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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23 thoughts on “Lies in City Planning

  1. Trademark

    I think giving real alternatives to the community needs to be what they do.

    Have a meeting where city leadership is there. Explain the D line. explain the importance of opening up the streets. And provide residents real options.

    An example could be to say either we open chicago up to buses or we get rid of parking on columbus between 37th and 39th and reroute traffic there and then tear up the pavement on chicago avenue between 37th and 38th and plant grass on the street and make it a proper park and memorial. Give them options instead of just saying we’re doing this end of story.

  2. Megan

    Just to clarify, Minneapolis Planning (CPED) has nothing to do with the survey as they are completely separate for Public Works.

    1. Ian Young Post author

      Thanks for the clarification! I will admit that the subtleties of which city department handles which part of decision-making escape me, as I’m sure they do most people. If I were a CPED employee, I’d probably be pretty unhappy with Public Works for generating a bunch of ill-will that’ll blow back on my department!

      1. Micah DavisonModerator  

        It’s true that Public Works is heading up this process, but the City’s transportation planning division resides within PW. So it’s not clear to what degree City employees whose official title contains the word “planner” were involved in creating/administering the survey.

  3. Sheldon Gitis

    While I agree that the pseudo-public decision-making, in the form of clearly fraudulent surveys and other communications from government agencies, is insulting, despicable, and just plain stupid, obviously, the decision to reopen 38th and Chicago was made prior to any survey, poorly-designed or not.

    Permanently closing the intersection was never considered. Regardless of whether or not you agree or disagree with the decision, I think it is highly unlikely that blame, or credit, for reopening the intersection, belongs to the Director of Public Works. Just to clarify, I suspect there are private business interests, including and not limited to the Agape organization with its “up to $359,000 for help with revitalizing the intersection,” who have decided the intersection needs to be re-opened.

    I’m fairly certain most, if not all, of the transit-dependent riders of the 2 relatively high-frequency bus lines that pass through the intersection, will be pleased with the reopening.

  4. M.H-K

    As a neighbor of GFS who received this survey, I wrote a similar op-ed submission to the Strib, which they declined to publish or address.

    Agape themselves also more recently administered a door-to-door survey, which at least asked whether people wanted the streets open to traffic. To the best of our knowledge they administered it some of the houses on the four blocks closest to GFS (our house, with a “No Justice No streets” sign WAS contacted, but many others were not). Also, in the past couple of days, I’ve learned from neighbors that they clearly tried to sway some residents’ answers by telling them that EMS was not going to come to our streets while the intersection was closed to traffic, so “the real question is do you want EMS services if you need them?”

    Agape is claiming “90%” of neighbors want the streets open based on this survey. The lack of transparency even there is perhaps even more concerning and disappointing that the city’s predictable failure.

    1. Abby Finis

      As a planner (not with the city) and a resident who lives near GFS, I really appreciate this article. Thank you!!

      The city had more than a year to conduct authentic community engagement and they failed. Badly.

      This is a special community-based space unlike any other in the city. We should do what we can to support it and lean intro to it to hold real conversation about what justice looks like. No justice, no streets.

  5. Sam

    I think this post misses the point of the survey. The question is how it should be opened rather than whether it should be opened because the question of whether it should be opened is not the neighbors decision to make. Those who live in an area should certainly have input into how their public spaces are arranged, but they don’t get to decide whether two major arteries in a city remain closed in perpetuity. This is no different than NIMBYs saying that apartments shouldn’t be built in “their neighborhood”. Street intersections, as part of public infrastructure, serve more than just the needs of their immediate neighbors.

    1. Scott Merth

      This brings up an interesting point. To me, the scale of opening up the intersection for traffic reasons is not on par with addressing the greater needs of the community. For example, what actions have actually been taken by those responsible to ensure the police do not continue to have unchecked power to destroy lives and communities? The police and other agencies literally kill another person last week, so…?

      Of course the people holding the square have a list of 24 demands that remain undressed and largely unmentioned, even in the article above. Demands that will function to build community safety and some semblance of justice. The city et. al. have always had to opportunity to actually listen, but have chosen not to. In a practical sense, this intersection will not be open in the way city/mayor/police want it until the community recognizes that progress towards justice. I guess what I am saying is that right now, it seems to me that George Floyd Square is already serving a need greater than those of the immediate neighbors and that should be recognized.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Discussing the 24 demands in this context would make more sense if they were limited to ones that the city can practically and legally actually do. Legally the city of Minneapolis cannot recall Mike Freeman. Practically the city cannot demand rent-to-own housing if they ever expect developers to every want to build in the city again. There’s a reason why you never see new construction housing built on contract for deed.

        1. Sheldon Gitis

          What’s the reason? Why can’t new housing be rent-to-own/contract for deed?

          Why does new housing have to increase the exorbitant wealth of real estate investors, property management cos., developers, bank executives and construction contractors? Why can’t, or shouldn’t, a full-time worker making $15/hour be a homeowner? How many more billions of dollars does Blackstone and others like it need to add to their portfolios of rental homes? How many more highway hellhole rental apartments need to get built at the end of a freeway ramp?

          1. Monte Castleman

            Because developers don’t want to do it that way. Either, in exchange for your substantial investment and finance cost, you wind up with an asset that you own to generate income forever, apartments, or you cash out immediately and forever and move onto your next project, condos. You don’t want to build something that you have to hold onto for a while and then completely lose it, and if a city mandates this, maybe while “no one will ever build anything again” is hyperbole, it would certainly make St. Paul or Bloomington a much more attractive place for your next project.

            It should also be pointed out the this demand is vague. At what point is the demand satisfied? Is the demand no conventional rental housing is ever built again anywhere in the city, or is the demand a couple of contract for deed units near 38th and Chicago?

            1. Sheldon Gitis

              Whose “substantial investment and finance cost?” The developers? As I understand it, most if not all of the costs end up paid by rent/mortgage and taxes. The developers pay little or nothing. All the developers do is collect “development” fees.

              If St. Paul, Bloomington, Roseville, St. Louis Park or wherever wants to compete in a race to the bottom, offering developers forever increasing subsidies for highway hellhole housing projects, rather than rent-to-own/contract for deed options for low-income wage earners, I suppose they can. But why would they, or do they?

      2. Sam

        The first paragraph is an interesting take on my argument, but I don’t necessarily disagree. If stakeholders agree that the current state is a better use than its original intended use as a street then yes, it should remain as it is. My point is mainly that the immediate neighborhood are not the only stakeholders involved and any survey of their opinion should not be taken as gospel.

        Regarding the 24 demands, I agree with Monte’s response. It’s hard to see them as good-faith negotiators when many if not most of their demands are not able to be met by the city. I understand them not wanting to give up their biggest bargaining chip by allowing the intersection to reopen, but many of these demands are county or state matters and those bodies have rarely shown any interest in listening to the needs of South Minneapolis so they’re unlikely to be heard. If they’re going to wait on unrealistic demands then they just put the realistic ones in jeopardy. It seems that if you take a hard stance and refuse to negotiate you should expect to see the other side respond in kind which is what we saw twice over the last week.

        1. Scott Merth

          Well this issue is greater than just the City, so maybe the other players (County, State) should get involved (they certainly were for their overwrought response to the police homicide of Daunte Wright). Historically, the ‘state,’ and by that I mean government institutions at several levels, has not responded in good faith to demands of the community. Reforms to policing, which could have been enacted as a sign of good faith when these issues were brought up in the past, were essentially non-existent or toothless. Police misconduct will be addressed and it seems to me that waiting around for a debate club format for fairness, rules, and assumptions of realistic demands is long since past. I don’t necessarily disagree with your overall point, but people are literally being killed through police corruption and ineptitude, so what other options are there besides taking a hard stance?

    2. micasa81

      I think you may have missed the point of the post. If you re-read Ian’s child-parent-bath analogy, in that scenario, the Mpls DPW is both the parent limiting the kid’s options and an outside observer who states, “this proves that most kids want a bath!” I don’t think it was lost on Ian that the City only initially sought input on how to reopen the intersection. Their point is that the City is trying to take the response to that narrower question and use it as evidence that local residents want the intersection reopened. And if the engagement summary doesn’t convince you that they’re actively trying to misrepresent public response in that way, look at the quote in the linked Strib article, where the interim DPW director summarizes the survey results – where both options entailed reopening in some form – as indicating “good support in the area for reopening the intersection.”

      1. Sam

        I re-read the article, and I did in fact miss the point of the post! So to respond directly to the post – the first sentence of the city’s summary makes it clear that they were only given the two options, however past that point it is not clear so if someone is just scanning it (like I apparently did with this article) then the reader would think more options were given. Maybe I have rose colored glasses, but I like to think the intention of the city was to engage the community and this was likely performed by people more used to deciding how wide boulevards should be and what type of crosswalk is best and less used to dealing with the politics and emotions that this topic is fraught with.

        However, I think the whole premise of a survey of the neighborhood on whether it should be re-opened is off-base. It’s clear that the city misrepresented (or at the very least miscommunicated) as doing just that, which they shouldn’t have done, but that type of survey would be unwarranted anyway in this case in my opinion. I know everyone feels some amount of ownership of their own block and neighborhood, but streets, bike lanes, bus routes, etc. only work if they are open in their entirety and they’re not just there to serve the immediate area. The Kmart on Lake St. blocking Nicollet is a glaring example of this. I wonder what the response of this website would be if residents of Uptown blocked the Greenway and then were surveyed about whether it should remain closed. I imagine the response would be that the survey should be ignored entirely as invalid and no time would be taken to discuss the wording or the questions because it’d be irrelevant.

        1. Ian Young Post author

          I don’t disagree that the rest of the city has a stake in this question as well (though as with many things, I do think the people most directly affected should have the strongest voice in the process). However, it is just as unclear what the rest of the city thinks should happen to GFS, and no city department has done an acceptable job of tackling that question either. It is very clear that Mayor Frey, Chief Arradondo, and the owner of the Star Tribune think that 38th & Chicago should be opened. Beyond that, the waters are pretty muddy. It seems like the closest thing we’re going to get to public feedback is whether Frey keeps his job in November or not.

          It’s funny that you should mention the Kmart, because people elsewhere have been pointing out that it’s pretty hard to take the city seriously on their claims that reopening 38th & Chicago is an urgent matter when they’ve left that Kmart blocking Nicollet for 40 years. And speaking of Nicollet, it just so happens that we have a rather successful example downtown of how a street can be designed to offer access for transit and EMS while also serving as a thriving pedestrian mall. There’s a very wide possibility space in when, how, and under what circumstances GFS should reopen, and all that Public Works has to offer is “cars go next to fist” or “cars go around fist”.

          1. Sheldon Gitis

            It would be ironic if the memorial resulted in someone getting run over and killed trying to walk across the street. Has anyone considered the impact of cars and buses going around/next to the fist as pedestrians are trying to cross the street?

            1. Ian Young Post author

              A good question 🤷🤷🤷. The list of cons for the roundabout option includes “public cannot interact with fist” so I believe they don’t plan to have any pedestrian buffer in the middle, which means that people will have to cross the full width in one go. In general, roundabouts tend to slow cars and make drivers pay attention, reducing pedestrian injuries. I don’t know if that will hold up on a high-traffic street if they don’t reconstruct the rest of the intersection to manage car and pedestrian flow, which it doesn’t appear they plan to do. What I find especially frustrating about this option is that there are plenty of examples around the world of roundabouts centered on a piece of public art in a pedestrian island that provides direct access to the art (something the caretakers at GFS have been very clear about wanting) and provides traffic calming and safe crossing options, yet the design they are proposing seems to ignore all of that in favor of the smallest and least impactful form of a roundabout.

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                When we say “roundabout,” keep in mind that the current set up (as of this morning) has stop signs at all four entrances. Also, concrete barriers around the various memorial spots, at the moment, significantly constrain car space. Even as the city seem to want it set up, any cars going through should be going pretty slow. At least at this phase.

                And, of course, the community (or however you want to describe the people maintaining the square) has also further constrained cars by partially blocking Chicago at 39th and 37th.

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