I have been learning a lot lately. No, I have not returned to school or taken a few courses through Planetizen. Instead, I have simply been playing with my five-year old daughter and gaining a few insights along the way. Some of her favorite toys these days are Blockitecture sets which consist of colorful wooden blocks of buildings, parks, green spaces, rivers, and lakes. Together, we have built neighborhoods and had humorous conversations about what makes a city “fun” or “awesome,” two of her most often-used adjectives. Of course, this has brought me, a plannerd and father, much joy and satisfaction, knowing that my daughter is beginning to understand what I do as a planner and that she may even aspire to be one in the future (well, I am not sure about this yet). All kidding aside, I have seriously learned a few things through our play sessions that I would like to share below.
Urban planning is challenging, but still fun
I love what I do as a park planner and am very thankful for the career I have had, as I explained previously in this article. But like most folks in this field, I also get frustrated and discouraged at times. Park planning is not always as enjoyable or fun as it sounds, especially when my work involves dealing with bureaucracies, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and community opposition to certain proposed park and trail projects. Contrary to what most may think, parks and trails are not always welcomed with open arms. As you may have learned from the TV show Parks and Recreation, it seems as though everyone loves a park or trail, until s/he discovers that it is being proposed next to his/her home. Thus I felt liberated when I was able to place a park or green space wherever I wanted to while playing with my daughter. Well, she did cast doubts on my placement of a park next to a river with the cutest imaginable “Are you sure, Dadda?” but it was definitely not as tough as being questioned in a public meeting filled with residents opposing a park proposal or demanding to know why it is taking so long to get a new park built. However, upon further reflection, I have to say that overcoming challenges or adversity is also what makes urban planning rewarding. Over the years, I have learned that as planners, we need to be humble, recognizing that we are neither all knowing nor all powerful and that we need to listen to, learn from, and plan with community members, even when they disagree with our recommendations. Also, sometimes we just need to step back and appreciate how both fun and important our work is because we are in a unique position to help shape and impact the quality of life in communities.
Childhood experiences and memories are important
Our childhood experiences and memories affect our attitudes and feelings about cities, and may influence our decisions on where to live, work, and play, how we get around, etc. Having grown up in Downtown Los Angeles, my daughter enjoys walking and taking public transit to destinations like parks, libraries, museums, and eateries. To her, riding the bus along Wilshire Boulevard or taking the Metro Red or Purple Lines are almost just as fun and exciting as rides at Disneyland. Similarly, since I was born in Hong Kong and spent the first 15 years of my life in a very urban environment, I have never felt an urge to pursue the so called “American Dream” of buying a single-family home with a backyard and settling in the suburbs. Unlike most Angelenos, I would much prefer to walk or take the Metro over driving. My family does own a car, but my driving is limited almost entirely to the weekends.
Recently, my office moved from Koreatown, where I was able to reach with ease using Metro, to Alhambra in the San Gabriel Valley. As much as I love Alhambra for its offering of restaurants serving Chinese dishes that I grew up eating, I must say that taking public transit to and from this suburb located about nine miles east of my home has been anything but easy. Not to give myself too much credit, but I doubt that many people would be willing to endure an hour long commute involving 25 minutes of walking, a short ride on the subway and a 30-minute bus ride. Most would not have even considered it. It takes a lot of patience, stubbornness, and commitment to be a bus rider in Los Angeles. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I possess these qualities and intend to maintain my status as a proud TAP card-holding transit user. Also, even though my commute to work is long these days, I cannot help but smile whenever I hear Cantonese spoken by fellow bus passengers because it brings back memories from my childhood.
We need to engage kids in planning
In my opinion, two of the biggest ongoing challenges for us planners are communicating clearly with the public and maintaining interest on important planning issues. Through his dynamic kinetic sculpture Metropolis II, which captures and communicates the busyness and sometimes craziness of city living, artist Chris Burden has achieved both, as evidenced by the great turnouts at LACMA and the extensive media coverage. Part of the appeal of Metropolis II can certainly be attributed to Burden’s reputation as the well-known artist who created installations like Urban Light (which is prominently displayed at the entrance to LACMA). Nevertheless, this does not mean that planners cannot attract or engage large crowds at planning events without Burden’s participation. On the contrary, the popularity of Metropolis II should challenge all of us to rethink current practices and pursue innovative ways to involve community members, especially kids, in planning. For example, James Rojas’ interactive planning approach through the use of model building using LEGO and other materials has proven successful in engaging the public and encouraging creative city-making. Having participated in a Rojas-led exercise before, I understand firsthand how this approach empowers participants by allowing them to shape and share visions in a supportive environment without the fear of providing a wrong answer. I have also observed how engaged and focused my daughter is whenever building a city with me using Blockitecture and other blocks, and I can see how our play session can be replicated at a larger scale to enable and encourage children to participate in urban planning efforts.
It sure is fun playing with my daughter. Besides the obvious benefits of our playtimes, I have also gained insights on my role as a park planner and the field of urban planning. There are days when I return home from work utterly exhausted and drained, wanting nothing to do with planning. But then I hear “Dadda, build with me please!” and I cannot help but feel re-energized and be reminded of what a joy and privilege it is to be a father and a planner.
Note: Photo by author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.