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Episode 80 guest James Rojas

During James Rojas’s formal planning education and the beginning of his career, he found that planning tools relied on maps and infrastructure and overlooked the role of memory, creativity, and art, an oversight that excluded people and undermined what truly makes a city unique.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Rojas: James Rojas

Cohen: Until my guest today, James Rojas, framed it this way, I never really thought about why more people would seek out an art gallery or the movies for a date night rather than a planning meeting. It’s because an art gallery or the movies have emotion, which is often sorely lacking in planning. You’ll get an insight into how James is addressing that in his planning practice, coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is James Rojas, an urban planner, community activist, and artist with a particular expertise in examining U.S. Latino cultural influences on urban design and sustainability. He is also the founder of the Latino Urban Forum, an advocacy group dedicated to increasing awareness around planning and design issues facing low-income Latinos and PLACE IT!, a design-and-participation based urban planning practice. Welcome to The Movement, James.

Rojas: Thank you. Happy to be here.

Cohen: I first got familiar with your work and your background by a recent piece you wrote, which I’ll link out to, called “The Education – and Miseducation – of an Urban Planner.” And I love the piece, and the fundamental issue that you laid out at the beginning was that planning is taught to be this emotionless and rational kind of academic exercise; and yet the way that planning is experienced is with emotion.

And so I think that’s just such a critical, critical piece. And you then go on to draw this distinction between the different types of community engagement. So you have information sharing, and then you have knowledge producing. And so I’d love maybe if you could maybe introduce us to that distinction a little bit, because I know that community engagement is a key part of your work. And maybe as a part of that maybe introduce a little bit to what PLACE IT! does.

Rojas: Okay. Well, yeah. So as a planner I went to MIT thinking that I would discover the magic of cities, why I like cities. But I think most people, you know, they go to planning school with that kind of attitude, but they’re a little bit disappointed because that’s never what we learn. Right? We just learn about the accident figures and infrastructure and all the really kind of nuts and bolts and really kind of really, really boring stuff, the stuff that really doesn’t stimulate people.

So for me, you know, my work has always been about emotion and passion. And, you know, growing up in East Los Angeles it was a very emotionally charged landscape and hanging out with a lot of African American youth growing up, you know, in my teenage years. You just realize things are about these interactions with other people. You know, what you see on the street is really important, but it’s ultimately how we interact with people in these spaces that kind of create our sense of wellbeing and belonging. But yet in the planning practice there’s very little tools that really examine interactions. You know, for instance around place-making, people just think if you put a bunch of multicolored chairs and a sidewalk you’ve got a place, which is again looking at it from a design place. But for me it’s always about the deeper emotions people have about places that really make and break them. But, again, there’s very few planning tools to really discuss your body in space, your emotions, your interaction with people in the planning process.

You know, so you can’t really do that on a map because it’s just dots on a map; and you can’t really do it by writing because it’s such formal way of communicating or talking. But it’s really, you know, how do we get into that; how do we dig deeper and understand people’s emotions and feelings about spaces that could really address making better cities? Because I think if we start with emotion at the get-go you’re going to end up with an emotionally rich place in the end product. If we never [ph][4:24] ask that question, you’ll get a half-baked project. You know, for instance, a place like Los Angeles, you know, a lot of it’s growing, a lot of density which I like, but it’s making the city flat. It’s not as creative any more. So what’s that creative vibe that you want to talk about, you want to meet [ph][4:44], you know? Or also they’ve built a ton of—Los Angeles Unified School District built a series of schools in Los Angeles back in the ’90s and early 2000s, but all the schools feel like prisons.

Cohen: Yeah.

Rojas: You got the ’90s [ph][04:56] right but the feeling wrong. So and I think that’s a really important part of people experience a place, is feelings. You know, it’s beyond just infrastructure; it’s all these bodies and their narrative memories really shape these spaces they tend to inhabit. So that’s why I started. I worked on Metro for a while, you know, and [INDISCERNIBLE][5:17]. And we were working on the Eastside community with Latinos. And, you know, we’d have a lot of them in the room, but they wouldn’t say a word about the project, about the plan, yes or no, maybe. So but I knew they had a lot of attachment to these places. Since I grew up there, I knew about the really interesting ways they use space. But so how do we get them to draw out these emotions, the feelings in that kind of setting?

So at that same time I started working with—had an art gallery in Downtown Los Angeles that was working with a lot of artists. And I was really struck by how artists talk about landscape in a really emotionally charged, creative way. Why can’t we as planners use those same tools? You know, because people love going to art galleries and movies, but they hate going to a planning meeting, maybe been to one but that was enough for them. So, you know, people are giving the power to the planner by not attending the meeting, but the way the planners structure their meetings they’re kind of confrontation and very uncreative.

But think about your body and creativity as a way to get people engaged was kind of what I set out to do. And I think a lot of it—you know, a lot of the best ways to capture emotion is through art making because we when you use your hands and you use colors, shapes, and forms your body begins to respond in a very kind of visceral way to this rather than a cerebral way. You know, if you ask people what they want, they’ll just say more parking or a bigger house or more money. You know? But if you ask them to build something with their hands, all of a sudden it’s about how that place feels. “I built this beautiful, warm park; I built this beautiful, quiet place; and it has purple trees and green flowers.” You know, it becomes really emotionally charged. You start to develop, you know, a sort of sense of feeling, so that’s why I started using objects as a way to get Latinos to express themselves and to capture what I was feeling or I did not. So it’s a way to get people to really capture that emotion as kind of the intangible spaces we have in cities.

So it’s really been a way—it’s been really fun because, you know, I’d been doing this for the past 10 years, and most of my clients are women or people of color because they see the city in a very different way. You know, when a woman walks down the street, it’s about her body in that space and what’s her reaction to it. So the workshops are pretty simple. It’s probably the simplest planning technique around, where they’re one hour long, and they have people build. The first step is having them build their favorite child memory. And people build that in less than five minutes. But I tell people, “That memory is your DNA for city planning.” That’s that feeling you want to cap—you’re going to live with for the rest of your life [ph][8:04].

Cohen: Is that a memory that necessarily was in the public sphere, or could that be a private memory that took place inside a home?

Rojas: It could be a private memory. It could be any memory. But, well, you know, most often—what’s interesting about—and I do this [INDISCERNIBLE][8:22] maybe 3,000 times. And people—and the memory is always outdoors. You see patterns start to emerge. Right? It’s always outdoors; it’s always with other people, interactive; it’s always what people as kids kind of go back to, you know, what people talk about. So you realize that these memories are a really important part of your life and are really your basis for planning and community visioning. You want to capture that memory that’s still in your head that you still—that’s kind of your Bible or your DNA for planning.

And how do we upload that memory to a transportation plan, a housing plan, an open space plan, and economic plan? Because ultimately you’re going to fall back on that memory as a way to get you through life. And we need to talk about it from the get-go to get people thinking about their life and what they really want out of it. So it’s been really fascinating to use this prompt. You know, because it’s interesting because at first I would have people build their ideal city individually, but what happened—what I would do with urban planners, they’d always build a book city [ph][9:32]. “My ideal city has a TOD and a BRT and an LRT,” you know, and I go, “No, I want to hear what that memory is, you know, what that emotion is that really got you thinking about space and place and happiness.”

A lot of times it’s, you know, being with your father, traveling in the car with your father or having Christmas dinner at your grandma’s house or playing _______________________________________________________ [9:54] front yard. It’s all these different memories and stories they tell. These are stories that have to be a part of the planning process. That’s what you’re going to fall back on. So people build these memories in less than 10 minutes or five minutes, but interesting is that, you know, you have this idea in your head that’s very intangible. Right? But when you build it, it becomes tangible; it becomes a real thing, you know, like a piece of art. And then you can negotiate it and play with it.

And then as planners we had data to understand what kind of spaces, shapes we need to create to make people happy basically. Now that memory is triggering [ph][10:38] all these, you know, special arrangements because people realize that they have power in that memory and that memory is really important to them. You know, we just did a workshop in Birmingham, Alabama with African Americans and asked them that same question, “You know, what’s going to make you create a new vision [ph][10:50]?” I think that’s a critical part for people that don’t have a lot of architecture or visioning techniques. But so what happened there, they had this kind of unfair balance [ph][11:05]. Right? If I come in as a planner/architect/designer, I have the vision; I have the power. So by giving people that kind of visioning power, now they had the power too. So it’s that’s really kind of leveled the playing field.

So after that people would talk about the memories and the common themes and activities. And after that they’ll work in teams to kind of build their ideal park; they build their ideals street or their ideal, you know, housing projects. But they’re working in teams, and objects people can negotiate, again, what they want real easily through space, but you can’t do it through words. “I want parking. I want no parking.” [LAUGHS] You could fight that until the end [ph][11:48]. Or, “I want cars. I want bike lanes.” You know, it’s kind of a no-wins argument. Right? But if you give people the tools to kind of solve that problem spatially they’ll figure it out. So space becomes [ph][12:00] a negotiation tool. And, you know, I think the more diverse your teams are, the better your answer and the systems are going to be [ph][12:07].

And plus people think about their memory when they’re building the solution, so people end up building these really collective, beautiful features or visions that make them happy. So, you know, I think—I’ve done probably over, again, a thousand workshops or 5,000 member collaborations [ph][12:28]. And maybe one or two have actually put parking in there or put cars in there. You know, so you realize that as planners we’re asking the wrong questions. You know, we’re not giving people what they really want; we just want—you know, so how do we rethink planning from this emotional sense of feeling as a way to get the right solution that can solve our problems? You know, because people start thinking about nature or thinking about same ability [ph][12:54] and others, and they build these collective communal spaces that aren’t what we see—that are not what see in our cities today. It’s a good way to get people to collaborate and think about, you know, bringing together and using your feeling to really drive that process. You know, so once [INDISCERNIBLE][13:13] more holistic [INDISCERNIBLE][13:17].

We just did a project in South Colton in California, The Inland Empire, one of the probably poorest neighborhoods in Southern California, an old packing town with Latino residents living there and, you know, not a lot going on there. But they had such a rich memory of all these vacant lots. As a planner, I would never know. That’s all in their head _______________________________________ [13:42] memories to understand the spaces that they occupy, you know, and why are they important to them. And I think that’s another way to get us to understand, you know, the meaning of space of place. It’s attachment; it’s not about this kind of having these new ideas that kind of ______________________________________________________ everybody else, different people’s lived experiences [ph][14:02].

Cohen: Yeah. I love that. What I want to just highlight there is that these memories are so foundational, but that’s—you know, nothing that you get in planning or planning school or the academic part of planning is at all related to those memories. Right? And so you have a planner that comes in without the benefit of each individual or that community’s collective memory. You’re almost set up to fail if you don’t take the approach you take. Right?

Rojas: Exactly. And I think that’s a problem. I think you have a lot of—like, I think planners are, like, kind of carpetbaggers. They just come in with ideas, and they kind of sell the idea to the community, and then they leave. And then the community has this really grandiose plan that’s not really based on their own experiences and their expectations and their aspirations.

Cohen: And it probably just leaves it feeling a little bit less authentic, a little bit less, you know, cookie-cutter. It makes it feel like more this is just some template for how to do place making or making a bike lane or anything like that, if you don’t truly understand the ins and outs of that community and, again, kind of grounding it in that old memory, their first kind of emotional memory like that. It seems like you’re just going to get left with almost this soulless plan—right—a plan that doesn’t have a soul.

Rojas: Yeah, and I think a lot of plans end up being stuck just sitting on a shelf because they’re not connected to community. And, like, planners will always say, “This plan is not going to be stuck on the shelf.” You know, well, how are you going to change that? You know, for me, I want that to live in people’s heads and memories and their aspirations.

Cohen: Hmm. So I want to chat about something that I—you were mentioned a couple of years ago in a podcast called 99% Invisible, which is a great podcast, about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, which is shade. I’m a pretty fair-skinned person, so I do not like going in the sun, and I seek out shade wherever I can. And in that podcast there’s lots of different talk about the role of shade, but you mentioned as an expert of Latino urbanism that shade plays a particular role in the Latino culture. And so I’d love to maybe get a little bit of insight into that from your work as a Latino urbanism expert.

Rojas: Well, I think for people from Latin America, from the warmer climates, you know, they know how to deal with shade in all these different levels. You know, they know how to deal with sun and shade because they had to deal with it in their own native countries. So I think a lot of Latinos, you know, sun is a really important part of their culture, about their build environment, but it’s also a tool that they use to enhance it in certain ways.

A lot of Latinos in Mexico will have a room or Latin America where they don’t have a roof over the head. Right? So the area then becomes kind of indoor-outdoor. In fact, if you look at the early homes in Los Angeles built by the Mexicans, sort of Spanish, the kitchen was always a space outside under a shaded patio. It wasn’t until the Yankees came from Boston that the kitchen became part of the home. You know, so, again, the use of environment and climate was changed by different standards of how you approach it. So a lot of Latinos are used to being outside; they want these kind of warm, sunny environments, but they also want these shady environments as well because they know you have to have both.

A lot of Latinos—what I looked at is front porches. You know, Latinos will always have these big—will add these extensive front porches on their homes as a way to kind of be outside, be inside, but in a really shady spot. Or they’ll have these really dense gardens in their front yard with trees. You know? So it’s a really—so they’ve used these ways to really understand how to _____________________________________________ [18:24] sun. You know, I think a lot of people that come to Los Angeles especially kind of from northern climates that are maybe sun worshippers, so they want full sun all the time. You know? “Don’t block my sun,” you know? So I think with Latinos, I mean, you have this kind of balance between how do you create the sun and shade as part of the built environment. You know, you got to Latin America and you’ll have these plazas that have—they’re almost, like, pitch dark because the tree cover is so thick. They have this really strong cooling effect.

Cohen: Yeah.

Rojas: So, again, but these are all, you know, natural ways people use to deal with these kind of conditions. And plus I think that a lot of Latinos walk around, if they take transit and walk, therefore shade becomes a really important part of their neighborhoods and kind of how they move around. So it’s really important to provide shade.

Cohen: What I love about what you’re saying is this kind of acknowledgement of this indoor-outdoor kind of relationship—right—because we don’t live our lives just indoors or outdoors. Right? I mean, we kind of have to do both.

Rojas: Yeah.

Cohen: And so when you see some of these suburban, kind of the way the United States has suburbanized over the last 50 years, you have these communities where they’ll create these brand-new homes that on the inside may be appealing to someone, a certain subset of folks, but on the outside they’ve clear cut all the trees, and the neighborhood amenities are pretty minimal because it’s only car dependent and so forth. And I find it almost like they didn’t kind of take that symbiotic relationship where you kind of have that indoor and outdoor, but they’ve really just prioritized only the indoor. Right? And then the outdoor is kind of an afterthought.

Rojas: Yeah. So I think for a lot of, like, northern cultures like in Scandinavia, England, the whole idea is that the home is kind of a cozy spot. You have a really strong barrier between indoor and outdoor space, and it’s just because of cold weather. It’s very, very strong __________________________________________________ [20:34]. But I think in Latin America and maybe Asia, Japan you have more permeable indoor-outdoor spaces. So people understand that permeability as part of how you build architecture and build cities. You know, it’s going to be this really kind of fuzzy line.

And, I think, also for Latinos, especially because of the public spaces like plazas, you know, you have this really strong sense of social cohesion and how public space really enhances social cohesion. So you have to have public spaces that people can use that maybe in other culture that’s not so important. You know, and the whole idea of, you know, placing value on the front yard, you know, which is very America. You know, you have these kind of puritan _________________________________________________ [21:18] about the front yard being this place of just nothing; you know, its value is not really of use [ph][21:24]. We have different kind of ways of thinking about basically the really different way they are kind of more fundamental to, you know, Latin American urbanism is to America, you know, as well as American urbanism. That really shaped these environments. So you have this kind of fusion of puritanical ways, you know [INDISCERNIBLE][21:41] so the first suburban houses were built Cape Cod style. You know? Like, it was puritan style. Right?

Cohen: Yeah.

Rojas: So, you know, very much the little, tiny boxes, and whereas in Latin American people built—the houses there are kind of connected; they have plazas, so they have a lot more communal spaces that are really well defined where it’s not really happening in suburbia. So you have this kind of hybrid style with Latinos living in suburbia where they built these plazas in their front yards. They’re using shade spaces. Usually shady spaces are where people hang out [ph][22:17].

Cohen: Yeah, and I think you’re right. I hadn’t really thought about that, just the influence of the northern climates and their kind of more inward-facing home because of the climate. You know, that certainly makes sense, but as the American South and American Southwest and West has developed, obviously that climate issue isn’t as big of an issue, so you can spend more time outside. And yet in many of those location, not all of them, on the suburban side you still have this kind of dominant kind of inward-facing home where you’re not thinking about the external spaces in that same way. That’s really kind of a fascinating perspective I hadn’t thought of.

Rojas: Yeah.

Cohen: What other aspects of Latino urbanism should we be—you know, maybe they’re hidden parts that are for someone who is not in that culture directly, but are there aspects that we should be paying more attention to or respecting more or acknowledging? Because I’m sure there are some aspects of that whether—you know, you just gave a great example with the shade.

Rojas: Yeah. Well, I think a lot of it is really these fundamental ideas about the history of urbanism in Latin America versus the history of urbanism in the U.S. In Latin American you had the Spanish come over, and they wanted to colonize the New World by building settlements. So they had the Law of the Indies that was code web for always how to build [ph][23:50]; and they built all these probably 3,000—I don’t know how many—settlements they built from Chile to California. But then they also built the settlement with [ph] Indians and slaves in mind. So they had to build these cities or settlements that people could understand that did not speak Spanish, basically. Right? So you had these really visually rich environments.

Where you think about North American, you know, when the pilgrims came they were very exclusive. You know, “We’re coming here to have our own religion, and we all share the same language, the same values,” therefore this representation [ph][24:30] is not part of our landscape. And down in Virginia with, you know, Thomas Jefferson and all the big plantations, they were just there to make money. You know? They were there to make money, and they looked to the land as the economy [ph][24:46]. You know, so you have these kind of two ideas of the puritan idea about exclusion and economic ideas driven by the Virginians really kind of shape American urban planning today. There was never any space for a plaza in any of those places. Right?

Cohen: Right.

Rojas: You get the Boston Commons now as just a way to maybe kind of link together, but it was never really, you know, kind of collective social spaces, never part of the structure of their settlements. You know, they were always afterthoughts. Where in Latin America, because of Spanish Law of the Indies the plaza was the place for armament and the church and all these different kind of regulatory bodies that became center for community life. So that kind of social cohesion becomes part of a really big part of how people in Latin America understand the landscape, kind of less so in the U.S.
It was done by different ways, by work or by values. So we have these suburbs that have these front yards that are very much based on a value system. As long as you keep your grass short, keep it watered and green, you’re okay. You know, so it’s not very much about use, whereas ___________________________________________________________ [26:11] stay away it’s all about survival [ph][26:13]. It’s a very DIY landscape where people are tolerant of each other because the know—there’s no idea of perfection. Your front yard is right or wrong; it’s just how we survive here.

So, I think, that’s a little different than the American idea of suburbia itself; it’s supposed to be perfect. And that’s what really kind of permeates planning because planning is all about right or wrong. You know, you’re in compliance or you’re not in compliance, and that’s just the way it is. You know, so those values or kind of ordinances are held up because that’s just the way it is. You know? And, I think, a lot of people that kind of grew up in these middle class suburban neighborhoods understand perfection from the get-go, where for me I had to understand perfection by going to school. [LAUGHS] You know, because it’s always been about—

Cohen: Yeah.

Rojas: So for me doing my research on Latino urbanism was really to figure out how do I understand my neighborhood from a different perspective, you know, not this idea of being right or wrong but looking at it from a solely emotional perspective. So, I think, a place like L.A. is very much influenced by Latinos; it’s very much a DIY landscape where you have food trucks and murals and paintings; anything goes. Right? Where maybe like San Francisco is a little more controlled or other parts of the country are more controlled. Like, D.C. is really a controlled environment. Right? But L.A. is really kind of a free-for-all because people understand that’s part of how people are a little more tolerant in that landscape.

Cohen: I want to tie that back though to, you know, you mentioned the experience of people growing up in the suburban environment, say, in the U.S. in today’s world. And I’d be curious, going back to what you started with talking about, you know, when you do these planning sessions and you ask people of their first memories and this strong emotion, emotional memory, I’m curious what, if you did that in that suburban community, whether those memories would be different or whether they’d be similar to those who grew up in a more urban environment. Have you done any of that or have you seen any kind of anecdotal experiences from that?

Rojas: Yeah. Well, I think, basically people’s memories are all the same, it’s just that the way they—the geography. Like, for instance when I do work-shopping with New England people always build fall as their favorite child memory, the leaves, the smell, the activities; whereas in Florida, you know, or Birmingham, Alabama people will build holiday seasons. We just did one in Birmingham, and people built—talked to all African Americans [ph][29:00]; they were talking about the holidays, the Christmas, the new cloths, the big family gatherings as their memory.

So people have slight differences between geography and social activities, but it’s kind of the same thing. You know, I think people just look at it from a very emotional perspective. You know? And as kids we don’t really judge what’s right or wrong yet; we just see the world [ph][29:21] that we just appreciate. And when you have that childhood memory, it’s that first time that your world makes sense to you. “Oh, yeah. I belong here. I belong in this Easter Sunday gathering in Birmingham, Alabama,” or, “I belong in these fall leaves in Massachusetts or driving along on this lake in Minnesota.” You know, so it’s more about a sense of belonging. So the idea of perfection and what’s right or wrong doesn’t really exist in childhood; it’s just about how you survive.

Cohen: Sure. Where can folks learn more about the work you’re doing with PLACE IT!?

Rojas: Well, we have a website,, and contact me directly through

Cohen: Awesome. Awesome. Well, I really appreciate you taking us into a little bit of the work you do and your background in Latino urbanism and design and urban planning. I think it’s been a fascinating ride into your experience, and I appreciate you joining me on The Movement podcast.

Rojas: Yeah, thank you.

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