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10 ways to achieve authentic participation

Shifting the mindset from a planning process to creative placemaking opened a world of possibility

By Jill Mazullo, communications director, Envision Minnesota

Lars Christiansen and Erin Pavlica spoke Oct. 30 about the Friendly Streets Initiative to a thoughtful audience hungry for details.Envision Minnesota teamed up with the Twin Cities Daily Planet to host a Creative Placemaking discussion at the Chatterbox Pub in Highland Park October 30. The event featured two members of the Hamline Midway Coalition who have been deeply engaged in the proposed bikeway for Charles Avenue and the Central Corridor Friendly Streets Initiative that has grown up to support the initiative.

Lars Christiansen, Urban Studies and Sociology professor at Augsburg College, and Erin Pavlica, a resident of Charles Avenue and community organizer, shared their story of how a project ostensibly about making biking safer on their street became an animated exercise in placemaking.

The event was punctuated by exclaims from Erin’s young daughter Quinn, who delighted the audience when she squealed with delight when her mom said her family lives in the Midway neighborhood.

Charles Avenue is an east-west street running continuously from Park Street to Aldine, just two blocks north of University Avenue. With the addition of light rail along University Avenue, bicyclists need an alternative to University, and Charles is a natural choice. The City of St. Paul had determined that Charles Avenue needed attention as a potential bicycle/pedestrian boulevard. The Friendly Streets group said that if the city wants to change Charles Avenue, the residents should drive the process and shape the vision for the street.

Here are the key elements of the strategy that worked for the Friendly Streets Initiative, as shared by Lars and Erin:

1.  Go where the people are. Rather than ask people to come to a meeting at a church or community center, the Friendly Streets Initiative decided to take to the streets. They enlisted a block captain to organize each segment of Charles Avenue for a block party. They also invited residents on the blocks to the north and south of Charles to the block parties.

2. Block off the street. The mere process of collecting the 80 percent of residents’ signatures to close the street for a party was empowering in starting the conversation with neighbors about what was going on. And the mere act of closing the street for each block party was a demonstration that something different could happen here – that on some special days, their street could be a car-free zone where neighbors can gather, eat food, talk, and make colorful things.

3. Make it easy for people to come. The block parties were held on Friday early evenings, from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Each block party was on a different date, so people who couldn’t make their own block party could join a neighboring one if they chose. It often happened that people came home from work or school and noticed their street was closed and a party was going on, and came out to see what was going on. They hadn’t planned to attend, but ended up participating. Others stayed inside but could witness the activity through their windows – participating in a way that was manageable for them.

4. Feed people. Thanks to a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, the group had the block parties catered by various University Avenue restaurants. They thus supported local businesses and introduced residents to food they may not have had before. And those who liked the food are more likely to frequent that restaurant in the future. Providing food helped working parents attend and not have to rush home to make dinner. “If you want people to give their opinion, feed their kids so they can focus,” said Erin.

5. Show pictures of what’s possible. The Friendly Streets group gathered 23 photos of bicycle/pedestrian boulevard infrastructure and placemaking concepts installed around the country that could be considered locally and blew them up to a large scale. The images depicted permeable pavement, water fountains, painted pavement, traffic circles, bicycle/pedestrian street stencils and signage, and much more. Volunteers hung the images at the block parties so people could see them, react to them and talk to each other about them.

6. Have people vote with post-its. Giving people little colored slips of paper they could tack onto the images they liked made it easy for residents to express what they liked, what they weren’t sure about, and what they wouldn’t want to see on their street. Using this method made it easy to overcome language barriers, which did exist for some, given the diversity of cultures represented in Frogtown and Midway.

7. Give people something to do. Residents were happy to fill out the long survey prepared for them, spending 30 minutes and longer filling it out, seemingly enjoying the process of talking over the options with their neighbors, commented Nancy Fischer, director of Metro-Urban Studies at Augsburg College, who participated in most of the block parties. “I’ve never seen engagement like that before,” she said. In the end over 2000 opinions were collected from the surveys. Lars said it took four months to process all the data they collected.

8. Have fun projects for kids and grownups. Several artists were engaged to lead art projects at each of the block parties. These included making flags showing what people want to see in their neighborhood in the future and hanging them in front of foreclosed homes; a Play Imagination Station where kids could role play with their artistic creations; and making ring toss benches that can be placed in people’s front yards to invite passersby to stop, sit down, and play a game. These artist/resident collaborations were pilot projects for what evolved into Irrigate, the initiative at Springboard for the Arts that provides grants to artists to collaborate with community members during the construction phase of the Central Corridor/Green Line LRT.

9. Invest people in the outcome. Hundreds of residents participated in the block parties, placed stickers on photographs of street concepts, and filled out surveys about transportation and placemaking ideas for Charles Avenue. So when opposition to a proposed turn-lane change arose at the eleventh hour from a handful of business owners – who reportedly went so far as to bus people from the suburbs to voice opposition – local residents sprang into action. They packed the St. Paul city council meetings and reinforced in the public sphere what they’d already built together – an exciting vision for a palpably different Charles Avenue.

10. Use social media to your advantage. Social media played a role in letting local residents know about the block parties and the bike/pedestrian boulevard concept. The organizers used Facebook groups as well as an e-democracy website and a neighborhood listserve to get the word out. As part of Envision Minnesota’s creative placemaking event, Marcos Lopez-Carlson of the Twin Cities Media Alliance showed how creative placemaking initiatives can be tracked and shared on social media.

Making it work in your community

Have your own community engagement effort in mind? Be sure to pay attention to the idiosyncracies of your own community. Friday afternoons may not be the best time to reach your group. Block parties aren't going to work if you're planning a winter event in Minnesota.

What the Friendly Streets folks did was analzye who they wanted to reach and where they could most easily be assembled. They worked with the natural opportunities that arose from a several miles-long stretch of a street, and built from there. They struck a fine balance between the street infrastructure and planning concerns they had to address, and the fun and whimsy of social gatherings and art projects that deepen people's connections to where they live.

Lars Christiansen cautions that the public engagement strategies must come from within to be meaningful. As he put it, "Self-organization of residents is a necessary precondition for successful public engagement."

You'll find your stride in your project, no doubt. And when you do, we hope you'll share your story with us. Use the comments section below or email us about a community engagement project where you've incorporated creative placemaking.

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