Urban planning democratized

Architecture and political science professor Elihu Rubin '99 leads students in an interactive urban design workshop.
Architecture and political science professor Elihu Rubin '99 leads students in an interactive urban design workshop. Photo by Sari Levy.

Though designing cities requires years of training and experience, the future of urban planning may involve local residents armed with little more than toy blocks and Popsicle sticks.

Twelve students gathered in William Harkness Hall Tuesday night for a workshop led by urban planner James Rojas. The event is part of a larger initiative developed by Rojas called PLACE IT!, which has hosted over 250 similar workshops across the world since it began in 2008. Rojas said he hopes that workshops like these will help transform the urban planning process from remaining highly “technical or bureaucratic” to engaging and serving the public.

“There’s a communication breakdown between the urban planners and the public,” Rojas said. “The tools that they use to plan a city don’t connect with the public’s experience of the city.”

Rojas said an interactive approach to urban planning has several advantages over the expert-driven modernist approach that currently dominates the field: generating fresh ideas that urban planners may not consider, focusing on the needs and desires of the future consumers of the space and utilizing the energy and creativity of the public to propel the planning process.

Though the public may generate impractical ideas, Rojas argued that planners need to receive as much feedback as possible from residents before they begin the urban design process so that they can better understand what citizens value in their city.

“You have to study all the options. Even if someone wants to put camels on the street, you want that idea to be heard and considered too,” Rojas said.

To demonstrate this concept, Rojas asked each student at the workshop to build a section of their ideal city with a variety of trinkets including foam blocks and chess pieces. Though the plans included a massive hovercraft docking station and an “industrial dystopia,” others reflected a variety of realistic approaches to urban design. While some focused on the ease of living in the city by making public transportation convenient or designing walkable urban centers, others prioritized the city’s aesthetic experience, creating vast parks or weaving walkways between buildings.

After students described their individual concepts, they collaborated in two groups to discuss and model improvements to the area surrounding Yale-New Haven Hospital. In this segment of the workshop, students were asked to reconcile the area’s current layout with their contrasting personal visions for how cities should be designed.

Rojas sees these workshops as an educational tool for empowering the public to proactively seek community-driven changes in their urban environment. Though most of the student attendees at his Yale workshop had some course experience with urban planning, Rojas said that many of his most successful workshops have drawn citizens with no previous urban planning experience. Sometimes, PLACE IT! workshops have sparked concrete changes in the community, he said. In Tijuana, Mexico, for instance, an inspired participant later successfully called upon the city to transform a dry riverbed into a park.

While the art community has supported this interactive approach to urban planning, most city governments are resistant to such “avant-garde” thinking, Rojas said. Many local governments have prioritized general city development over individual building plans, compromising the public’s convenience and interest. He also cited an anecdote in which an urban planning committee already specified billboards and signage in its plans but failed to consider where schools might be located.

Architecture and political science professor Elihu Rubin ’99, who helped bring the workshop to Yale, said this new urban planning paradigm represents a growing trend, aided by workshops like Rojas’s. Architecture major Justine Yan ’14 called the workshop a simple and valuable tool for promoting interactive urban planning.

“Some might say this approach is less efficient, but I think it’s really important to engage the public,” Yan added.

Rojas’s larger workshops can span three days, involving up to 200 participants and costing $2000 to run.

Correction: Nov. 29

A previous version of the caption for this article misidentified the individual in the photograph as urban planner James Rojas.

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