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. 


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


The Real Cost of Distracted Driving

Fifteen years ago, on a trip to the mall, my daughter and I were hit at the crosswalk by a distracted driver who was under the influence of prescription drugs that warned against operating a motor vehicle.

At one end of the crosswalk, a group of pedestrians waited, hesitant to cross. An SUV had stopped several feet from the yield sign, music blaring, while the driver fixed her hair. The SUV driver looked up and waived everyone to cross the street. As we began to cross, my daughter’s shoe came off. I shouted out to the driver and raised my hand up as I grabbed her shoe.

As I bent down to carry my daughter the rest of the way, I heard a woman scream. I stood up and saw the SUV coming full speed at me, inches away from my body. Everything happened so quick. I didn’t have time to react. I held onto her SUV with every strength that I had and repeatedly hit the hood to keep myself from sliding under her car. Finally, I got her to stop. Frantically, I started looking for my daughter, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. I started yelling hysterically, asking where my daughter was, No one responded, everyone was in shock.

After a moment of silence, I heard my daughter struggling to breathe beneath the car. I instantly ran from the hood to the side of the car and pulled my daughter out from underneath the SUV. Her body was severely injured. I held her tight and screamed for help. I thought I was going to lose her as I watched her struggle to breathe. An officer came to our aide from the mall nearby until the ambulance came to take her to Children’s National Hospital. My daughter fell into a coma. Doctors said we had a 24-hour window to know if she would survive or not.

My daughter pulled through the night and had a long recovery from the head-on collision. She was 3 years old when the SUV hit her, and now she is 18. She was too young to remember this horrific day, but I hold these memories because both of our lives could have been taken from a distracted driver. There are others who have fallen victim to distracted drivers, whose lives were lost, or who sustained serious or life-threatening injuries as a result of a preventable accident.

Are you a distracted driver? Do you know someone who has been distracted while driving? I know that I have witnessed friends and close loved ones distracted by their phones and live streaming on social media while driving.

What is distracted driving? It refers to the act of driving while engaging in other activities which distract the driver’s attention away from the road. Distractions are shown to compromise the safety of the driver, passengers, pedestrians, and people in other vehicles.
Based on the 2019 driving statistics:

  • The pressure to respond to work-related messages while driving is common among adults aged 18 to 34 (37% of respondents compared to 25% of the national average among all age groups)
  • Parents with young children were more likely to be distracted while driving (87%) than were adults with no small children (74%).
  • Taking photos while driving was admitted by one in three female drivers.

The same study also uncovered differences between Android and iPhone users’ distracted driving behavior:

  • Claiming they never get distracted while driving: 23% of Android users, 16% of iPhone users and 38% of users of other mobile operating systems make this claim
  • Streaming and social media use is more than twice as likely from iPhone and Apple Carplay users than Android users. Admitting they watch YouTube videos: 10% of iPhone users and 4% of Android users admitted to this distracted driving habit

What does this mean? Drivers are not paying attention, additional driving education, training and awareness is needed. Educate yourself on distracted driving and save lives. Click here to learn more about defensive driving awareness.



We would love to help you with your sustainability goals.