate their identities and experiences. We also increase the likelihood that they will engage further in civic participation, when otherwise they might feel intimidated, fearful, or skeptical about engaging.
As urban planners, we have a social responsibility to engage with all members of the community. Their contributions are needed in shaping the future of our cities.
James Rojas is a globetrotting planner who developed Place It, a visualization method to engage the community in the urban planning process. Rojas lives in Alhambra, California. He is a member of the California Planning Roundtable and a founder and member of the Latino Urban Forum. You can contact him at email@example.com.
A version of this article originally ran in the January/February issue of Northern News, the newsmagazine of APA California–Northern Section. Republished with permission.