Working as an urban planner for 25 years, James Rojas MCP ’91, SM ’91 noticed early on that there was an issue with his industry—a lack of diversity. “I began to notice that we had a very hard time engaging women, people of color, immigrants, and youth during the planning process,” Rojas recalls. “It’s a very male-dominated profession.” This lack of diversity meant fewer people engaged in the planning process for their own cities as well as a lack of new planning ideas from people from different backgrounds.
Committed to increasing diversity in urban planning, Rojas had an idea for how to do it—with art. “I was at an art gallery and noticed how inclusive art was, how good it was at involving a diverse group of people,” he says. Rojas believes one reason art draws a diverse crowd is the emotional connection to the work, which engages many people. Rojas says this emotional connection isn’t just limited to art. “Art is very visceral. Cities are also very visceral,” he says.
Armed with the idea of bringing art into urban planning and connecting to emotions, Rojas launched a series of workshops. In each workshop, participants—who range from kindergarteners to art aficionados—are tasked with building cities with found objects like blocks and small toys.
“I have people first start by building a place from a favorite childhood memory,” Rojas says. “It helps people understand what it is about certain places that makes them matter to them,” he says. Rojas says once people connect with what is important to them in these special places, the next challenge comes in the form of collaboration. “Most people have an idea of how to create something just fine, but don’t think about how it impacts other people,” he says.
Working in teams, workshop participants then craft their own city. The goal of these workshops is to get more people involved in urban planning by having a seat at the table, but also to highlight the profession for any would-be urban planners. “You can definitely identify the future planners,” Rojas says of the workshop groups.
While the workshops were designed to help teach a diverse group of people about urban planning, Rojas believes planners can also learn something from the workshops. “Urban planners tend to see cities as a problem to be solved, but other people see cities as a place that impacts their lives, experiences, and memories,” he says.
Rojas holds workshops around the country, recently making an appearance at MIT’s Open House in April, where young children were invited to build the campus of their dreams with just one requirement—lots of domes.