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Acton is a small, unincorporated part of Los Angeles County. It’s a rural town where some say it isn’t uncommon to see horses hitched outside the supermarket as residents run their errands, and horseback riding is almost as common as driving cars and riding bikes.
“It’s an equestrian town, but we also have a lot of goats, sheeps, chickens and pigs right in the backyard,” Acton resident Bernadette Mazon said. “People compete with horses — racing and roping and things like that. The school even has a rodeo group.”
Delaney Faherty was not shaken by the town’s rural nature when she arrived in Acton on a mid-February afternoon. She had a thorough knowledge of the area’s terrain, despite never having visited before that day.
Faherty, a fifth-year City and Regional Planning (CRP) major, had spent the past month working alongside Acton city officials and her CRP 411 classmates on an urban planning project for the small town.
CRP 411 is one of the department’s two community planning labs. CRP 411 and its companion course, CRP 410, are comprehensive planning studios in which CRP majors create plans for California communities.
CRP assistant professor Dave Amos is one of two professors teaching the course for the 2021-2022 school year. His students are developing trail plans that can better accommodate Acton’s equestrian culture.
This project is unique, according to Amos, since planning projects usually increase a community’s sprawl. Acton, meanwhile, wants to “remain small and keep their insular way of life,” he said.
Acton residents are “strict about wanting to keep it rural and keep it a small town,” according to Mazon.
“We moved away from the city to be in a place like this, and we all love it here,” she said.
Amos structures his course to mirror a real-world planning firm. He divides his students into small groups and assigns each group a series of tasks at the beginning of each class. Students spend their four-hour class period working in their groups on their assigned tasks. Amos, meanwhile, acts as a project manager, supervising and advising students when needed.
“It’s hardly a lecture class,” Amos said. “It’s like I’m a project manager, and the students are my planners. It’s almost like an office.”
The comprehensive nature of the course allows students to practice several different planning disciplines, such as land-use, transportation and environmental planning — or, in Faherty’s case, community engagement.
Faherty and her project group developed several community engagement activities in preparation for their visit to Acton. The activities were intended to allow Acton residents to voice their opinions on potential trail planning projects.
Faherty and her project group created poster boards depicting the potential trail plans, and residents could indicate with stickers whether they liked or disliked the proposed trails.
They also created a trail mapping exercise, printing large aerial maps of Acton on which residents could draw the trails they frequented. Residents were given different colored markers to indicate their mode of transport for each trail, using green for horseback riding, red for walking and blue for biking.
These community engagement projects were popular among Acton residents, especially when compared to typical community meetings, Faherty said. Residents approached Faherty after the workshop to express how much they enjoyed the activities she planned.
“A lot of [residents] thought it was just going to be us talking at them through a Powerpoint, but it was very interactive,” Faherty said. “I think that’s the whole point of these studios in general, to show us that community engagement can be something residents are excited about. Otherwise, no one is going to participate, and participation is so necessary in informing how we create these programs for residents.”
Urban planning initiatives are not always so well received by the community, however.
Amos originally intended for his CRP 411 class to create an urban plan for Castaic, another unincorporated area in Los Angeles County. Castaic is near a major highway and has several truck stops, but a surge of new residential developments have disrupted the town’s commuter culture.
Amos’s students spent the first few weeks of their winter quarter creating a plan to better unify the older and newer parts of Castaic, but their proposals were met with resistance from Castaic locals. Amos conferred with Los Angeles County officials, and they ultimately determined that Castic’s needs did not align with the objectives of CRP 411.
Faherty and her classmates were disappointed to have their hard work go to waste.
“It felt like we were homeless for a little while, like we were fired,” Faherty said. “We felt like no one wanted us.”
This situation is not uncommon in the planning profession, according to Amos, and the incident allowed his students to experience a common industry issue.
“To have the community say, ‘We don’t want you here,’ it shows how passionate folks can get about their community,” Amos said. “The students realized this is a real product in a real community that really cares about what’s going on.”
Los Angeles County then worked with Amos to find a new community willing to work with his CRP 411 class. They were paired with Acton and immediately began to work on a trail planning project for the community.
Although Faherty felt dejected after Castaic refused her class’s planning proposal, the Acton project has since allowed her to exercise the industry skills she learned throughout her five years at Cal Poly and find pride in her work.
“I like this community and I love the community outreach element of the CRP curriculum,” she said. “I’ve been waiting to do this since I first started CRP, so this — it feels like a badge of honor.”