Welcoming and Incorporating Immigrant’s Knowledge into the Planning Process Through Community Engagement

Welcoming and Incorporating Immigrant’s Knowledge into the Planning Process Through Community Engagement

by James Rojas

Everyday hundreds of  Mexican women cross over the border from Matamoros, Mexico into Brownsville, Texas to shop at the dozen or so dollar stores.  Immigrants bring new innovative urban planning ideas to this country based on their prior lived experiences. Immigrants express and live out their cultural behavior patterns through the built environment and are changing the American landscape, built environment, and infrastructure drastically. Yet these ideas are often never heard in urban planning meeting or incorporated into zoning codes.

Most immigrants don’t attend public meeting because, for many, life in the US is better than where they come from or many are busy struggling with their new lives here.  They often live in the shadows of our communities or don’t trust government.

Engaging immigrants requires urban planners to rethink standard community meeting formats to provide a safe space, multiple communication tools for everyone to provide input and humanizing the planning process. I have developed a method that uses building their stories and play to engage immigrants.

Validating immigrant’s lived experiences is critical to engaging and integrating underrepresented communities into the urban planning process and encouraging self-determination. Having them reveal, who they are, where they come from, and what they value is the first step to building key relationships.

Immigrants and all members of the public who participate in the planning process need to be supported in working together and in developing a shared sense of ownership over their places; this is especially important for new participants. My method assumes everyone is an urban planner and has something to offer to urban planning and design. If planning professionals want to access crucial community knowledge, they must start with an effective engagement strategy rooted in respect for difference.

Capture every whisper in the room!

Meeting should not be a competition among different interests, in which the loudest person or the biggest group wins, but a collaborative one. Collaborative experiences and activities — not competitions — allowed immigrants to listen, and learn from everyone’s needs and values.

I do not use standard urban planning communication tools such as maps, numbers, computer models, and policy. These tools are excellent at capturing various aspects of urban space and life, but necessarily do so in an abstracted way. Instead, I use found objects incorporated with storytelling. This makes it possible to engage the immigrants in spatiality rich and subtle ways of knowing that aren’t possible using other communication methods.  

Storytelling is a great way to engage immigrants in urban planning, but it is not an enough!! Storytelling is a great way for people to listen and learn. Every day we are hearing and telling stories.  From stories we learn, pass on knowledge, change perspectives, and built empathy. Knowing is power. However, for stories to be useful as an urban planning tool people have to build their stories because it highlights the visual, spatial and physical knowledge of place. Storytelling is most useful for planners and most powerful for community members when they actually have to build the story.

Every story has a location and sometimes these landscapes are overlooked when telling the story. This misses the critical information about the physical environment that connect people to place and this is the information planners need to plan. The stories are the hook, but the setting is the planning data.

Building stories highlights people’s emotional and physical connection the place. The models they build highlight their spatial nature and every physical pattern.

Step 1.

Every adult has one thing in common: they were all children.

Therefore I begin my workshops with a reflective icebreaker.  I ask participants to build their favorite childhood memory in 10 minutes using found objects. Building childhood memories with objects also allows participants to discover how they connect themselves with places and people.  Starting the planning process from childhood memories gives everyone an equal reference point in how they value space and people that is later shaped by economic, cultural, political, and geographical differences. The workshops allow participants to peel back their current ideas about how places should look, feel, and operate to reach a consensus based on deep rooted values.

Through this activity the participants quickly become empathetic toward each other and bonded. Building their story with objects allows participants to investigate the physical details of place that matter and what they remember. The models provided rich visual, and spatial information about what constituted a safe space for the immigrants. They can never relive these memories, but the immigrants can design places that include physical details that contribute to a feeling of belonging.

At the end of this activity, participants are asked to identify three words or themes that were consistent throughout everyone’s memories. This reflection helps build consensus around collective values expressed within the group. Sharing these found memories with each other helps the group to bond and validates everyone experiences, which is critical for an inclusive planning process and for the next step. Immigrants realize they are their own experts!!

Step 2.

Now that workshop participants have a sense of what they consider important about place, they collaborate in teams to build urban planning solutions. They work for fifteen minutes, choosing from the same objects they used in the individual activity.

Most of the time, the teams are asked to build Ideal community. There are no instructions so all solutions are welcome, this is designed to promotes the teams' sense of agency in the planning process. The communal nature of this process provides a platform that everyone can participate in regardless of typical barriers, such as language, age, ethnicity, and professional training. Through building with objects in space, participants are able to share ideas for which they might not have words. Team members quickly test their ideas and design interventions with others. Through negotiations, new ideas emerge and become collaborative projects. In no time the models begin to take shape. Once the time is up, each team presents their solutions, usually with conviction and enthusiasm.

In developing a variety of solutions based on their detailed understanding of the built environment, the teams reveal social and cultural patterns central to their experiences of place. Planning professionals would not normally have access to these shaping factors if they were not from the area or background. The participants tap into their individual imaginations and the community’s assets to introduce inspirational ideas into the planning process.

As a wrap up for the workshop, participants are asked to think about themes from the first and second activities. This pushes them to consider what impact the workshop will have on their perspectives on place going forward. When participants bring their life experiences into an open community planning process, they enjoy a greater sense of empowerment about civic participation. It also gives planners important material that will enable them to serve more community needs.

Lessons Learned

The workshop creates a feeling of euphoria because people are able to stop, look, and listen to each other and discover something about themselves, each other, and the places they value.

We live in a world in which immigrant experiences are not always highlighted or respected in the urban planning outreach process. Humanizing and relaxing the community meeting format be integrating storytelling, imagination, found objects, and hands-on activities allows for all voices to be expressed in a variety of different ways. Participants personalize the planning process based on their experiences, which creates a sense of ownership and attachment to each other and place. The workshops put participants' focus on skills crucial to urban planning, such as critical thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, and civic literacy. In acknowledging that they already have these skills, we validate the identities of marginalized populations and promotes the likelihood of these individuals/groups to further engage in civic participation that they otherwise would have been too intimidated/fearful/skeptical to do. Urban planners have a social responsibility to engage with all members of community because their contributions are needed in shaping the future of the American city.

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