Creating an Alhambra Beyond Cars

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.

The glass model city is made of found kickknacks.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.

Alhambra Beyond Cars (ABC) advocates for a more mobile-friendly and safe city.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 info@alhambrasource.org.

To contact James, email him at jamestrojas@gmail.com or visit his webpage, www.placeit.org.

For more information about Alhambra Beyond Cars email them at alhambrabeyondcars@gmail.com, or visit their page on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. 

3 thoughts on “Creating an Alhambra Beyond Cars”

  1. This is a very interesting article and Mr. Rojas has some good points.

    However, I don’t think the city is intentionally decreasing the quality of life by promoting more car activity. Like I stated earlier, our city is still largely based on the suburban-sprawl model of single family homes and the fear of hi-rise buildings. Therefore, everywhere we want to go (like shopping at Costco, etc.) we must drive because everything is so spread out. This is something we have done to ourselves over many decades and it is not the fault of our current city’s leadership. I guess it is only natural then, when new developments spring up, more people go crazy with fear and start complaining how awful all these new buildings are going to destroy our community. I think this is nonsense! There are MUCH MORE to cities than visuals and sensuous experiences. Functionality and economics must also be addressed!

    By building more residential units closer to businesses (mixed-use) our current city progress is on the right track. If a supermarket is right next door to a 100-unit residential building, compared to only several homes in adjoining street blocks, you will have MUCH LESS people driving to buy groceries. I’ve seen it Rio de Janeiro, Manila, San Francisco, and many other cities around the world. Our newer multi-unit developments like the Alhambra Gateway, Zen Terrace, City Ventures, and Casita Zen are changing the suburban model that we have all known too long. And because of this change, people want to automatically assume it is bad development.

    These larger scale developments are the KEY to breaking the suburban model of sprawl and reducing the dependency on cars. Public transportation (as discussed in this article) won’t be be viable in our surburban community until there is enough density to substantiate the ridership minimums to fund such projects. The new developments we see today will guide us into that future direction. Single family homes and anti-development advocates won’t. We can’t have something for nothing, it’s a give and take between what’s necessary in our growing community and what we want.

    I understand that many of the articles published here at the Alhambra Source share a strong sense of concern with so many developments going on in our city. I remember the good old suburban days of San Gabriel Valley, but that was quite a while ago. Times are changing and we are growing. Whether we like it or not, we must embrace it and provide the right development for our community. Walking, biking, and green space are all facets of the suburban neighborhood (and they are good things). We shouldn’t deny ourselves our necessary growth exclusively for the sake of these things. What’s more important is how we can incorporate them into newer developments (like green space in the central courtyards of high-density projects, etc.). As a matter of fact, I’ve seem my own neighbors walk their dogs in my own multi-unit courtyard. People need to understand that when large developments are made, every corridor, walkway, elevator, and courtyard in that large complex, in essence, becomes a sidewalk (without the cars and traffic!) for residents to use.

    This article is right: We should think about Alhambra’s future and develop our infrastructure accordingly. But we must also not forget that our initial infrastructure has been based on the suburban model and we are now in a developmental period of transition to accomodate our growing city.

  2. i am glad this organization has started, i’ve been trying and trying and try to alhambra to make the streets more walkable and bike friendly, so far deaf ears. all emphasis is on cars. i’ve asked for bike lanes on main300-2200 for us to bike to stores, i’ve asked for stop signs for pedestrian safety, i’ve pointed out that we walkers are like water we take the most direct route, i asked for a stop sign where main spins off to the right on huntington drive, walkers are trying to cross there for the 79 bus line or to the 99cent store, they painted an island extension is instead, making more dangerous for us to cross, they also did not realize that cars are crossing that exiting huntington and turning right onto grand. instead we have cars shooting out into huntington lots of near misses. all the focus seems to be further up main, but we live here too, just wishing to walk safely and be able to bike to stores and eateries

    1. I understand your concerns and I am very familiar with the locations you point out. This is when a location based on suburban sprawl has outlived it’s model of development. But I also understand why people must drive and the competition they face with other traffic (people or cars). Until you see more mixed-use development where people don’t have to drive so much (for shopping, entertainment, eating, etc.) expect to see more traffic as our population grows. Unless we support higher-density multi-use projects, do not be surprised to see more people continue living in separate residential/business zoning areas such that they will be forced to continue driving between these zones as our population grows.

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