James Rojas — Community Engagement

James Rojas

James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, and artist and founder of Place It! He has developed an innovative public-engagement and community-visioning method that uses art-making as its medium.

Career Path

I wanted a dollhouse growing up. However, in those days boys didn’t play with dolls. Instead, I built a mini, scrappy, 3-story dollhouse out of Popsicle sticks that I had picked up off the schoolyard. I used nuts, bolts, and a shoebox of small objects my grandmother had given me as furniture. When I completed furnishing the dollhouse, I wanted to build something spatially dynamic.

LA’s rapid urban transformation became my muse during my childhood. I saw hilltops disappear, new skyscrapers overtake City Hall, and freeways rip through my neighborhood. For hours I laid out streets on the floor or in the mud constructing hills, imaginary rivers, developing buildings, mimicking the city what I saw around me.

Through these early, hands-on activities I learned that vacant spaces became buildings, big buildings replaced small ones, and landscapes always changed. My satisfaction came from transforming my urban experiences and aspirations into small dioramas.

Most children outgrow playing with toys, not me! Building small cities became my hobby as I continued to find objects with which to express architecture and landscapes in new ways.

Model-building helped me stay focused and relaxed at MIT, as I struggled to learn the technical planning language. I turned my studio space into a three-year city-building marathon where I spent many hours experimenting with new ways to visualize the urban theories I was learning. Most of my classmates, however, focused on policy and were not interested in the physical aspects of city form, which I thought it was peculiar. Needless to say, my city model-building techniques became more sophisticated through this formal education. The celebration of urban form fascinated people which allowed me to have my first art exhibit in the MIT student lounge. This model was later sold to the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1991 when I graduated.

Black plumes of smoke covered LA as far as the eye could see as I drove on Hollywood freeway fleeing the city to the San Gabriel Valley.

LA’s 1992 civil unrest rocked my planning world as chaos hit the city streets in a matter of hours. The civil unrest for me represented a disenfranchised working class population and the disconnection between them and the city’s urban planners. Why weren’t their voices being heard?

The end of the Cold War was an opportunity to explore the role of civil society in governance. I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Budapest. Our U.S. mission was to build a strong civil society that would prevent the rise of communism in the region again. I was no longer a planner behind a desk but out on the Hungarian streets soliciting community input and building environmental awareness coalitions.

Returning to LA I organized professional Latino urban planners to help low-income Latinos through the Latino Urban Forum in my free time. During the day I worked at Los Angeles Metropolitan Authority, planning rail lines, bike paths and funding urban design projects. In both cases community outreach was critical to these endeavors, however, there were no tools to engage Latinos.

Art became my new muse when I co-founded G727 art gallery in Downtown LA. By collaborating with artists, I became fascinated by how artists used their imagination, emotion, and their body to capture the sensual experience of landscapes. Through this creative approach, we were able to engage the gallery’s large audiences to participate and think about place in different ways and uncovering new urban narratives.

Evolution of Engagement Tools

Why can’t city planners expand their community engagement tools to encourage creativity, happiness, to tap new audiences? I began to reconsider my city models as a tool for increasing joyous participation by giving the public artistic license to imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect on their community. One weekend I displayed my model in the gallery. It was well received by the public.

The model’s buzz caught the attention of Doreen Nelson, who is a professor at Art Center and Cal Poly Pomona. She developed Design-Based Learning (DBL) a methodology based on John Dewey’s learn-by-doing pedagogy. She visited the gallery to see my model and encouraged me to take her DBL course at Art Center. I was the only urban planner in the five-day summer course that focused on K-12 education. DBL helps teachers unleash the student’s knowledge of math, science, history and other subjects by allowing them to use his/her hands, imagination, objects and build model cities. I thought why not use this approach in city planning. At the end of the day, we plan infrastructure and what better way to communicate this to the public by having them prototype it!

DBL taught me a new way to rethink my models as no longer a hobby or static piece of art but an interactive tool to unleash people’s visceral urban knowledge and communicate it in a new meaningful way. The street grid, topography, landscapes, and buildings of my models provide the public with an easier way to respond to reshaping their community based on the physical constraints of place. DBL provides the public with a free form of urban inquiry and expression that goes beyond the limitations of the physical form. It provides people infinite possibilities to explore their aspirations and prototype solutions without constraints.

Beginnings of Place It

In November of 2007, I received a phone call from a friend, Sojin Kim. She asked if I was interested in facilitating a charrette for Taking the Reins, which is a nonprofit organization that teaches at-risk adolescent girls from urban environments in Los Angeles life skills through equestrian activities. The organization had recently purchased a parcel of land by the LA River and was embarking on building a new facility and wanted input from the girls.

With the help of Peter Tolkin Architects, we organized my first interactive workshop. I was nervous because I was not sure how the engagement and information would be using my new methodology with actual participants and architects. I brought over the trays of objects to the studio. I asked the 15 Latinas to create a space for themselves and their horses they took care of.

Latina community leaders heard about this workshop and began requesting me to facilitate workshops for their organization and causes. They were interested in new ways of engaging underserved communities, such as youth, immigrants, and other women to help them find their voice, encourage self-determination, and ultimate have the power to reshape their community.

Teachers were also interested in me teaching students urban planning using this method.

Today I have developed an urban planning outreach method called Place It!, which is based on my childhood play. I have facilitated 500 workshops and built over 100 interactive models, collaborating with artists, curators, teachers, architects, urban planners, youth, and immigrants in communities around the country to help them explore their spatial and visual language of cities.

The Place It! workshops have inspired and transformed the way people think about cities. From here the demand for these services has grown from community advocates to municipal planners.

Lessons Learned

The 15 adolescent Latinas quickly became immersed in the Place It! exercises, by touching, shifting, through the hundreds of small objects as they talked and laughed. Their hands were busy picking, shuffling, weaving and conjuring up whimsical, nurturing, and beautiful spaces and structures for them and their horses. The exercise unleashed the girls' in-depth knowledge of designing a place to work with horses. surprised the girls and organizers who designing a new horse stable.

This was the first Place It! workshop I facilitated 10 years ago and through word of mouth I have conducted over 500 workshops and trained others to facilitate the workshops themselves. I have collaborated with educators, community organizations, and municipalities, to engage immigrants, underserved communities, youth, women, and LGBTQ members to explore their visceral language of cities. Most of the clients are women and men of color who are exploring new approaches to community engagement.

For meaningful, authentic, and transformative public engagement planners need to rethink and prioritize their outreach goals and strategies. They can no longer take a one size fits all approach and think about personality types, gender, age, venues, tools, and the details to create a space that all people can be forthright. They need to think of the following:

  • Relationship building: Planners need to reprioritize outreach goals and treat people as humans and a data set.
  • Reflection: Allow people to understand the deeper meaning of place and belonging.
  • Empathy: People need to think beyond their personal interest and that of others.
  • Nurturing: People need to initially work in teams to think about the public good and not their own personal interest.
  • Satisfaction: Planners need to take out the competition, and “mansplaining” out of public meetings. They have focused on capturing every whisper in the meeting rather than the loudest voice.
  • Tools and Techniques: Planners need to use tools and techniques that people are comfortable with.

Often times people, who have participated on the Place It! workshops years ago, approaches me and rave about the Place It! I will remember their stories more often than their names.

Through Place It! workshop participants use their creative problem-solving skills to improve people's civic literacy. As a result, participants continue to constructively engage in the planning process well after their participation in the workshops.

Workshop Methodology

The Place It! method combines my professional urban planning practice, community organizing, Design-Based Learning, with my model building techniques.

Planners provide the quantitative data through maps, numbers, and policy, Place It allows participants to provide the qualitative data by expressing their personal narratives based on memories, experiences, and desires. This simple activity provides planners with a comprehensive understanding of the public’s urban agenda and aspirations.

To achieve this Place It! returns adults back to the “proverbial” sandbox where they are able to imagine, create, and have fun while investigating city planning with others.

Place It uses simple tools like storytelling, objects, art-making, collaboration, and play to have meaningfully public engagement and better outcomes.

  • Storytelling allows participants to express their urban narrative in their own “language”. Storytelling promotes empathy because it places people in someone else’s shoes.
  • 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 broader their communication options.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
Everyone can participate in this planning process because no one dominates the conversation or agenda because most of it is self-facilitating. The process removes language, gender, race, age, and professional barriers.

Task 1: Individual Reflection. Participants are asked to “Build their favorite Childhood Memory” or any other reflective prompt in fifteen minutes choosing from hundreds of small objects. This icebreaker allows participants to introduce themselves in a meaningful and personal way to equalize group. Once everyone has completed reconstructing their memory, they presented it to the group by stating their name, the place, and activity all in a minute. As a wrap-up, the participants are asked to state common themes that were consistent with everybody’s memories. In short, participants learn that their first attachment to place informs their adult urban life.

Task 2: Community Building: Participants are placed in teams and asked to “Build their Ideal Community” or similar prompt depending on a topic in 15 minutes using the same objects. The teams are given no constraints so they can choose their own issue and solve it. Once each team has completed their community models, they are asked to present to the group. After each team presents their model, each member is asked to pick a day, time, and describe an activity in the future using the model. This gives the model a life all its own. As a wrap-up, the group is asked to identify common themes, solutions, and what values we can extrapolate.

The workshops are usually an hour of intensive building and reflection. Since people are building solutions there is very little time for complaining.

Tips for Successful Community Engagement

The first step for planners is to build a relationship with all people in the community.

Use reflection

Community First

More building less talking


Collaboration not a competition

Not everyone is at the same level of urban planning.

This process creates a safe space for everyone to come together, listen, share, bond, and collaborate to find common values and generate cutting-edge ideas and solutions for their communities.

Typical Day

 I get up at six and write until 9:00 a.m. than attend meetings and phone calls. Build cities in the afternoon.

Career Surprise

What has been the best surprise in your career? I have transformed my childhood play into a career in planning

What do you enjoy most about your current role? I help people who never planned before find their voice and encourage self-motivation.

Schools and First job

Woodbury University, BS Interior Design

MIT, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MCP and SMArchS

My first job was with the City of Santa Monica.

Influences and Tools

Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, Holly White, Daniel Burnam, Christoper Alexander

The tools I use on a regular basis are hair rollers, pipe cleans and other everyday household items

What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful? Observe people in cities

Any influential people? Cesar Chavez, Interview for the thesis on Latino Urbanism. John Kamp helped me vet ideas.