It’s a brilliantly blue winter day, and a happy crowd in downtown Saint Paul dispels the myth that Minnesotans hibernate from November to May.
Smiles erupt as people sip hot chocolate, build a snowman, cluster in threes and fours for animated conversation, and gobble food truck burritos at café tables.
A young woman hands out orange buttons that declare “I’m Making Saint Paul Better.” That’s the answer to a question asked by almost everyone passing by: “What’s going on here?” Most visitors stop at a table covered with large sheets of paper to record their ideas about what they’d like to see more of downtown: “green space,” “great buildings,” “public art,” “music,” “playgrounds.”
One of the organizers of this event, Margaret Jones, who tends a sidewalk fire pit, is delighted with the results of this pop-up festival. “Oh my god!” she exclaims, introducing a young man to everyone within earshot. “This is John, who has a culinary arts degree and is visiting from Florida on a business trip, and he’s never had s’mores before.”
It’s Jones’s mission to foster events, programs and innovations that foster social connection among everyone in the city. Over 18 months as Saint Paul ’s Vitality Fellow—the first-of-its-kind position in city government anywhere—she uncorked a stream of placemaking initiatives. She was directly involved in more than a dozen major community-building projects, from the police department’s successful campaign to curb pedestrian deaths to the restoration of a wetland in a lower-income neighborhood with new affordable housing nearby.
Jones also infused the community—from city hall to grassroots neighborhood groups—with a well-defined vision that age, race, economic status or level of physical ability should make no difference in people’s quality of life when it comes to essential issues like traffic, safety, crime, economic opportunity and great gathering places in your neighborhood.
A Bold Vision that Captured Saint Paul’s Imagination
Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman declares, “Margaret really gets the creative juices flowing around the city, stimulating a vision where people can see in their minds what we can create together.”
The 8 80 Vitality idea captured Saint Paul ’s imagination in May 2014 when Gil Penalosa—former parks commissioner of Bogota, Colombia, and a globetrotting consultant on urban livability—spoke about it at 17 different appearances across the Twin Cities during a placemaking residency, organized by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation.
It’s not crazy to think that Saint Paul could be seen as one of the world’s truly great cities, declared Penalosa. “Thirty years ago no one would have ranked Melbourne, Australia, as one of the top 400 cities in the world. Now many of us think it’s one of the top four or five cities.”
This was the genesis of the 8 80 Vitality Fund, a $42.5 million investment over three years, focusing on infrastructure and public space improvements to enrich the lives city residents. Among projects being jumpstarted are the River Balcony to open up more public space overlooking the Mississippi, the city-wide Grand Round pedestrian and bike parkway, the Capital City Bikeway downtown and a string of new community spaces in lower-income neighborhoods along the route of the Green Line.
Connecting People All Over Town
“We wanted to make sure the 8 80 idea continued in the day-to-day workings of the city after there was no longer money in the fund,” explains St. Paul’s Economic Development Program Coordinator Nora Riemenschneider about the Fellowship, which was funded by the Knight Foundation after being selected from a pool of more than 7,000 applications as a winner of the Knight Cities Challenge.
Jones was tapped for the job on the basis of her experience as Executive Director of the Lexington-Hamline Community Council, serving a mixed-income, racially diverse section of the city.
“The idea of an 8 80 Fellow at first glance seemed like a classic boondoggle,” recalls Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer. “But what Margaret did was to…[give] people a focal point for looking at things differently, making new connections and helping new things happen.”
Similar praise comes from Melvin Giles, a longtime activist in the African-American Rondo neighborhood. “It’s really great to have someone in city hall so closely connected to the community. The 8 80 Fellowship helps provide space for conversations and is a great ally for win-win situations.”
A Livable Community for People of All Ages & Incomes
One of the first things Jones did inside city hall was organize an 8 80 advisory team, drawing representatives from 12 of the city’s 14 departments, ranging from inspections to the library. This group was instrumental in drafting Saint Paul’s “Working Principles for Vibrant Places and Spaces”, which the mayor sent out to all city employees.
•Ensure Saint Paul puts people first
•Encourage vitality through investment, private and public alike
•Create accessible places where people want to connect and spend time
•Promote healthy living
•Celebrate the city’s cultural diversity
Planning and Economic Director Jonathan Sage-Martinson concurs. “It’s a good, healthy, equitable thing to make cities that work for all people. But it’s also an economically smart thing to do—it attracts investment, residents, and businesses to help facilitate economic growth.”
Although the 8 80 Vitality Fellowship ended in February, its impact will endure through the many policies and decisions it has influenced. “The fellowship allowed us to take the 8 80 ethos into every project in every neighborhood,” notes Sage-Martinson.
Many of the practices that Jones put in place at the City will continue. For example, the cross-department advisory team Jones launched will continue to discuss citywide issues. Additionally, the city’s comprehensive plan is filled recommendations around issues like aging, accessibility and equity from a wide swatch of Saint Paul residents, many of whom were invited into the process by 8 80 Vitality work.
Looking back on everything she undertook in 18 busy months, Jones says, “I feel like I’ve been the city cheerleader, concierge and an ambassador for Saint Paul.”
Taking It to the Streets (and Parks and Meeting Rooms)
Some the many projects Jones was involved as Saint Paul ’s 8 80 Vitality Fellow from August 2015 to February 2017 are summarized below:
Saint Paul Comprehensive Plan:
In a stroke of luck, the 8 80 Vitality Fellowship coincided with the completion of the city’s new comprehensive plan, which guides direction and decisions shaping the city’s future until 2040. “Margaret had a big hand in ensuring that vitality was embedded in the comprehensive plan,” explained Sage-Martinson. “She helped… get really important feedback from diverse sources, engaging a broad demographic to provide input.”
The “Stop For Me” Campaign”:
In Minnesota pedestrian deaths reached a 25-year high in 2016, but they were down 50 percent in Saint Paul . That’s partly due to the city’s “Stop For Me” campaign, where police officers sponsored 60 events on street corners throughout Saint Paul to drive home the message that Minnesota law requires motorists to stop for pedestrians at intersections, even when there is no crosswalk marked. Jones was part of the project’s planning committee that met monthly. “The 8 80 philosophy has been instilled into the police department,” remarks Sgt. Jeremy Ellison, who works with neighborhood leaders on traffic safety issues.
One hundred twenty-five years after it was conceived by Horace Cleveland (often ranked second to Frederick Law Olmsted as America’s greatest landscape architect), Saint Paul is completing a 27-mile parkway winding throughout the city that will pleasantly accommodate walkers and bicyclists as well as motorists. “It’s a place a person of any age and ability can enjoy,” says Jones. “In the conversations we initiated about this, it became clear there’s a new level of urgency and importance to do things that are fun in the city.”
Capital City Bikeway:
The first leg of a 21st century bike network opened downtown last year along Jackson Street (and one block of Kellogg Boulevard. Borrowing a page from the acclaimed Cultural Trail project in Indianapolis, the Capital City Bikeway gives bicyclists space separate from both cars and pedestrians, making everyone happy. “It’s an economic driver for the city.” Jones adds, “The 8 80 idea is that the future is about more than cars. And I am meeting a lot of people who will never ride a bike who like the bikeway because it will ease traffic on the streets, or gives their employees a safe way to get to work, or because their kids or grandkids bike, and they want them to stay in town.”
“This idea started with the students at Gordon Parks High School who wanted more green space near their school on University Avenue,” Jones recalls, and residents at Skyline Tower picked up on the idea because they wanted a place for East African elders to walk and kids to play soccer. The result will soon be the new 5-acre Griggs Park in the Midway neighborhood, which has less green space than many other parts of the city.
Willow Reserve is a 23-acre nature area rich in wildlife that is being ecologically restored on the city’s lower-income North End. “A hidden jewel, I was blown away about just how amazing it is,” is how Jones describes it after helping host a well-attended pop-up event to bring neighbors into the planning process for the project and new housing nearby to be built by Habitat for Humanity. “This is another example of how the Fellowship infuses the whole city with a new energy about looking at the assets we already have,” declares Nora Riemenschneider, the city’s Economic Development Program Coordinator.
Little Mekong Plaza:
More than 12 percent of Saint Paul ’s population is Asian-American, and the hub of activity for Southeast Asian immigrants and anyone else who delights in cultural vibrancy is Little Mekong, clustered around the University and Western stop on the Green Line. Already a magnet for its restaurants and annual summer Night Market, the area now sports Little Mekong Plaza, which directly fulfills the 8 80 vision of neighborhood gathering spots. “It’s so important because it’s the only open space up and down the avenue,” says Bao Vang, CEO of the Hmong American Partnership.
A version of this post appeared at Next City.