Using every day household products like nails and hair rollers, a team of urban planners hope to engage residents in the Washington neighborhood ahead of a city zoning update—a tedious and complicated governmental process that has big implications for how an area looks for years to come.

Long Beach is just beginning a process to devise the “Anaheim Corridor Zoning Improvement Project” for a swath of the city that stretches between Magnolia to Ximeno avenues and 10th Street to Pacific Coast Highway, according to city documents. Zoning plans dictate what types of buildings can be built where (commercial, residential, industrial, etc.), how tall buildings can be, the density of housing and other aspects of city planning.

This particular area includes parts of Cambodia Town, which is divided mostly into districts 4 and 6, and the Washington neighborhood, which sits in the District 1 near Downtown. The area is part of the city’s land use and urban design plans, which were last updated in December 2019, and officials will launch community outreach in late spring, said city spokesperson Jennifer Rice Espstein.

In order to make the process a little more user-friendly, organizers including Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles reached out to a nationally recognized urban planner, James Rojas, and his colleague John Kamp from Place It!, an urban planning practice that uses model-building workshops to help engage the public in planning and design processes.

A makeshift urban design model made out of wooden squares, nails and other crafts on Nov. 10, 2020. Photo courtesy of James Rojas.

When Rojas worked as a planner for Metro in East Los Angeles two decades ago, he recalled seeing little contribution from Latino residents attending the community meetings that sought public input on the L (Gold) Line project, a 31-mile rail stretching from East LA to the San Gabriel Valley. Many of them, he said, couldn’t read nor understand the maps presented by authorities.

In response to this obstacle, Rojas proposed another method: Have residents communicate by presenting models of public spaces made out of household objects—using anything from sticky notes to earrings.

When Metro denied using his methods, he said he left his leadership position, launched an urban planning practice and worked on projects elsewhere.

Tijuana, Mexico is one of the places he saw his method flourish among the residents in 2011, as families used art crafts to help present design ideas for Camino Verde, a colonia in Tijuana.

“Think about your abuelita’s front yard,” Rojas said, referencing how Latino elders garden, and, on an individual level, design spaces in their homes. “… Why not have them use their hands?”

Now, Rojas is bringing that same approach to the Washington neighborhood, home to a large Latino population, this week as part of an informal series of virtual workshops.

Habitat will be hosting sets of two bilingual (Spanish and English) workshops per month until May on Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings to accommodate residents’ schedules, said Dinesha Thomas, director of outreach for Habitat.

The first one just passed on Tuesday morning, but the next will take place at 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28.

Thomas said that once they collect all of the community input when the workshops conclude, they plan on creating a document that residents can use as “a tool to advocate for themselves” when the city conducts its outreach.

This month, Rojas said, they’re focusing on making models of fond memories. At Tuesday’s meeting, he said one of the 30 participants, a young college student, presented a model of a blanket fort—this one, however, made out of paper on a small scale.

“For her, the fort was a sense of intimacy and being safe,” he said.

Participants were then asked to design their favorite public space in the Washington neighborhood. Another participant made a model of the 14th Street Park on Pacific and Pine avenues, trees and all. The point of the exercise, he said, is to find commonalities between the fondness of spaces and using those ideas, many of which can bridge across different cultures, and applying them to urban designing and planning.

“When people build that memory, they realize why it’s important to them,” he said.

Register for the evening workshops, including Thursday’s workshop, here, and the morning workshops here