When local leaders in the Twin Cities first planned the Green Line light rail connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul they did everything by the book. Yet they were not only met with resistance, but were ultimately forced to change course by an oppositional coalition of community groups, nonprofits, and their funders — whose voice managed to change not only the project but also important federal policy in the process.
But rather than lament what happened and how, tapping local arts and culture with the affected communities emerged as important tools to address the disruptions associated with transportation projects and ultimately develop better partnerships, better processes and better plans.
Now, those formerly oppositional parties have a constructive role to play and are bringing their local cultural strengths to the table. While the region maintains its fair share of challenges and disagreements, a growing awareness of the numerous talents and contributions that connect the Twin Cities has helped to foment new opportunities and expand common ground.
Elected leaders, city officials and the community groups successfully tackled a challenging but rewarding question: “How can the distinctiveness of this place and the people in it contribute to the success of what we’re doing?” As a result, arts, culture and community-driven creativity were woven right into the process of planning and building the Green Line. An improved process resulted in a better project that will do more to enhance the unique sense of place of the many neighborhoods along the line, while also making a strong move to support the economic competitiveness of the region.
While the people in every place and every project are different, the story of the Green Line shows how creative placemaking is a smart approach that can result in better transportation projects; projects that are more loved by the people they serve, projects that better reflect what makes those places unique, and projects that will pay off today and down the road for years to come.
Meeting people in their cultural comfort zone might look daunting, but it allows community members to feel heard and establishes a positive feedback loop for their input — building powerful advocates for the project (or future projects) along the way.
To the extent that these contributions are shared with decisionmakers or catch on in the media, more people can understand the vision, ideas, creativity, and inherent worth of the people in diverse communities, which they might otherwise miss. A transportation investment with a narrative that shines positive light on the communities served by it makes it much easier for local government to gain support for those investments (and future investments), and to adopt policies and practices that benefit those constituencies.
That support can help us all create better places.