Urban Planning as a Social Practice: Portland Interactive Workshop
By James Rojas
Twenty something people gather at Portland State University to created their ideal city, town, or neighborhood. Before the interactive urban planning workshop started, the participants began tinkering with the thousands of small objects placed in front of them. This exchange was a great start for the hour and a half, high-energy, exercise that followed.
Three six foot tables and chairs were placed in the Littman Gallery at Portland State University to set the stage for creative, urban planning exercise. Colored construction paper was placed on the tabletops for each participant along with the small objects placed in the middle of the table.
As the audience meandered in the gallery, I quickly introduced myself as a city planner and informed them of the venue. I told them they were going to create, design, and build their ideal city, town or neighborhood using the construction paper as a base and the thousands of small objects in twenty minutes. I informed them that there are no right or wrong answers and all approaches to creating their models were welcome. We just want to hear from you about your personal urban ideas.
With this general topic and loose criteria some participants took a few minutes to reflect on the design challenge while others scrambled for materials to create their ideal world.
Self Reflection and the State of Being
Twenty minutes allows people to self reflect on the question and the materials help them to visualize and construct their idea. Participants go through a quick thinking process about their urban experience past, present or future, problems they want to solve, or fantasies they have about cities. In addition the thousands of colorful, tactile, objects triggers the participant’s emotional and visual connections to the environment. By moving the objects and playing with shapes they have control over the environment and learn about relationships between spaces. Seeing, seeking, and touching the mimics how people experienced the city.
Once the participants secured their materials they began building. During this time I asked the audience if they needed any help and walked around the tables. I kept on reassuring the builders that every ideal is welcome. The Portland participants were adults and because of their creative backgrounds had no trouble building. In fact the first table of predominately woman were talking and laughing as if they were at a brunch, while the third table of men were quite and serious as while they worked.
After the twenty minutes, the builders were given one-minute to present their designs to the group. One minute was good time limit because it allows for every one to participate, keeps the pace of the exercise moving, limits the time of gadflies and helps shy participants present.
I asked the participants to state their name and tell the group about their interesting, beautiful designs. With much conviction and enthusiasm the participants presented their plans. They used the model as references point as they maneuvered us through their dioramas. The dioramas were done in great details. The connections between objects and what they represented were fascinating to hear.
Since the participants interjected their own personal experiences, memories, and random thoughts of places real and imagined, this became the most interesting part of the process. The participant’s everyday experiences drove this process.
The ideas varied. Each participant created his or her city in his or her own terms. Some designs were ideal based. Some designs are specific, and literal.
One participate was reading the urban planner Jane Jacobs and said, “This city is inspired by Jane Jacobs, the blocks are short and people are interacting everywhere.” An other participant said he lived Edinburgh, Scotland. “There is a castile on a hill in Edinburgh and this is where I would take visitors. So my design starts with a castle to take visitors and I have expanded the sites to included a haunted house. I accidentally created Disneyland.” “I love koas in city.” “This is a transportation plan for Portland.” “The city is about water and communal bathing.” “The center of my city is Art.” “Love Chicago and recreated it.” “I created a small agg town in Central California.”
After each participant explained their ideal city or space I would quickly summarized what was said in a planning turns, so the participants are reassured that their idea no matter how fantastic is has relevance in the discussion. Then every one claps to reassure the creator that they made a design.
Before the models were dismantled which sadden the participants, they were documented in photographes. This also led to next exercise where the participants were asked to pick a place in Portland they wanted to improve. They were asked to bring their ideas together to do this. They participants were tasked to bring together the best ideas to create the collective city. They were given fifteen minutes to complete this activity.
The first exercise allowed the participants to develop an opinion about the city, that they could later discuss and re-create in the collective city. They worked together and connected their ideas. They were also tasked to come up with a name for their cities.
After fifteen minutes the working each group was asked to present to everyone. Each group explained their models by taking us through the model.
Because of time constraints we could not ask questions after each presentation.
The interactive planning method is based on pedagogy where people retain more information by engaging all their senses. By having participants listen, talk, see, touch, and building physical models they learn a great deal about urban planning.
For people the city is visual, and sensual experience. It’s dry, rainy, hot, cold, safe, unsafe, vibrant, boring for people, so this is how we need to discuss urban planning, rather than in abstract language.
This method drew out the participants ideas by taping into their emotions by making planning visual, tactile, and playful. It simplified the planning process so that everyone could participate. Barriers between participants were removed because everyone created and built in a safe space where there are no right or wrong answers.
This urban planning activity taught me how youth desires interactive public spaces. Life is fun and the landscape should reflect it. Many participants mentioned sustainability. For some participants the city was about interactive activities while others it was problem solving.
Their emotions drove the process. How they saw, touch, smelled and felt the environment was event.
By using non-represent objects participants were forced to be creative and not conform to the current world. If I would have given every one houses and cars they would of created what we have today. But by not having these constraints people were free to express themselves and not confined themselves to the existing world.
Through this exercise the participants investigated and discovered their relationship with the city through arranging the objects. They created small vignettes of urban life. The participants gained the greatest satisfaction from this process because they were able to translate memories, visions, and ideas from their mind into a physical form.
This information can be given to the Portland Planning Department or Transportation department, elected officials, other community members but more importantly it was a transformative experience for the participants. They realized how easy it is to understand and participate in urban planning.
As a urban planner, I use art as a way to engage and educate the public about city planning. Social practice can help us save the world be better planning.