I recently attended a great event sponsored by Envision Minnesota and the Twin Cities Daily Planet that featured a presentation by two local community organizer about successful community engagement, creative placemaking and making effective change.
Several years ago, the Twin Cities began building a light rail system (The “Central Corridor/Green Line LRT” project) that would run from downtown Minneapolis in the West to downtown St. Paul in the East along University Avenue. In order to deal with traffic that once would have gone down University, the City of St. Paul began identifying potential streets for potential bicycle/pedestrian boulevard.
The Central Corridor Friendly Streets initiative became involved via the Hamline Midway Coalition and argued that in order to effectively turn a street into this new kind of street, residents of the street, Charles Avenue, and streets nearby should be heavily involved in the process.
The group argued that in addition to making a bicycle/pedestrian street, the street should include placemaking concepts (things like murals and street stencils) as well as infrastructure improvements (such as traffic circles and bicycle route signs).
In order to successfully engage the affected communities, the group, led byLars Christiansen professor of Urban Studies and Sociology at Augburg College and Charles Avenue resident, Erin Pavlica came up with several strategies:
Make It a Party
The group organized five block parties in different sections of Charles Avenue as well as residents and business owners along the streets to its North and South. Each event included kid-friendly activities (face paintings and demos and activities led by local artists from Springboard for the Arts) as well as food selections from neighborhood restaurants.
Visualize the Possibilities
The group showed 23 photographic images of infrastructure and placemaking concepts from other such projects that were developed across the country. The images included permeable pavement, water fountains, traffic circles, street stencils, bicycle route signs, painted fire hydrants and murals. Residents were each given the opportunity to vote on how they liked each idea. By using different colored post-its, the group allowed ESL speakers from these diverse neighborhoods in St. Paul to participate as well. They also asked residents to fill out surveys.
The City of St. Paul took all of the information gleaned from the group and voted on it. All of the infrastructure ideas that were proposed from the 2,000 surveys and other data gathered will be implemented along Charles Avenue. The group is still working with the City to get the placemaking ideas approved as well. They are hopeful many of these ideas will be so that Charles Avenue is seen and known as a different type of street that reflects the diversity and values of the residents that reside there.
It was certainly inspiring to hear how a group of residents in my town connect with one another and be empowered to envision and take action toward making the kind of world they’d like to see and live in. I can’t wait to ride my bicycle down Charles Avenue and see what they came up with!
Heidi Wachter is the Community Engagement Specialist for Experience Life.