Art practice and urban planning as a tool for social transformation

March 16, 2021

by Jas Sarna, School of Arts and Sciences and SAS Honors Program Scholar, Class of 2024

The Bloustein Social Justice Committee held a virtual event in February on the importance of art and culture in urban planning. While art may often be separated from urban planning, this event explored the essentiality of bringing these together for the betterment and transformation of oppressed communities and their spaces. The featured speakers of this event included Antonio Moya-Latorre, Pianist and Ph.D. student in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University; and James Rojas, founder of Place It!, an interactive, art-based public engagement and community visioning practice.

Opening with Moya-Latorre playing the piano, the event included presentations from both panelists followed by an open discussion with the event participants. Moya-Latorre explained his work and the importance of art to his projects. In various projects, he and his team worked to incorporate art into their development of city spaces. Those efforts took shape through hosting parties in dark, dangerous tunnels of the city to bring them to life and garner ideas for redesign, engaging the children of the community through games and painting colorful street signs, and using the local music school as a community center.

Moya-Latorre described in great detail his project in São Paulo, Brazil, where he worked to help transform a trash dumpsite in a neighborhood into a community park. He explained how after the initial cleanup, the team realized that people were still dumping trash there and that they needed some way to get the people of the community to view the space as a future park instead of a landfill. Their solution was to create an art festival and engage the children of the area. Moya-Latorre stated that, “Children are one of the most vulnerable groups of everywhere in the world,” and described the carpentry, pottery, photography, landscaping, origami, recycling, and street art workshops they held for the kids of the city.

He stressed the importance of using art to bring a community together even after the initial plan has been carried out and how that creativity can result in ideas for even more innovation in the community. Moya-Latorre summed up his presentation by explaining art as meaning, awareness, and most importantly, agency. He explained art’s transformative power in communities by saying “art can be used as a tool, as a means, to bring people together, not only to think and to be aware of the things that are important to them, but also to generate the capabilities to address and overcome those challenges and generate increasing agency and self-determination.”

Rojas explained the motivations behind him creating Place It! and how he wanted to increase community engagement in planning projects. Place It! serves as an art-sensory-based community engagement practice where the people in a community can build their ideal world, play with objects, and story-tell. He describes the practice as, “a tool for them to control their ideas, thoughts, and emotions into tangible realities.” Through this method, he said the people of a community are able to explore intimate relationships with places and each other, creating an understanding of each other as well as empathy that allows them to then work together to plan spaces based on what everyone values. Their combined ideas of how life could be different help create a living plan that urban planners can work to bring to reality to address the needs of the people.

As the meeting transitioned into an open conversation between the panel speakers and the audience, the participants really wanted to understand how to engage the people of a community. Moya-Latorre explained that building trust with the community is important as it makes them feel comfortable enough to participate, but that building that trust is an ongoing process. He explained that he avoids the distinction between the professional planner and regular citizen; he believes that there is no need for a barrier between planner and non-planner as everyone brings their own experiences and expertise.

Rojas tackled the questions by expressing the importance of the community understanding how city planning impacts their lives and giving them the knowledge and skills to articulate what issues they need addressed so they can participate. He said that the different, more interactive nature of the Place It! approach makes people more comfortable participating and helps equalize the people in respect to each other. He emphasized the idea that people should not be looking at city planning through the lens of right and wrong, but rather being open to embracing new ideas. Both panelists emphasized the idea that everyone can design, and that art should be more present in community planning.

The event concluded with Moya-Latorre playing more piano as participants were thanked and left to think about how through engagement in art, oppressed communities can transform both themselves and their living spaces for the better.

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