Incorporating Immigrants’ On-the-Ground Knowledge and Lived Experiences into the Planning Process

A special post from participatory practitioner James Rojas

Immigrants bring new, innovative urban planning ideas to this country based on their prior lived experiences, yet these ideas are rarely heard in an urban planning meeting or incorporated into zoning and plans.

Most immigrants don’t attend public meetings. Many are busy struggling and often live in the shadows of our communities. Many may be too humble, or they don’t trust government enough to participate. However immigrants express and live out their culture through the built environment. They change the American landscape, built environment, and infrastructure.

Engaging immigrants requires urban planners to rethink standard community meeting formats to provide a safe space and multiple communication tools for everyone to provide input. This humanizes the planning process. I have developed such a method that uses storytelling, art-making and play to engage immigrants.

Storytelling, art-making and play – an event held in a supermarket. Photo credit: James Rojas

Validating immigrants’ lived experiences is critical to engaging and integrating underrepresented communities. Having them reveal who they are, where they come from, and what they value are first steps in building key relationships.


Because urban planners often work in professional settings isolated from the communities they serve, they tend to view the public as a means to an end for policy and plans, and not as human beings with feelings and cultural baggage. Participants have a hard time connecting with others at planning meetings, especially when meetings are contentious or located in large venues.

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 assumption is that anyone can be an urban planner and everyone 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.

Step 1: Connecting through storytelling

Participants use toys and found objectives to re-create a memorable childhood place. Photo credit: James Rojas

The workshop begins with storytelling and 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 they are necessarily abstracted. Instead, we use found objects like toys and craft supplies, to facilitate storytelling about a childhood place that mattered to each participant. This makes it possible to engage the immigrants in spatiality rich and subtle ways of knowing that aren’t possible using other communication methods.

A meeting should not be a competition among different interests, in which the loudest person or the biggest group wins. Collaborative experiences and activities, not competitions, allow immigrants to listen and learn from everyone’s needs and values.

Through storytelling, the immigrants quickly bond with one another and become empathetic. Building their story with objects allows participants to investigate the physical details of place that matter and what they remember. The models provide rich visual, and spatial information about what constituted a safe space for the immigrants who participate. We can never recreate these places exactly but the immigrants can design places that include physical details that contribute to a feeling of belonging.

Building childhood memories with objects also allows participants to discover how they orient themselves toward places and people. The shared activity reveals that age, racial, economic, and professional differences shape individual perspectives on place. Through storytelling, participants document in a non-threatening manner how race, gender, and class can impact the aspects of place we value in our adult lives. From what I have witnessed, participants from various parts of the world and from both urban and rural settings discover that as children we were very similar.

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 bases on deep rooted values.

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 fond 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.


A playful activity engages people of all ages. Photo credit: James Rojas

Step 2: Collaboration


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.

The teams are not given a particular assignment so all solutions are welcomed. This exercise is designed to promote 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. The models begin to take shape in no time at all. 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 same area or have the same background. The participants tap into their individual imaginations and the community’s assets to introduce inspirational ideas into the planning process.

After identifying themes that cut across everyone’s stories, participants collaborate in teams to build urban planning solutions. Photo credit: James Rojas

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.

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.

Important Details for Including Immigrants in a Planning Event

  1.  Ask who from the community is not currently at the table
  2. Build relationships with community leaders and get their buy-in to help with reaching out to immigrant networks. Use organizational networks so that participants are invited by people they know and trust.
  3. Choose a location that feels comfortable and familiar.
  4. Develop bilingual recruitment materials for outreach events.
  5. Make follow-up calls to people who have agreed to attend a public engagement event.
Setting, nonverbal communication, and validation are critical to successful engagement with immigrants. Photo credit: James Rojas

Creating a Safe Space

There are the three elements central to creating a safe environment for a meeting where anyone can share their lived experiences of place: setting, nonverbal communication, and validation.

Setting: The setting in which the outreach activity takes place is critical. I prefer places where people routinely and organically gather, such as a mall, park, school, corner store, laundromat, etc. For my workshops, I use smaller venues where we create an intimate atmosphere where 10-30 participants can bond.

Nonverbal Communication: How we communicate is critical to building trust between city planners and guests. Cities have their own nonverbal spatial and visual languages that residents use more intuitively than they would a planning vocabulary. Having participants build solutions with objects rather than asking them to describe their world in technical language makes it possible to communicate this experiential knowledge.

Validation: With a supportive setting and an accessible structure for delivering feedback, facilitators validate that there aren’t any “wrong” experiences to share during the activity. I have found that starting from childhood memories can bring strangers from very different backgrounds together into a shared emotional space. Everybody likes talking about their own lives, especially about their favorite childhood memories. This has held true even when the participant recalls a painful moment, as is common with refugee individuals who have attended my workshops. These memories tell us who we are, where we come from, and what we value.

A colorful example of spatial and visual languages rather than a planning vocabulary. Photo credit: James Rojas

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 to integrate 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 and experiences of marginalized populations. We increase the likelihood that they will engage further in civic participation, when otherwise they might have felt intimidated, fearful, or skeptical about such engagement. 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.

About the author: James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, and artist. He has developed an innovative public-engagement and community-visioning method that uses art-making as its medium. Through this method he has engaged thousands of people by facilitating over four hundred workshops and building over fifty interactive models around the world – from the streets of New York and San Francisco, to Mexico, Canada, Europe, and South America. He has collaborated with municipalities, non-profits, community groups, educational institutions, and museums, to engage, educate, and empower the public on transportation, housing, open space, and health issues. Rojas is also one of the few nationally recognized urban planners to examine U.S. Latino cultural influences on urban design and sustainability. Read more about his work at