Saint Paul skyline, Minnesota /

November 23, 2015; Next City

Artist Amanda Lovelee has a pretty cool gig: She is paid to work in the city government of Saint Paul, Minnesota, through the nonprofit Public Art St. Paul. But last year, when she was working with a landscape architect on a playground redesign project, she discovered how hard it can be to engage the public in public meetings intended to gather their input. The first meeting on the project attracted only about seven or eight people, which made Lovelee realize that a new approach was needed to draw people into conversations about city planning.

So she decided to take those meetings into the city’s streets. She managed to secure a city van—a “cute little electric vehicle”—which, being an artist, she decorated. Then she started showing up with the van in parks, at busy intersections and at festivals around Saint Paul, accompanied by city planners and other officials, including Mayor Chris Coleman. The result? More than 1,000 people—most of whom had never before been to a city meeting—shared their input through surveys and informal conversations. Some were enticed to complete a survey with the promise of a free ice pop made by a local business with a custom flavor, mint lemonade.

“Pop Up Meeting,” as the initiative is now known, has not only increased the total number of residents participating in city planning, it has also reached pockets of citizens whose voices might otherwise not have been heard. As Mayor Coleman explains, “There are people who have easy access to City Hall. They’re comfortable dealing with power. Who we lose are people of color, lower-income folks, immigrant communities. This is a chance…to open up the doors of conversation to people who don’t feel like they’ve been included so far.”

Lovelee notes that younger people are also less likely to attend public planning meetings, and she cites a project aimed at redeveloping a former Ford plant on prime waterfront property. “We asked [at meetings], do you want a skate park? And nobody said yes, because everyone was over the age of 50. But there are young people who live in Highland Park, too.”

The potential, she says, is for city planners to understand “what voice is missing from this and how can we bring this voice into the process?” Lovelee will run the Pop Up Meeting program again next summer, but will slowly hand it off to two interns. The city would like to expand the initiative over time, with more trucks in more neighborhoods—which would, of course, require additional funds.

Artists as city planners is a practice that clearly is gaining traction. Earlier this year, NPQ reported on a similar initiative to embed artists in city government in Minneapolis, the other Twin City. That report referenced a smattering of similar projects in other cities. Last month, a trio of practitioners—Rachel Asleson, Anna Cunningham and Mrill Ingram—published a book titled Integrating Artists and City Planning: The Fargo Project Lessons Learned, based on an initiative described as “a collaboration between artists and residents to transform an 18-acre storm water basin into an ecological community commons” in Fargo, North Dakota.

According to Lovelee, Pop Up Meeting has been an eye-opening experience for Saint Paul city government. “I think we learned this is needed,” she says. “We need alternative ways to engage residents in the civic process, and if we come up with them, people will participate.”—Eileen Cunniffe