By Deb Guenther, FASLA
The new book DREAM PLAY BUILD: Hands On Community Engagement for Enduring Spaces and Places reads like a conversation with trusted colleagues over great coffee or a memorable lunch. James Rojas and John Kamp generously share their lessons learned in many years of testing and conducting an alternative form of community engagement. Their methods are focused on using hands and heart to build abstract models and share sensory explorations with community members. They break away from a transactional mindset and create an environment for meaningful engagement with longer term benefits for communities. The book spans from inspirations to methods, project examples to logistical details, and includes plenty of encouragement to give these ideas a try. Just like a good conversation, there is positive energy throughout, and at the end you remain intrigued with the possibilities.
Starting with the Personal
The authors are walking the talk. They ground the book with personal stories of how they arrived at this work. Rojas is an urban planner and Kamp is a landscape and urban designer who were disappointed for different reasons in their crafts. They met through art events that explored the intersection with city making ideas. Rojas shares his vulnerabilities and is clearly inspired by everyday objects, friends, and family. Histories of relationships with people and place continue to inform his work. By starting with the personal, Rojas and Kamp demonstrate what their methods support – sharing experiences of belonging. Creating a shared attachment to place can be a powerful way to build a set of core values together and work with communities as they shape themselves.
Making Space for an “Emotional Language”
The methods the book describes revolve around three approaches that can be tailored to different context, timelines, and objectives — model building, pop up models, and sensory site explorations. What they all have in common is that they are abstract and open-ended, encouraging storytelling and meaning making. The work is in the conversations generated by the methods and the themes that emerge from the sets of stories. In the process of talking about their personal stories and experiences prompted by hands on work and heartfelt prompts, groups build a shared understanding of what is important to each other and what commonalities and core values they share.
The book is refreshingly jargon free. The methods and guidance are simple, yet the nuances are not overlooked. There are frequent acknowledgements that “things may not go that way” and that’s okay. The methods are designed to support an emotional, not a technical language. Moving away from the transactional outcomes of a typical community engagement process, the methods shift expectations away from quantitative outcomes. The book moves readers toward realizing the value of having “no desired outcomes other than a sense of neighborhood memories, dreams, aspirations and shared values; to build group cohesion; and set a positive tone for the project.”
Highlighting the Intangibles
The stories also referred to many moments that will have designers nodding along in recognition. Having no expectations for outcomes can easily result in clients who feel at a loss about the value of the work. The book provides specific lists of tangible and intangible results.
For me, this was the most important part of the book — calling out the value of intangibles. A tangible list of intangibles – so overdue! As James shares in his personal story, he learned from artists that the city is “comprised not only of structures, streets and sidewalks, but also personal experiences, collective memory, and narratives. These are less tangible but no less integral elements of a city that transforms mere infrastructure into ‘place.’”
Challenging the Status Quo
A good conversation challenges you a bit. This book does that in a friendly and approachable way. Through building up examples, case studies, and sharing conversations, the book makes a strong case for creating “communities of inquiry.” This is about intentionally not trying to solve a problem but rather exploring an idea together. The richness that emerges from this approach appears undeniable and yet, we struggle to implement this regularly as landscape architects. This book provides many viable pathways for trying again.
Building Relationships Across Divides
Polarization in public meetings is common. Rojas and Kamp’s methods are born out of the need to seek alternatives to predictable reactions to issues of parking, density, and “wow, that crazy traffic.” By tapping into memories and stories first, polarization is diffused and the commonalities among experiences emerge.
There are also deep divides and distrust between neighborhoods and their cities that have experienced structural racism over time. South Colton, California, located sixty miles east of Los Angeles in the Inland Empire, is a town where Rojas and Kamp have used all three methods — model building, pop up models, and sensory site explorations — over the course of two years. South Colton is both an historically redlined neighborhood that has been isolated and underserved and a place “where residents have worked to creatively and resourcefully improve their environment in the face of great odds…” South Colton is emblematic of many neighborhoods across the country. Generic engagement won’t work here. There can be healing benefits from relationship building approaches to community engagement that extend to the neighborhood and well beyond the neighborhood itself.
Holding on to Core Values and a Sense of Belonging
Near the end of the memorable conversation with a trusted colleague, one starts to realize there is a lot going on that goes beyond the words – the air was breezy, the pace was comfortable, the vibe was relaxed, and so it was easy to listen and feel heard. Setting the tone is a recurring theme in this book, which covers many project examples and methods. Not only does setting the tone result in people feeling ready to engage more deeply, it also models the relationship building work it takes to be responsible to each other and a place.
Part of the book’s appeal is its modest approach to a deeply urgent topic. These practices are deceivingly low key! When we engage in these practices of heart and hand, we are building much more than enduring spaces and places, we are building and strengthening the basics of a democracy. The book stops short of claiming this, choosing to focus on how the health of the public realm and the neighborhood are intertwined. However, it would not be hyperbole to make the link between civic health and these relationship-based practices that reduce polarization, elevate equitable approaches, and recognize the power of humility.
Deb Guenther, FASLA, is a design partner at Mithun, an interdisciplinary design practice with offices in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Her work, Design in Kinship, which was initiated during the 2021-22 Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership, explores the expanding role of collective impact work by community-based organizations in the context of climate change and social justice.