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What Should the Future Minneapolis Riverfront Be? Ask the Public!

February 7, 2011Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on What Should the Future Minneapolis Riverfront Be? Ask the Public!

Public participation in planning/design projects is a funny thing.  Everyone talks about it; lots of people do something that they think of as “public engagement”; few practitioners really take it seriously; fewer still make public participation central to the project itself.

This isn’t the time or venue for a full-blown treatise on public engagement for riverfront projects, but let me say that the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition has employed three strategies in particular that are noteworthy:  youth involvement through a design imagination exercise, a “designer ask” survey, and collection of comments regarding the four finalists’ proposals.

The last of these–collecting comments online–is perhaps the most common.  As of Monday night 2/7, there were 127 comments and, unlike the simply awful comments on most online news sources, these appear to be thoughtful, considered responses to the issues at hand.  For designers, planners, and people who want to participate more fully in those practices (are you listening, students?) these comments are worth study.  Find them here.

The “designer ask” survey was an interesting process, although I’m still a little fuzzy on the details.  As I understand it, the project managers worked with the four finalists to develop a list of questions the designers would ask the public, given the chance.  At a meeting in early December, about 80 people gathered, heard a briefing on the project, and then split into facilitated groups where the survey was administered in a series of focus group-type discussions.  Speaking from experience, I thought the questions were exactly what the public should have been asked, and that the process as a whole really ought to be a much larger ongoing set of reflections on the importance of the riverfront.  We all ought to be making our voices heard on issues such as:  What is your greatest impediment to getting to the river?  What legacy would you most like to see for your children (or grandchildren?)  This survey is harder to find on the Design Competition web site, but diligent searching will be rewarded.

Everyone always says that “children are our leaders of tomorrow,” but then we too often are left with the same old boring youth engagement programs that seem to get a few young people involved and then just kind of peter out.  In the case of the Riverfront Design Competition, there is more hope that young people from the Minneapolis Green Team and Youth Line will be more substantively engaged.  They were invited to draw what the riverfront currently shows them:  why they feel drawn to it or not.  And they also imagined its future, as a place they would want to be a part of as part of “their” city.  Engaging young people, like any other group that is not “normally” part of the process, must be meaningful, substantial, and durable.  The process in this case, as illustrated in slide shows and other materials, is a good start; further involvement will be important as the process continues.

Speaking of which, the next big step in the process of remaking the Minneapolis riverfront with the “Next Generation of Parks” will be Thursday, February 10, when the winner of the four finalists will be announced.  Policy makers and competition managers will work with that team on the next steps of the program:  designing a specific project that will jump start the rejuvenation of the waterfront above St. Anthony Falls.

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