One thing I noticed very early on when I moved to Saint Paul was how difficult it was to get involved with city government and politics.
For starters, I noticed a stark difference between St. Paul’s city hall and that of Minneapolis. The Minneapolis city hall is open, you can gather in the foyer. Minneapolis city council members face residents when they meet. By contrast, Saint Paul’s city hall reminds me of what I assume Kim Jong Un’s rec room looks like. There are metal detectors, security guards, a giant rotating statue bearing down on you surrounded by black marble beams and zero windows.
The city hall chambers are also missing translucent windows – instead decorated with stained glass figures (all men). City council members sit in a circle facing away from residents. Nothing about the built environment invites participation in city government, including our city flag. Did you know we even had a city flag?
There are some who do know Saint Paul has a flag and even fly it outside their home (myself included). Some very much like the current design, which is great, but let’s break down how it is currently maintaining the inaccessible nature of our city government.
Good flag design is important. If you don’t believe me ask Roman Mars (seriously, watch his TED Talk it’s awesome). People are aware that countries and states have flags but for the most part people don’t know that their city has a flag as well. The reason most people don’t realize their city has a flag is because they are generally terrible.
However, some cities get it very right. A perfect example is the Chicago flag. You can find it all over Chicago – there’s a whole website dedicated to Chicago flag tattoos – and it’s known across the country and the world. Police in Chicago actually have their flag placed on their caskets when they pass rather than the American flag.
Why is the Chicago flag everywhere? Why do so many people love it so much? The answer is pretty simple – it follows the five principles of design that every amazing flag follows:
- Keep it simple. Nothing captures this better than the Japanese flag. A good flag design should be so simple a child could draw it.
- Use meaningful symbolism. You can read about the history and symbolism of the Chicago flag here.
- Use 2 or 3 basic colors. This maintains the simplicity that every flag needs.
- No lettering or seals. Our Minnesota state flag is a disgrace in this respect.
- Be distinctive or be related. Sometimes the good designs are already “taken”. However, a flag’s symbols, colors, and shapes can recall other flags—a powerful way to show heritage, solidarity, or connectedness. This requires knowledge of other flags.
Now let’s take a look at how the current Saint Paul flag stacks up.
- Keep it simple. The Saint Paul flag is relatively simple but still too cluttered and probably too complicated for a small child to draw. Flags are seen at a distance so having too many fine details is problematic because you really can’t see them when the flag is being flown anyway.
- Use meaningful symbolism. The Saint Paul flag is thoughtful about what important aspects of our city are included – a blue mid stripe representing the Mississippi River; a small cabin stands for Father Gaultier’s original St. Paul chapel; a dome represents Minnesota’s Capitol and a winged wheel indicates St. Paul’s position as a transportation hub. The flag also contains a star of the north, symbolic of Minnesota, and a red shield, representing the progress and spirit of the city, while gold stripes are symbolic of the future.
- Use 2 or 3 basic colors. This principle is definitely followed.
- No lettering or seals. Unlike the Minnesota flag, the Saint Paul flag doesn’t add it’s seal but does for some reason include the name of the city. Now to be fair, originally the flags designer Gladys Mittle, an art student at the College of St. Kate’s, did not include the name but if you have to put the name of your city on your flag you have failed.
- Be distinctive or related. The Saint Paul flag is fairly distinctive and gives a nod to the state of Minnesota through the north star.
Is our city flag utterly and completely hopeless? Not at all. But just like our city government it isn’t accessible either. Sure, folks like myself who pay attention to city politics and actively engage in them fly it, but do others? The answer is largely no. My own next door neighbor who has lived in Saint Paul for decades had no idea what it was for until I told her (even putting your name on a flag apparently doesn’t really help).
Great flag design encourages involvement and city pride and can connect us in ways most people don’t even think of. Mayor of South Bend Indiana Pete Buttigieg, a current presidential candidate, described their recent redesigned flag as an “appropriate exclamation point to the South Bend 150 celebration” and a “unifying symbol that let’s all of us, literally, wear our city pride on our sleeve”.
A great flag can stimulate a local economy, advertise a city all over the world and be a welcome sign to visitors and new residents. If our flag was great it wouldn’t require us to defend how great it was. It would be seen everywhere without much encouragement. Our flag is neither absolutely terrible or particularly great. Much like many aspects of our city, let’s take the good and strive to make it better, more inclusive, more accessible and something everyone, not just the few, feel proud of.