The art of community engagement

Creative CityMaking aims to broaden involvement in city planning

Credit: By Dylan Thomas

THE WEDGE — The Feb. 5 launch party for Creative CityMaking packed the gallery at Intermedia Arts, and in the crowd were Jeanette Colby of Kenwood and Barry Schade of Bryn Mawr, who both serve on their respective neighborhood boards and share a keen interest in the Southwest Light Rail Transit line that will someday traverse those neighborhoods.

Planning for future light rail stations is one of five projects set to get the Creative CityMaking treatment, an innovative approach to city planning that invites local artists into the planning process. The thing is, though, Colby and Schade aren’t exactly the target audience.

The grant-funded initiative aims to engage more of the public in planning the future of the city, not just people like Colby and Schade, who’ve each logged hours of seat-time in community meetings. And that may mean moving beyond the community meeting, planners’ standard model for sharing information and gathering feedback.

“We’re looking for something that brings this alive for a broader cross-section of the public,” said Jack Beyers, head of Community Planning and Economic Development.

That’s where the artists come in. Using their experience working in and with the public, they’ll test new techniques to connect with youth, renters, commuters, minority communities and other groups that tend to be underrepresented in the planning process.

The Intermedia launch party had all the trappings of a gallery opening, right down to the big bottles of cheap wine being poured into clear plastic cups, but Creative CityMaking isn’t about making art. It’s about one group of creative people — artists — helping another — planners — find new ways to share their ideas.

Said Beyers: “The goal is for the planners to develop the tools the artists have.”

Master communicators

Minneapolis Director of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy Gülgün Kayim said about 60 artists applied to participate in Creative CityMaking, supported by a $325,000 ArtPlace grant awarded in June. The seven artists selected were “highly skilled communicators” with “strong connections, already, in community work,” Kayim said.

They include the photographer Wing Young Huie, whose resume of epic street-life documentary projects like “Lake Street USA” and “The University Avenue Project” would seem to make him a near-perfect match for his assigned project: developing a small area plan to guide transit and development along Penn Avenue North. Huie will partner with musician and theater artist Ashley Hanson and city planner Jim Voll.

Other artist-planner teams will take on small area plans in Linden Hills and Dinkytown and an effort to analyze a decade’s worth of historical surveys, filling in missing pieces and finding the lessons to guide future development.

Experiencing change

Diane Willow, an associate professor of art currently on sabbatical from the University of Minnesota, describes herself as a “multi-modal artist,” and her expertise is using technology to engage the public in participatory and interactive art experiences. Paired with planners Paul Mogush and Beth Elliot on station-area planning for the Southwest Light Rail Transit line, Willow was brainstorming ideas to help the public experience a light rail line years before the first track is laid.

A particular focus of station planning is imagining how people will get to and from the platforms. A drawing helps. But what if you could feel it? Or actually hear the sound of a passing train instead of looking at a chart listing decibel levels?

These were the kinds of questions Willow was pondering in February. But she also aimed to change the paradigm of engagement — “going to the people rather than asking people to come to us” — maybe by setting up shop in a temporary space. Instead of inviting community members to a meeting, she suggested, provoke their curiosity, so they invite themselves into the planning process.

Building consensus

Roger Cummings and his coworkers from Juxtaposition Arts were thinking along the same lines. Working with planners Haila Maze and Brian Schaffer to help develop a Linden Hills small area plan, they might seek out opinions at a grocery store or bus stop, reaching younger residents and commuters who are less likely to, say, stop by an open house to look over planning sketches.

Cummings said reaching out to young people was particularly important.

“They’re going to inherit whatever we develop,” he said.

Schaffer said he and other planners currently just aren’t reaching as many people as they could. Ultimately, urban planning should reflect the values of the community, but if some residents don’t see their views reflected in the final plan “there may not be some buy-in in the final product,” he said.

His colleague, Elliot, said the recent Artists in Storefronts project on Eat Street in Whittier demonstrated the potential of using art to engage residents. She was particularly excited by a public chalkboard where passers-by sketched in life goals.

“We could probably get just as much information from one of those chalkboards as from a two-hour meeting,” Elliot said.

That, really, is the key to the project. The role of the artists is not just to think up new modes of community engagement, it’s to make the process of imagining the city’s future interactive and fun.

“We don’t want people to see the planning process as boring,” Elliot said. 

Reach Dylan Thomas at Follow him on Twitter @dthomasjournals.