The Friendly Streets Initiative: Bringing Community Voices into the Planning Process

by: Lars D. Christiansen, Friendly Streets Initiative Lead Organizer
January 29, 2014

One of the challenges of city planning is achieving the inclusion of community voices.  For a host of reasons, many people feel left out of planning processes or believe that when their input is sought it is pro-forma and for projects that are already a fait accompli.  And yet achieving genuine community involvement in making change within our neighborhoods and cities is one of the promises of democracy.  So then how can everyday folks have a genuine voice in planning that will make a difference, and be inclusive from conception to execution?

This is the question that drives the work of the Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI).  Based on a model of community engagement created by residents of Frogtown and Hamline-Midway around the effort to transform Charles Avenue, the FSI has assisted communities along the Green Line in organizing residents and businesses to contribute to the visioning, planning, and eventual realization of positive changes in their neighborhoods.  Focusing specifically on improving public spaces – especially streets – as well as the goal of achieving safe access to Green Line stations, the FSI has worked with four neighborhoods over the past year:  The Desnoyer Park neighborhood focusing on Pelham Avenue; the Saint Anthony Park neighborhood and Raymond Avenue; Summit-University and the bridge over I-94 on Victoria Street; and Frogtown, focusing on placemaking along Charles Avenue. 

The result of these efforts has been tremendous.  Hundreds of residents and business voices have found expression in diagnosing difficulties along Pelham Boulevard and Raymond Avenue, providing ideas for how to improve those streets, and developing creative ideas for turning spaces into places with character and neighborhood identity.  The thousands of opinions and ideas generated by people in Desnoyer Park and Saint Anthony Park have been recorded, analyzed, and summarized in two reports that will serve both neighborhoods as they move toward establishing specific street transformation plans and seeking funding for their realization (See the Desnoyer Park report and the Saint Anthony Park report). 

The collaboration of the FSI and Summit-University District Council led to a unique project focusing on bridges that cross I-94.  After hearing from Summit-University folks that the Victoria Street I-94 bridge acts as both a physical and mental barrier for accessing the Victoria Green Line Station on foot or by bicycle, Summit-University and FSI teamed up to experiment with placemaking on the I-94 bridge on Victoria.  We also developed wayfinding signage indicating how long it actually takes to walk and bicycle to the Green Line from various points along Victoria. 

In Frogtown, the FSI continues its work with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, and has now teamed up with St. Paul Smart Trips to work with Frogtown youth employed by the Science Museum to build community and positive change in Frogtown (click here for an earlier blog describing this innovative and important program).  Last fall the FSI began work with Frogtown youth to implement a Paint-the-Pavement project on Charles Avenue, scheduled for Summer 2014.  This collaboration will also include creative wayfinding for the soon-to-be-built Charles Avenue pedestrian-bicycle boulevard, as well as a celebration event for its grand opening this Spring or early Summer.

While there is no “one size fits all” method of public engagement for all neighborhoods – as every community has idiosyncratic histories, needs, and conditions – the FSI learned several important lessons from the Charles Avenue project that has informed subsequent community engagement efforts.  Those lessons are:

  • Bring community voices into planning processes before formal City public engagement events commence.  This allows neighbors to engage in diagnosing the challenges and problems of the public spaces in their neighborhood, and to begin visioning a range of solutions.
  • Plan community engagement events that are fun, festive, easy to access, and family-friendly.  This sets a tone where deliberation and even disagreement may occur without devolving into counter-productive acrimony.  Such events also assure a much wider array of people are brought into the conversation.
  • Avoid pre-determining the scope of the problems and potential solutions.  Issues that communities face are often multi-faceted and complex, and neighbors must be allowed to identify and describe those complexities so that any proposed transformation may better attend to the multiplex needs of the community.
  • The array of possibilities for transforming public spaces (including streets) is very wide; creative ideas from around the world are worthy of consideration.  Share these ideas with the community so as to broaden the imaginative capacity of the community during the visioning process. 
  • Assist neighbors in learning how to navigate formal City processes, from planning to funding to final decision-making.
  • Deploy multiple methods of generating input from neighbors so that as wide of an array of voices may be included as possible. 
  • Show too, don’t just tell.  Demonstrating actual ideas and providing the opportunity for direct experience is a far superior way for neighbors to evaluate the merits of concepts and their applicability in specific neighborhood contexts.  
  • Aim for levity and play.  There is no reason that democratic processes cannot involve play and joy.  Indeed, there may be good reason to believe that play and fun are essential, rather than optional, for widening the array of voices in planning processes.
  • Finally, none of this can happen in a genuine way unless it is led and driven by those in the neighborhood itself.  Community building is an important end in itself, as it builds the capacity for a neighborhood to participate in future planning processes, as well as become more resilient when facing new and ongoing challenges. 

2014 promises to be another great year for neighborhoods along the Green Line for organizing communities to achieve positive changes to their streets and other public spaces.  The FSI is planning to continue assisting folks in Desnoyer Park, Saint Anthony Park, Summit-University, and Frogtown, as well as to begin working with residents and businesses in Hamline-Midway, Union Park, and possibly Prospect Park on new projects.   2014 projects will focus on street transformations and will include a unique project focusing on improving the feel and friendliness of I-94 bridge crossings.   

We hope to see you out on the street in 2014!

Photo credits:
1.  Children riding on Pelham Boulevard during the “Pelham Palooza” by Kyle Mianulli
2.  Summit-University Planning Council Executive Director, Irna Landrum on the Victoria Street bridge over I-94 by FSI and HECUA intern, Darius Gray