Longtime Alhambra resident, James Rojas — a city planner and community activist who worked at Metro for more than a decade — recently co-founded a new group: Alhambra Beyond Cars. It aims to look at local sustainability and development issues. Tina L. Zeng, a production assistant at the Alhambra Source, helped found the new organization with Rojas. She talked with him about his vision for the city’s future. The place to start, he says, is getting back to basics when it comes to urban planning.You're probably best known for conducting workshops from East Los Angeles to Berlin to Rio where local residents create models of urban areas. What are they all about?The workshops operate on a really simple formula: I provide about 1,000 found objects or recycled materials for them to build their ideal city in 20 minutes, then have them verbally explain the elements in their ideal environment. In the past two years, I’ve done about 120 of them at universities, high schools, grammar schools, museums, art galleries, public spaces, and parks — just about any place in which people can gather.
What is the point of ordinary people building these models with recycled materials? What can they add that trained planners cannot?
It is so that residents do not have to deal with planning jargon, such as what a TOD (transit oriented development) is. Most of the public doesn’t understand that. So instead of the city educating the public about planning terms and concepts, these workshops are educating the city on its residents’ terms. If they want to create a walkable street with pink sidewalks and benches. Fine. Create it! Use a hair roller to create a TOD? Do it. Let the public decide what they want. Let them advocate and articulate their ideas. It taps into people’s creative thinking.
How could residents of Alhambra benefit from this process? Right now, residents of Alhambra are not fully engaged in planning process because it’s become very bureaucratic and abstract. Cities are about visuals and sensuous experiences.
What do you think is the biggest transportation issue in Alhambra, and how might it be solved?
I think the city has developed far too much of an infrastructure of buildings, but hasn’t developed anything for cyclists, walkers and public transportation. Right now all over the county — Long Beach, Pasadena — they’re all vying for a light rail, other modes of transportation. Alhambra is not doing that. So the city is decreasing the quality of life by promoting more car activity. Plus they’re building a lot of bad development that encourages more car activity. I’ve worked at Metro starting in 1997 and it taught me that urban planning can have positive effects on a community’s well-being.
Tell me about Alhambra Beyond Cars and why you decided to create it.Alhambra Beyond Cars is an advocacy group created to look at mobility issues in Alhambra. We believe in a sustainable future and want to promote walking, biking, and a healthy lifestyle. It’s really about increasing the mobility of residents by not driving. We want to promote a more sustainable, healthier, happier city. This could be through changing policies, going after funding from the government for new projects, or reevaluating the urban design of Alhambra. The whole idea is to make Alhambra a comprehensive city where design, health and mobility all fit in one picture.
If you could send the city government one message, what would it be?Think about Alhambra’s future. Think about diversity in age, income, health and sustainability. We need to devise a comprehensive plan that will have all these issues lead to better mobility. A healthy city is a walking city. All of these issues converge and the city needs to rethink itself as pedestrian-driven and develop all infrastructures accordingly.Interview was condensed and edited. The Alhambra Source regularly asks a few questions to interesting residents and workers. Have someone you think should be profiled? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact James, email him at email@example.com or visit his webpage, www.placeit.org.