Connecting with Community and Rethinking Saint Paul Streets and Public Spaces
Voiced concerns from community members across the Twin Cities have demonstrated time again that transportation intersects with many facets of people’s daily lives. How we get around, how long it takes to reach our destination, the cost of travel, and the resources we have access to can make all the difference in our quality of life. Even before COVID-19, Minnesota’s infrastructure demonstrates inequities in access to affordable transportation, fresh food, housing, and health care, which disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, people of color, people living with disabilities, the working class, and seniors. During this pandemic these ever present issues are exacerbated with rising concerns and uncertainty about the future. COVID-19 has forced everyone to take a step back and re-evaluate our community priorities during moments of crisis. As we continue to navigate this pandemic, we must also take the time to improve our current infrastructure to be better than before. Starting now and working together is how we can rebuild after one of the hardest economic, public health, and racial injustices of our time. In order to reimagine our future, Move Minnesota started by listening to what’s been happening in our own communities.
After the police murder of George Floyd and social unrest last summer in the Twin Cities, many folks were left without access to necessities such as food and shelter. Move Minnesota wanted to know how communities were adapting to these changes and how our work needed to adapt to address these changes. We gathered community leaders and organizations in Saint Paul to join us in a series of community conversations. We started this process by reflecting as staff on the times and knew we wanted to be more intentional on how we connected with community. We reflected on our commitment to racial justice and developed community engagement principles. At the beginning of each community conversation we hosted, we began by sharing the following:
- We will seek to use processes that hold empowerment and understanding above efficiency.
- We will seek to always use clear and direct language. We will make every effort to make engagement accessible to folks of all abilities and backgrounds.
- We will treat partners, residents, elected officials, and all those we engage with as our equals in the work. We recognize the expertise that residents have in their communities.
- We commit to long term community work that is not extractive in nature. We seek to maintain relationships with partners beyond single events and we will pay folks for their expertise when we can.
- We recognize that city planning has been used as a tool to uphold white supremacy. We recognize a history that shows a pattern of harm to BIPOC communities from those that have power in transportation.
Our conversations began by asking community leaders how they were connecting to community, how people were adapting, and how people were accessing what they needed. We also partnered with Twin Cities Radio Network to host an on-air discussion. We learned how public spaces were being repurposed into pedestrian spaces, dining areas, worship spaces, and food distribution centers. Food banks popped up in parking lots and brought food to areas of need. Other parking lots held church services and served as distribution centers for everyday needs. Selby Avenue’s JazzFest was held virtually for the first time, and public murals were created by local artists of all ages who painted boards used to reinforce windows during the social unrest. The Rondo roundtable relaunched with Model Cities, Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, Center for Diverse Expression, Rondo Avenue Inc., and JazzFest to work with the City of Saint Paul to ensure that small businesses in the Midway area are leading the rebuild effort.
Overall, the discussion focused on how community needs could be served and accessed within the neighborhood. Conversation participants reimagined how boulevards could be places for gardening, food could be grown to feed people in the neighborhood, walking to work or school could be done by making crossing the street safer for people of all ages. One participant shared, “It’s time to think beyond how we transport ourselves and instead on how amenities are [serving people] in our neighborhoods.”
These conversations did not just take place in Saint Paul, communities around the country are contemplating what they have learned from this time. How will we build a better future by rebuilding communities that serve people’s everyday needs? How can public spaces and streets better serve our neighborhoods? Rethinking streets to serve community is already happening in cities across the country. Recently in New York City urban density experts have examined how to reprioritize its streets for people. Their city proposal includes repainting streets, more concrete barriers between bike lanes and cars, and ultimately making the streets more equitable for the people living in the city.
Now Saint Paul has an opportunity to make changes to its streets, sidewalks, and public spaces. The tools to inspire better neighborhoods and cities for the people are out there and already being applied in cities across the country. After the pandemic, there is no returning to “business as usual.” Looking to the future means rebuilding with more intentionality and purpose than ever before. We invite all Saint Paul residents to join the conversation on what’s next for our streets and public spaces. Complete Move Minnesota’s Saint Paul community survey to help us learn more about what you want to see for the city’s future. Take the survey here. To learn more about past community conversations or to connect with future engagement opportunities contact Theresa Nelson.
Thank you to the numerous individuals and community leaders who participated in these conversations and especially to: Twin Cities Radio Network, Urban Farm and Garden Alliance, Hmong Chamber of Commerce, Frogtown Farms, Model Cities, Nourish Community Wellness, Reconnect Rondo, St. Paul Fellowship Church, Project for Pride in Living, Selby Avenue JazzFest, Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers, Project for Pride in Living, and Saint Paul Fellowship.