Empowered Through Design: How a Purposefully Rudimentary Activity Sparks the Imagination

Memory can be an intensely powerful tool when planning for the future.
August 16, 2018, 8am PDT | James Rojas | @JamesRojas
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James Rojas

The Compton elders shared high-fives after they presented their “Heritage Park” vision for the Artesia Light Rail Station Area. This activity was jubilant for these African American women, because for the first time they could build their love and knowledge for their community with objects into a three-dimensional model for their ideal station area. 

This action is part of the city of Compton’s Blue Line TOD Specific Plan [pdf], made possible by a Metro TOD grant to encourage the residents, stakeholders, and city staff to re-envision the Artesia light rail station and adjacent areas. This station is one of the oldest light rail stations in L.A.’s Metro system, built in a different era of single use planning. The project area is essentially an isolated park-and-ride facility, with no other mix of uses. The station is located between an industrial and automobile-oriented retail zone. In addition, locked gates, grade separations, freeways, rails, wide streets, and lots of truck traffic from the ports make the station difficult to access for pedestrians and bikers. Metro developed a First Last Mile Study of the area that identified the myriad pedestrian shortcomings to the station. However, identifying the problem is not going to solve it. By allowing the public to revisit the site with a "fine-tooth comb," they can uplift their aspirations and encourage self-determination to make the transformation happen.

The design challenge is how to transform this bleak station area to illustrate and curate Compton's narrative of memory, identity, and aspiration through the physical, visual, and spatial landscape and enhance the function as a transportation hub. The station's public space is a different medium than a book, a film, or a museum exhibition, with a unique set of challenges and opportunities in telling a narrative. People will experience the Compton story through sight, touch, sounds, and the overall physical ambiance.

The city of Compton chose the Place It methodology to help it’s residents and stakeholders explore their own lived experiences, needs, and identity to develop community based solutions for the station area.

Place It's community engagement approach gave participants the opportunity to reflect and use their imagination through a process where people build their story through memories and aspirations with objects. Through the placement of the objects, participants tell that story. Their dioramas reveal their emotional and physical connections to the environment. This tool captures physical details and patterns overlooked by other approaches. By building these mini-models, participants quickly realize they are their own, expert "planners" of their environment.

On July 16, 2018, the city of Compton in collaboration with SOM held its first public meeting at the Dollarhide Community Center. In a city of rapid demographic and physical changes, the evening was a rare opportunity for a diverse group of participants to break down barriers and build relationships. The Vision Workshop brought approximately 35 residents, stakeholder, and business owners together, including African American, Latinos, long time and new residents, people of all ages, and an equal number of men and women.

Unlike the setup for a typical planning meeting, the meeting room was transformed into a creative, craft space, with hundreds of small found objects placed on each table. Participants quickly became comfortable and realized they were in for a new experience. 

Build Your Favorite Childhood Memory: Individual Activity

"People belong to places" is how I began the charrette. From our earliest childhood memories to our adult life we are always seeking a safe, comfortable haven. Rather than ask the participants what they wanted, this workshop was designed for them to explore their attachment to Compton and each other for the initial planning phase.

As an icebreaker the participants were asked to "Build your Favorite Childhood Memory" in ten minutes, choosing from hundreds of small objects placed in front of them. Given the green light, the builders, especially the female elders, started to shift through the objects in front of them with gusto. They explored the design process with their fingers as they placed or weaved objects together. Their childhood memories began to take on a life all its own using these objects. For the next few minutes, the participants were in a meditative state of building a profound experience. After a few minutes, the flurry of activity slowed down as participants became satisfied with their models. They began to talk, look around at the other dioramas created by their colleagues, and pulled out their cell phones to take pictures of what they all had created.

Image courtesy of James Rojas, via Flickr.

Once everyone completed building their memory, the group was told to stop building. The fun and informative part of the exercise began when everyone presented their favorite memory to the group. They stated their name, the place, and activity of the memory all in a minute.

The builders spoke with conviction as they told compelling, entertaining stories illustrated through the objects, colors, and the details that matter in their memory. Everyone intently listened to the memories. They smiled, laughed, sighed, and clapped to uplift and celebrate these stories. The group was visually, orally, and emotionally engaged.

The childhood memories reveal who the participants were, and where they come from. The dialogue created an equal playing field for the planning process. There was no competition or identity politics. No one's memory was better than anyone else's. No one said, "Because I was African American, Latino, rich or poor, male or female this is my memory." Instead, people found commonality in the childhood experience. 

While many of memories occurred in Compton and adjacent areas, others were from Latin American, Europe, and Asia. They highlight a variety of landscapes and activities. Many of Compton's elders recreated lost, but enduring city landscapes. For example, shopping in the city's fashion district, a race car track, or taking the Red streetcars.

Many of these memories highlighted a nurturing, caring, sharing environment. One participant shared going to his neighbor's yard and using their swing set. Many of the memories highlight the importance of other people to play with and learn from. From playing street hockey to Easter egg hunts, no one presented a solitary memory.

From learning how to ride a bike in Guatemala to learning how to plant avocado trees in Jalisco, Mexico, the feeling of accomplishment was an important part of childhood.

Independence was also a common theme. One women said when she lived in India her father would drive to pick her up at school. She wanted to be with her friends, however, so she would jump on the bus. Her father would drive following the bus. 

As a wrap-up, the participants were asked to state common locations and themes that were consistent through everybody's memories. The common words that emerged were nature, physical activity, shelter, access, sharing, family, love, curiosity, imagination, and patterns (like seasons and holidays). These seemed to be the key values in everyone's early life. While the memories were the hook, the physical model became the data need to plan.

By reflecting back on happy, profound times in their lives, participants learned the value of place and how to examine it through their personal criteria, as well as plan for the future.

Team Building: "Build Your Ideal Station"

After the icebreaker, participants worked in teams to build their ideal Artesia Station. This activity promoted social cohesion and solutions based on community healing. Each team had 15 minutes to work together to build their ideal station area on table tops using the found objects. The teams were not given any constraints, so all solutions were welcomed, again, promoting autonomy in the planning process. 

The communal nature of this process provided a platform that everyone participated in regardless of typical barriers such as language, age, ethnicity, and professional training.

Parents worked side by side with their siblings, while strangers cozied up to one another. Compton's elders were able to connect and share their experiences with younger participants.

Building imaginary station area dioramas with objects actively engaged participants in the design process, rather than leaving it all up to the experts. Participants were able to communicate, illustrate, and negotiate ideas with others that would have been difficult by using existing maps and words alone. In fact, maps would have limited the creative, brainstorming process and would have appealed to people who can read maps. The object's tactile, visual, and spatial elements gave participants, especially the elders, the opportunity to quickly test their ideas and design interventions with others. Through this process, new ideas emerged and developed with the help of others. In a short period of time the scenarios begin to take form and fill out the tabletops.

Once the time was up each team presented their future station in two minutes to the whole group. Each team identified their members, the problem, and their collective solutions.

Image courtesy of James Rojas, via Flickr.

Each team used their model to tell their station story. The model brought the story of their memories, needs, and aspirations to life, not only for the station area, but for Compton in general. For many of these participants, it was the first time controlling this kind of space and embedding their behavior patterns into the landscape. They used design as a tool to create, plan, and illustrate the tangible and lifelike.

Because of this feeling of accomplishment, each team spoke with conviction and enthusiasm about their scenario. Again, the group listened intently to each of the six team’s scenarios. They laughed, smiled, sighed, and clapped to show their approval and validation.

After each presentation, each team member stood proudly to pose for posterity!

The team’s created different futures for the station based on their expertise, needs, and desires. Some teams focus was on improving existing conditions, while others focused on big ideas.

Group 1: "Heritage Park," residential, bike riding, walking trails, bike paths, bridge over the Creek, pool, activity center, senior living, townhomes, restaurant, CVS, trees, and shade.

Group 2: Urban agriculture, native plants, access on all sides, community theater or amphitheater, upgrade and improve infrastructure, Ralph’s, dedicated bike lane on Alameda, convenience store, bike shop, and high-rise residential towers.

Group 3: "Heritage Park," Houses, riding, trails, bike path, bridge over the creek, pool, activity center, senior living, townhomes, restaurant, CVS, and more trees and shade.

Group 4: Affordable housing, mixed-use, residential density, high-rise on top of station, park amenities or a river park, skate rink, theaters, open space, fun activities and programming, improve access or move station to Greenleaf, and connect shopping center.

Group 5: Radio-controlled race car track, connect creek trail, houses, programming, activate station, exercise track, residential, theater, amphitheater, trees and shade, connecting, lighting, entertainment, and stockyard or agriculture showcase.

Group 6: High-rise residential, ‘starter’ lofts, affordable housing, rooftop amenities, neon lights/signage/branding, trail connectivity, passive park or square, parking structure, restaurant, movie theater, alleyways, and grey water.

While the teams developed dozens of solutions they also reflected their collective values, not only the site, but for Compton. Throughout the exercise several common themes began to emerge across the diverse group of interests and individuals.

Teams used the word "heritage" to describe their local connection to place and to help that place endure. Connectivity and access were important—from opening up the access gate of the station to the retail district, to even moving the station closer to Greenleaf. Vibrancy and entertainment were mentioned in connection to movie theaters, restaurants, public programs, and other activities. Groups mentioned healing, both of the environment and the body were important through trees, the revitalization of Compton Creek, and active recreation. Equity, density, and housing were important for new mixed-use development. Ironically, no team wanted more parking! 


The Artesia Station Visioning workshop changed public perception, attitudes, and behaviors. The community realized they are stronger together after bringing together the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives of the team members. The creative, reflective activities broke down barriers and forged new relations by sharing personal knowledge and aspirations.

Bringing the community together for one hour to share their stories and aspirations was a healing experience that reinforced social cohesion, uplifted intuitive knowledge, and encouraged self-determination. Rather than a linear process of soliciting input to inform a planning procedure, participants arrived, through transactions and interactions, at values that embody multiple perspectives.

Elders were the most energized by the activity because they were able share their lived experience and knowledge with others. In today's selfies- and social media-oriented culture, current community engagement trends are geared for young people.

Participants went beyond talking about problems, instead designing ideas focused on building solutions. With this personal and intuitive knowledge, we developed meaningful community input to begin the creation of an Artesia Station Area Plan that is not only useful, but an enduring place for all. 

Great cities and places are created not only from brick and mortar, but narratives. By listening and documenting Compton's residents and stakeholder stories and experiences we can develop a plan that is rooted in their lived experiences and aspirations. We will plan, design, and build places of belonging both individually and collectively. These aspirations will live far beyond the plan or physical conditions but linger in collective imagination.

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