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Beyond Borders: Reimagining Community Planning

How do you build consensus between groups of differing ages, abilities and languages? In 2012, as an aspiring urban planner, I responded to a LA Times’ announcement heralding an innovative approach to meaningful, cross-cutting community engagement to catalyze the redevelopment of Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. 

James Rojas’ Place it! community planning techniques break down barriers of age, race, income, language and ability through storytelling and play. Courtesy of Smithsonian Folklife Magazine, 2015

James Rojas’ Place it! community planning techniques break down barriers of age, race, income, language and ability through storytelling and play. Courtesy of: Smithsonian Folklife Magazine, 2015

Intrigued to learn more, I got off the bus at a lonely section of Glendale Boulevard devoid of trees or people on a hot day. I had reached the end of the road, where Glendale Boulevard meets the 2 Freeway. Autobody shops, street art and towering billboards provided a bit of color as cars zoomed by my bus stop across a widening expanse of grey asphalt towards the freeway entrance. 

As I walked through the doors of our community meeting, however, I encountered a very different environment. Children, seniors, immigrants and 20-somethings alike crowded around colorful tables strewn with a curious assortment of found objects: hair curlers, rubber ducks, wine corks, Lotería playing cards and chess board pieces. After a light breakfast, the bustling room quieted down and urban planner James Rojas, formerly of the LA Metro, gave us a mysterious introduction. There were no Powerpoints slides, no maps, no sharpies, microphones or podiums in sight. Instead, James humbly appeared from the side of the room and instructed us to complete two playful tasks: 

  1. Build your favorite childhood memory: We were told to close our eyes and remember a place from our childhood that gave us the most freedom and joy. Then, we were asked to use the colorful assortment of toys and recycled objects displayed in front of us to reconstruct that memory on a construction paper mat. After 10 minutes of construction, we shared our mini built environments with our neighbors around a small table, pointing to the features that made the memory endearing. We were asked to state common themes that were consistent across everyone’s memories. In this opening icebreaker, James Rojas explains, “participants learn that their first attachment to place informs their adult urban life.”  
  2. Build your dream street: We were then told to clear out our boards, push together our construction paper mats and start to collaborate to create a no-constraints version of Glendale Boulevard using the same found objects we used to create our childhood memories. Next, each participant had to describe an activity that would occur on a specific day and time of their choosing on this reimagined Glendale Boulevard. After 15 minutes of intense construction and collaboration, the results were 4 charming and creative visions for the busy arterial outside our window. 
Red Car - Modern Map from Jake Berman

Community workshop participants envisioned a streetcar line along the Glendale corridor, harkening back to the 1920s, when Los Angeles had one of the largest rail networks in the world. Courtesy of: Jake Berman, 2018

The crowd favorite was from a young boy who proposed adaptively reusing Glendale Boulevard’s autobody shops to create a special car-wash lane exclusively for the neighborhood’s goat herds, which were currently hidden away on the hillside barrios behind the commercial corridor. These “animal car-washing stations”, the nearby grown-ups quipped, could spur the environmental cleanup of land damaged from years of industrial use, provide a whimsical touch-point of connection between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking neighbors, and highlight the importance of goats and California-native plants in the fight against 13 years of intensifying droughts.

Other solutions were more conventional, including protected pedestrian and bicycle lanes, affordable housing, a welcoming gateway arch and a bus rapid transit line. Seniors and transit enthusiasts in the room mused over renovating the Red Car streetcars for mass transit service, a tribute to the 1,000+ miles of rail spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the snowy peaks of the San Jacinto mountains, built by real estate developers at the turn of the century. As a wrap-up, we identified common themes, solutions and values shared across our round-robin style presentations.  

At the end of the meeting, came a surprise speech from a man who would later go on to become the Mayor of Los Angeles and a potential presidential candidate, Eric Garcetti. Garcetti concluded, “No one really walks on Glendale Boulevard in their right mind unless you want to take your life into your own hands, or you have to. But we can, because this is one of the great boulevards of Los Angeles. Thank you for being dreamers, thank you for being celebrants, thank you for being the aspiring angelenos in the City of Los Angeles.” Over the next 7 years, as Councilman and then as Mayor, Eric Garcetti would launch re:code LA, the city’s first zoning update since 1946, reverse the Los Angeles’ 10-year-ban on mural painting, decriminalize street vending, establish Los Angeles’ first pedestrian plazas called People Streets, and transparently track municipal projects on interactive maps, visual dashboards and one of the nation’s first open data websites, making thousands of public records easily searchable online. 

Participating in that innovative planning process and witnessing the results in the years to come has motivated me to keep James Rojas’ five tenets of meaningful community engagement in mind when practicing urban planning: 

  1. Storytelling allows participants to express their urban narrative in their own “language”. Storytelling promotes empathy because it places people in someone else’s shoes.
  2. Objects allow participants to think beyond words and explore infinite possibilities through their visual, spatial and emotional landscape to discover the sense of belonging. Objects broaden their communication options.
  3. Art-Making allows participants to envision, construct, and reflect on their community’s aspirations. By using their hands and creative talents, participants become satisfied because they are able to transform ideas and thoughts into tangible physical realities.
  4. Collaboration allows participants to work face-to-face, and hand-to-hand for the common good of their community. Participants realize that there are no right or wrong answers, rather how their ideas impact each other through collaboration. By building together with objects participants can quickly test their ideas physically as well as build off each other’s ideas to prototype solutions together.
  5. Play allows participants to relax in a public meeting. Participants conduct inquiries and experiments in urban form without fear of failure. Plus participants can have fun with family, friends, and even strangers.

Learn more about Place it! workshops through Flickr, Vimeo and this Interactive Planning Manual.

Aysha Cohen is an Urban Planner from Los Angeles, California. She is a contributing author of several Urban Land Institute (ULI) publications on active transportation, stormwater management, corridor redevelopment and affordable housing. Prior to Nspiregreen, Aysha conducted research with the Fulbright Eco-Leadership program in Canada, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Istanbul and the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies (ITS) in Los Angeles. Her research for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), “Equity in Motion: Bikeshare in Low-Income Communities”, used geospatial statistics to prioritize station-level improvements for Capital Bikeshare in high poverty areas of Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of “The Olive Tree Initiative: Armenia-Turkey”, an interdisciplinary conflict resolution group. Aysha speaks English, Turkish and Spanish. 

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Singapore: The Garden City

Ahh the ‘Garden City’, the green elaborate landscape also known as Singapore. It most definitely lives up to its name. City streets are filled with an abundance and variety of native plants and trees, vertical gardens that drape architectural elements, and the wonderful smell of fresh clean air constantly surrounds you. Even the alleys are green! I travelled to Singapore this past June after visiting Thailand and I’ve never experienced a city/country as green as Singapore.

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Singapore is an innovative, sustainable urban landscape, but they weren’t always this green. When this island gained its independence in 1965, it was filled with inadequate housing, pollution, congestion, contaminated rivers, and a lack of employment. Land was scarce and natural resources were lacking. In the short span of 50 years, Singapore has managed a novel approach to address these challenges with a diversified economy, rich culture, and efficient infrastructure to provide a more pleasant life for the residents in a clean, modern city.

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The Garden City’s revitalization kicked off in 1967 with an intensive tree-planting program to line the streets with an urban forest. By the end of 1970, over 55,000 new trees were planted. A park development program created new recreational spaces for residents and established green spaces to create a cleaner environment. Since then, numerous programs have been implemented to support this green vision. Singapore’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action was introduced in 2009 to conserve and enhance the biodiversity in the city. These green initiatives can be seen throughout the city’s physical structures, roadways, and parks.

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Green buildings have been mandatory since 2008. New developments are required to have plant life through green roofs, cascading vertical gardens, and green walls. An incentive program is in place to replace the city’s green space lost to new development on the ground with greenery in the sky through high-rise terraces and gardens. This creates another layer of space for recreation and gathering. Due to their land constraints, Singapore has adopted a model of livable density. Livable density is about creating quality of life in high-density environments. It offers proximity to shops, schools, entertainment, healthcare, and the outdoors while prioritizing parks and recreation facilities. Parks, rivers, and ponds are developed within high-rises featuring new technology and innovative designs to create the illusion of space using “green” and blue” elements. These bodies of water also act as flood-control mechanisms.

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Over two million lush trees have been planted throughout Singapore. Their many parks comprise a network of trails which foster a cycling and walking culture. Residents and visitors use this network of major parks and nature sites to access a plethora of historical, cultural, and recreational sites.

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Despite the many challenges this densely populated island-nation faces, Singapore sets a bold precedent for cities seeking to create livable environments with a high quality of life by providing innovative, sustainable solutions throughout different aspects of their societal structure. Although the framework and size of this city appears to set Singapore apart from other cities across the globe, there are lessons to be learned and innovative solutions that can be looked at. I’ve really enjoyed exploring this sustainable and diversified community and highly recommend visiting. I will definitely be back!

Here are a few of their sustainable goals towards 2030:

  • 35% improvement in energy efficiency
  • Improve the recycling ratio from 59% in 2011 to 70%
  • Provide .8 hectares (2 acres) of green park space for every 1,000 people
  • Open up 900 hectares (2224 acres) of reservoirs and 100 km (62 miles) of waterways for recreational activities
  • Increase greenery in high-rise buildings to 50 hectares (124 acres)
  • 70% of journeys made by public transportation during morning peak hours

Jazmin Kimble is an Urban Planner and Urban Designer  from Long Island, NY. She has a passion for empowering and planning adequate, equitable communities through the lens of Geodesign, Urban Design, Community Development, Architectural Design, Sustainability, Environmental Solutions, and Community Engagement. Jazmin believes the culture and the history of a community is what makes it unique. This approach allows her to design with communities from a holistic viewpoint.

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The Galapagos Islands and Climate Change (Small Actions Matter)

Have you ever heard the phrase, “every little bit helps?” It is a shame there are things we want to accomplish but we get discouraged because some of these goals may seem insurmountable. We may not realize that some of the things we already do may help reach that goal.  For instance, I got back from a trip to Galapagos Islands a few months ago. And as I was thinking about the trip, it occurred to me that the Galapagos Islands are like a naturalist paradise. As we make commitments to address climate change (big or small), we are moving closer to the goal of reaching a naturalist paradise of our own.

It’s always a good idea to break a goal down to various phases or parts and work toward intermediate steps of success. Even if establishing a naturalist paradise, or solving climate change if you will, seems to be unrealistic, the various steps one can take to help reach that goal are not.

One good example of this in the transportation world is  the “Vision Zero” campaign. I remember when it was called “Toward Zero Death” way back when. The idea is to set a goal of achieving no traffic fatalities or serious injuries from car crashes over a certain number of years. One’s first reaction is that it is an unattainable goal. OK, but then can you tell me if there is a group of people whose lives we can accept losing on the highway or local streets, since this goal is so “unattainable?” Could that be your wife/husband or significant other, child, parent, sibling, good friend, or a casual acquaintance? The answer is no. So we set about working with key partners and stakeholders to redesign dangerous intersections, install traffic calming devices such as roundabouts, install pedestrian road crossings, implement retroreflective signage, etc. We may not reach the ultimate goal but we will may see success along the way, in reducing the number of traffic fatalities.

My trip to the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador in South America, was in the early part of May, 2019. We visited the islands of North Seymour, Bartolome, Rabida, Fernandina, Isabela, Santiago, and Santa Crua. I was excited to see many species of plants and animals and had various opportunities to see them both on land and in the water. Some of the islands had very little transportation infrastructure, if any at all. In other words, I didn’t experience any rush hour unless you count the group of Orcas we saw one morning as we crossed the equator on the fourth day.  

20190512_175543I went on this trip with my sisters Virginia and Karen and my brother-in-law Stephen. I had no idea what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised with the sights and the activities of this trip, and will always remember it. We were able to witness nature, whether from a shoreline tour on a zodiac boat, snorkeling along some of the inlets, doing a short hike along some of the natural trails and beaches or kayaking along the shores. One thing I like about traveling is being able to share my experiences with friends and colleagues. And boy did I take many pictures!

I won’t kid you, Galapagos has had its own issues in the past in which humans have introduced invasive species that have threatened the islands. But many foresighted naturalists and scientists have been able to mitigate some of those impacts, preserve the Islands and closely manage human interaction through limited tours. The wildlife is so used to visitors they don’t view humans as a threat and rarely scatter when you approach them. Nothing like being up-close and personal with a Blue Footed Boobie or a Frigatebird.

20190512_183340In fact, when we arrived at the hotel in Guayaquill, Ecuador and as we were about to take the trip from Ecuador to the islands, we were issued a transit control card. This card was given to all of us and was issued by the Government Council for Galapagos as a measure towards “sustainable human development and conservation of the Galapagos Islands.” The card was a way to limit the number of people on the tour so we could enjoy this natural paradise while at the same time maintaining its integrity and natural beauty.


What can this trip teach us about the importance of climate change? Whether you believe in the impacts of human behavior on climate or not, any action you take or day-to-day practice you follow that helps reduce the carbon footprint, is a good thing. It surely doesn’t hurt.

I am not pushing major policies, such as Cap and Trade, that are being hotly debated right now. It20190512_184609 is clear to me we will have to make critical decisions in the future in regards to climate and we need to understand the ramifications of action and inaction in addressing climate change.For the sake of this blog, I just want to point out that you yourself may already be doing your part in addressing climate change. Whether you choose carpooling to work over driving alone, or compost food scraps instead of throwing it out into a landfill, recycle cans and bottles or walk to the store instead of driving; we are all doing our share to maintain natural integrity of our own environment as best we can. Can we reach the ultimate goal of a Galapagos Islands in your neighborhood? Of course not, but in these actions, we are doing our small part in making the world a little more sustainable and a little more pleasant place in which to live. We are helping to preserve our environment for future generations.

Again, the Galapagos Islands are a place where humans and animals live mostly in perfect harmony in the natural environment. If that is the ultimate goal of completely addressing the impacts of climate change, any steps toward doing that are well worth it.

20190517_084847By the way, my favorite part of the trip was the last day when we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, located near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, to see the giant tortoises.

We went to the center not only for the big turtles, but to see how the station raises young giant tortoises and then releases them into the wild. We saw some of the small turtles in their pens. This program is run in conjunction with the Galapagos Park Service. Since 1970, more than 2,000 tortoises have been hatched, raised and released. Later we went to a national park in the highlands of Santa Cruz and were able to see the large turtles in their natural habitat. Again, we were able to be with the turtles, up-close and personal.

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James Davenport is a TDM Employer Outreach Specialist, on contract with the Virginia Department of Transportation. Before that, James worked for Prince William County/Department of Transportation as a Regional Planner. In that capacity, he represented the county in regional forums and worked with planners and staff from other localities and transit agencies to help the region plan for its transportation future. For many years, James worked with the National Association of Counties as a project manager providing education and outreach to county officials, staff and key stakeholder groups on planning issues such as transportation, water quality, collaborative land use and economic development.





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