Public agencies who took a risk and partnered with community-based groups and funder-supported initiatives led the way on changes to engagement in multiple ways going forward, and willingness to experiment with community groups and new avenues for engagement was key.
“Metro Transit’s willingness to partner on the Trusted Advocate Pilot Project: Transit More than a Ride was pivotal,” says Carol Swenson, the executive director of District Councils Collaborative (DCC), citing a project in which the transit district contracted community organizers on community engagement in the transit study process. The transit district employed organizers as “trusted advocates” to gather data from transit riders, which was more effective than if staff from the district had led the outreach themselves.
“Well over 1200 community members participated in trusted advocate engagement sessions. 700 data points were collected through the trusted advocate process. Advocates built relationships with community groups and individuals that allow them to “loop back” for additional feedback. The advocates also developed a positive working relationship with Metro Transit staff.” 1
Successful partnerships with local government changed public engagement
In another example from 2014, as Minneapolis eyed expanding its Greenway facilities (the region’s “bicycle highways”), the city provided micro-grants to local community, cultural and ethnic organizations to conduct their own outreach about whether and where the city should expand the system.
The funding provided community groups with the capacity to conduct outreach, and the outreach provided an opportunity to discover whether or not different neighborhoods would want an expansion of the Greenway. These groups could (in some cases literally) speak the same language as their target audience, and the city granted the groups a large degree of autonomy to determine the impact of a greenway, support or oppose the project and take the lead on designing what would work best for their neighborhood.
Watch this video that the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability and the Blue Cross Center for Prevention produced on the North Minneapolis Greenway project.
In order to execute the program for the Northside Greenway, the city charged the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability — one of the organizing groups that had led the charge to change the Green Line’s alignment — with selecting community outreach partners. Most groups pursued a combination of direct outreach (door-knocking, handouts, etc.) and event hosting (festivals, bike rides, tournaments, and mock-ups of the greenway during open streets events, which are similar to Los Angeles’s Great Streets Program.) 2
It worked. Community groups grew in their capacity and strengthened their ties with the city. Related events gave a boost to local businesses. More people learned about the benefits of the Greenway, and more residents have a favorable view of the city. Even some city engineers who thought it would be a big flop declared it a resounding success.
- Arts-based engagement can attract widespread positive attention and participation by community members.
- Community groups can lead outreach and go where local government can’t, and are effective messengers to reach their own constituencies.
- Outreach for popular or small-scale improvements can be effectively led by local partners, even formerly oppositional ones.
Rethinking public planning meetings
Other local government agencies continue to experiment with tapping the arts as a medium for more robust public involvement.
In order to improve the process for public participation, the City of Minneapolis partnered with Intermedia Arts on the Creative Citymaking Project in 2013.3 Seven experienced community arts practitioners were embedded into the city planning department’s Long Range Planning Division. The artists partnered with planners to gather more input from community members about issues from long-term transportation and land use to the immediate economic and social conditions facing Minneapolis neighborhoods.4
The artist-led events effectively created spaces where “people felt much more comfortable than they would at a public meeting,” said planner Jim Voll.5 50 to 95 percent of respondents in particular neighborhoods reported not previously taking part in any city planning processes. And they enjoyed it. One participant told artist Ashley Hanson,
How great would it be if your work resulted in a complete culture shift — where it would actually become frowned upon to hold a ‘typical’ community meeting. The dreamer that I am, I instantly envisioned this world where organizers, planners, educators, etc. were all trying to out-creative each other in their meeting formats and engagement strategies. I am not sure how realistic this dream is, but it sure did make me smile and seems like a fun world to be a part of.6
The Creative CityMaking Minneapolis program is now expanding into up to four additional departments within the city. In its next phase, the program aims to deepen the understanding of how arts-based engagement approaches can strengthen connections between city government and the communities the city serves.
Other examples of arts bringing people together
In Saint Paul, the Public Works department partners with the nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts to allow youth apprentices to design new street signs and other permanent infrastructure. Juxtaposition Arts also partners with the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District to develop visual & interactive “interventions” like art-making, bubbles and games “to infuse vitality into public space.”
The arts have proven to be an effective bridge between community groups and local government and business entities, providing tangible opportunities for community groups to improve programming for those partners and benefit from the process.
- Read more about the Trusted Advocate program here: http://dcc-stpaul-mpls.org/content/transit-more-ride-trusted-advocate-project
- Read more about the Northside Greenway project here from the city of Minneapolis.
- Intermedia is a multidisciplinary, multicultural arts center that “builds understanding among people by catalyzing and inspiring artists to make changes in their lives and communities”. http://www.intermediaarts.org/
- Among the tools they developed were pop-up galleries where regional plan info was displayed alongside art or other interactive components, “chalk talk” sessions to talk about the future of a place, wearable cameras to study how people connect to places on foot, and an illustrated ‘zine to ask people’s opinions about the neighborhood.
- Source: http://www.thelinemedia.com/features/impactsplacemaking09102014.aspx