I didn’t know much about the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul Minnesota before this year when Team Better Block was asked to advise on the city of Saint Paul’s complete street manual. I expected it to be cold as we began in January, but I didn’t assume an identity crisis was brewing. Now that I reflect on the half year, almost all the cities we visit as consultants at Team Better Block struggle with identity and authenticity. We constantly see city dwellers comparing themselves with each other and often having a grass is greener on the other side of the fence attitude.
The snow melted in time for the Better Block in June and not only did the flowers bloom, but I saw a community grow even stronger when we created an open platform for collaboration and community. The Better Block gathered talent from all over the area to create an authentic place for a weekend.
“The Specialists (urban designers, planners, engineers) need to realise that the locals can and want to make place… and give them the power to do so.”
The over fifty volunteers ranged from moms to bike advocates, that probably didn’t exactly know what they were getting into with volunteering for the Better Block, but they trusted it would help Saint Paul. By involving generalist (moms, artists and everyday folks) in the better block we gain a level of creativity not often found in specialist. They are not hindered by the ivory tower of their profession, so they mix gardens with bike culture, create a bike rack that is also a pony and freely paint murals that communicate the user experience. These are the elements that create identity, place and love for our city.
As Minneapolis and Saint Paul struggle with identity, my hope is that they involve more generalist. A few ways to do this:
- Help communities put on authentic events. The current city special event process works well for large corporate events, it is a bit confusing and intimidating to Joe and Jane Citizen. Instead of treating them as a public safety matters, community special events should be part of neighborhood planning and economic development, thus the permit process should be overhauled ASAP.
- Create innovation zones in neighborhoods were residents and business owners can prototype new businesses in vacant buildings and convert underutilized vacant lots into public spaces.
- Take back your name! Great places are made up of a hundred small things. Greater MSP or Twin Cities…most large metropolitan areas have multiple names. Dont worry too much about this. When I landed in MSP I wanted to know neighborhood names. Define and market these. The better the story and authenticity the greater I wanted to visit. Dayton’s Bluff has a great story and I am glad they are keeping there name and remembering history as they revive a brewery.
- Have a hackathon. This may already be done! Have a day that you invite creatives to describe the city using visual arts and online media or create apps that open up access to the cities existing treasures and resources.
I found that Saint Paul and most likely Minneapolis have all the talent and resources they need to make an even better city. They just need to be further activated and connected. Providing working forums to better the city in real time with small incremental actions that demonstrate a better place will strengthen identity and pride in your city. I look forward to coming back to my favorite city up North the first week in August!