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Participants in Safe Passages for Women in Oakland select materials to build their models of a safer city. Photo by Andrew Beale

Women gather to build models of a safer Oakland

on September 21, 2016

Chris Hwang and Liza Baskir are building a playground on their table.

“There’s bridges, so you can explore,” Hwang says. “It’s pretty, and it’s beautiful, and it’s relaxing to be in.”

Hwang, the board president of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland (WOBO) and Baskir, a WOBO board member, are at “Safe Passages for Women in Oakland,” a workshop directed by James Rojas, an urban planner who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to found the group sponsoring tonight’s event, Place It!

Place It! is a group that encourages greater community participation in city planning by having people build model cityscapes out of everyday objects. At Tuesday night’s workshop, women had been invited to share their ideas of what a safer city might look like. To start, they built individual models of the first safe place they remembered other than their homes. Then they paired up to build models of what a safer downtown Oakland might look like.

Hwang and Baskir, for example, have made a bike path out of construction paper, separated from the road (and the danger of cars) by Lego-like building blocks. Inside their “playground,” artificial leaves resting on wine bottle corks stand in for trees, with a faux-pearl necklace representing a walking path.

“We didn’t want any roads … we just wanted concentrated places to play,” Hwang says. “If Frank Ogawa Plaza looked like this, I would go all the time.”

The event was held at the Oakland branch of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). According to its website, the organization “promotes good planning and good government” through workshops and advocacy efforts.

Most participants in the Safe Passages event said they already feel safe in Oakland. According to statistics published by the Oakland Police Department, crime is in fact down across the board compared with 2014 and 2015, with a 10 percent decrease in violent crime and an 11 percent decrease in crime overall.

But, divided into teams of two and working from Rojas’ collection of hundreds of found objects—from a shuttlecock to plastic grapes, spread out on a long table—they did find plenty of ways they think the city could improve.

In Laurie Manuel and Beth Hoffman’s vision, the police would ride on horseback rather than in cars. When officers are on horseback, “people are drawn to the police,” Hoffman says. “They come over and talk to the police and pet their horses. … It’s a very different vibe than when they’re in their car.”

Manuel adds that it would work the other way, too, encouraging police to chat with residents. “They have to interact. They have to know their constituency. When you know someone, it’s hard to kind of be afraid of them or beat them. It certainly breaks down barriers,” she says.

And Angelica Ramirez thinks ease of navigation for pedestrians could be improved by adding a few extra signs. “I put a string of signs here [in the model], because walking home there’s just no signs,” she says. “You don’t want, like, sign overkill. But having a few signs would be better than having none.”

Savlan Hauser, the executive director of the Jack London Improvement District, built a model of her childhood violin teacher’s backyard, which she says made her feel safe because playing there meant her lesson was over and she could relax.

“I felt like I was off the hook,” she says. “I was done with [my lesson] and I had a half an hour to play.”

Hauser says the city can feel intimidating to newcomers, a problem that could be solved through urban planning, for example through better signage and improvements in lighting. “I don’t feel unsafe in Oakland, but I think that’s because I know where to go,” she says. “We can make Oakland feel safer by making it more legible and easier to get around.”

While many issues were raised by the participants, one consistent theme emerged by the end of the workshop. Ratna Amin, the transportation policy director for SPUR, summed it up after the workshop ended: “Something every single group talked about for today was not being afraid of cars, not having to be afraid of cars,” she said. “We know how to make [a city] safer from cars. It mostly involves creating slower streets and protected places for walking and biking. And that’s something that’s very doable and a lot of cities in the US and globally are doing it.”

The workshop did not result in concrete policy proposals, but organizer Rojas said that wasn’t necessarily the point.

“One of the problems in urban planning is people don’t really engage in the process of planning. So I developed this new method using art-making, storytelling and play as a way to get people engaged,” he said. “The more ideas the better. If one person has an idea, it’s great, but if two people have an idea, it’s even better.”

SPUR’s Amin said the workshop was a first step towards generating greater community involvement in the planning process. “What I saw were a lot of very human-scaled activities and features on streets and in public spaces and an element of joy throughout it all,” she said. “It’s all feasible eventually. We have to have a lot of conversations and build agreement to get things done.”

Rojas said the event was designed to increase women’s participation in city planning processes specifically because women are underrepresented in the field. “The whole idea is that cities are about people. It’s about us,” he said. “It should be inclusive, it should include everybody. Not just men but also women. I just think that women have not had a strong voice in the planning process. The planning process is very male-dominated.”

Amin said the event provided something rare: a space for women to be heard in a discussion about city planning. “It was like having an actual experience, a real, lived experience of what it’s like to be in a real, female-friendly planning conversation,” she said.

Correction 09/23/2016: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that James Rojas studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but does not currently work there. Also, Liza Baskir’s name was misspelled, this post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling. 

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