Lies in City Planning

In the early morning hours of June 3rd, a large number of Minneapolis Public Works employees arrived at George Floyd Square to remove barricades and place signs with the intention of reopening the square to traffic. Mayor Frey claims that this was a community-led action done in coordination with Agape Movement, a group who reportedly holds hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts from the city. There is much more to be said about this event, but right now I would like to focus on one small but pivotal lie that city employees told about George Floyd Square, months earlier.

The intersection of 38th & Chicago was occupied by protesters following the murder of George Floyd and has been closed to vehicle traffic since then, operating as a public square, protest ground, and memorial. Minneapolis Public Works has solicited two rounds of public feedback concerning what should be done with the intersection, primarily focused on when, how, and whether it should be reopened to vehicle traffic. The most recent survey was conducted in March 2021 through post cards mailed to residents who live near the intersection. This survey presented two design options for potential reopening of the square, one that creates a roundabout around the fist sculpture, and one that relocates the fist sculpture near the memorial site.

In the engagement summary for that survey, the city reports that 40% of respondents supported the relocation option, and 41% supported the roundabout option, while 16% of responses requested keeping the square closed and 3% requested a full reopening with no remaining memorial. News outlets like the Star Tribune and WCCO uncritically reported these results as “strong support for reopening streets.” The Star Tribune quoted the interim director of Public Works as saying the responses indicated “good support in the area for reopening the intersection.” This news bolstered the narrative pushed by some city leaders that the public wants the square reopened.

There is just one problem: These results are not valid. The engagement summary reports the breakdown of responses as if survey respondents were given four choices: support option A, support option B, support neither or support full opening. In actuality, the survey postcard provided two options: support option A or support option B.

The letter mailed with the survey also presents it as a choice between two options: “We are surveying residents and businesses to determine the preferred option for the interim design. We encourage you to vote for your preferred option.”

81% of respondents didn’t respond to the question of whether they preferred the square open or closed. They responded to the question the survey presented to them: open with option A or open with option B?

Anyone with a toddler has probably used this trick before. “Do you want to take a bath now and then we’ll read a story, or do you want to play with your toys for 15 more minutes and then take a bath?” If 81% of toddlers choose one option or the other, it’s not evidence that 81% of toddlers are supportive of baths and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

The results I find much more revealing are that 19% of respondents chose “none of the above” on a survey that was designed not to give them that option. Think about it: 19% of respondents refused to check any box and wrote into the comment section instead that they did not approve of any of the options presented. If almost a fifth of the people who take your survey respond with a note telling you they fundamentally disagree with your premise, something has gone very wrong.

It is deeply concerning that Public Works would frame the results the way they did without acknowledging how badly flawed the survey was. I find it hard to give them the benefit of the doubt that this could have been an honest mistake. It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to recognize the problem here, so how did this get approved by a department of city planners whose jobs revolve around gathering feedback?

The most plausible explanation seems to be that a city department engaged in push polling and manipulated results to manufacture support for the option they had already decided to pursue, rather than engaging in an honest effort to gather community feedback. This is a bad look for a city whose commitment to racial justice is currently very much in doubt. It’s also shockingly irresponsible through the lens of city planning.

Catalog all the sins of past eras of city planning (many of which disproportionately harm people of color), and I bet you will find that more than any other were caused by top-down planning where elites decided what they thought would be best and then pushed their “solutions” on everyone else. City planning is only useful exactly as far as it accurately captures reality. If it is used to promote a viewpoint rather than describe the world as it is, city planning becomes a force to be resisted rather than a process to be engaged.

Furthermore, city planning can only be effective if the public trusts the integrity of the process. If people feel that their feedback will be misrepresented and used to further an agenda, they will be suspicious and unwilling to engage in the process. When this happens, the process is a failure regardless of whether that perception was accurate or not.

Does a majority of the neighborhood around George Floyd Square support reopening? They may, or they may not. We are unlikely to ever know, because the only data we have is useless, and the agency who should be in charge of gathering this data has lost their credibility on the issue. Any future survey from Public Works will be seen by part of the community not as a neutral artifact but as a weapon wielded by the powerful.

This failure is not only a stain on our city’s efforts towards racial justice, it’s also an ill-conceived decision that will do lasting harm to our ability to engage in effective city planning. We deserve a full explanation and acknowledgement of responsibility from Public Works, and a detailed plan to repair the damage this has done.

Note: I reached out to the email address listed at the city’s 38th & Chicago initiative and received confirmation that the 16% and 3% figures were collected from write-in responses, but have not received requested comments on the decisions made in designing the survey or reporting on the results.

Title image: George Floyd Square June 3rd, 2021. Photographer: Chad Davis. Used under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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