Laughter, lively music, and delicious food from around the world fill St. Anthony Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota as a crowd whoops it up at the Better Bridges Bash.
Even chilly temperatures and gusty winds can’t dampen folks’ enthusiasm—nor does the unpromising location right next to the roaring traffic on the I-94 freeway. Indeed, that’s the point of the event: to better connect neighborhoods on either side of the freeway by improving the bridges and to explore ways to make the area more friendly to people when they are not in cars.
This is why—in addition to enjoying a kazoo parade, a Liberian-American rapper and the Lexington-Hamline Community Band—festival goers wander into tents where they are encouraged to think expansively about their neighborhood’s future.
“We’re seeing that this community is engaged in how the streets feel, and they are letting local leaders know what they want,” offers Isaak Rooble, who is standing next to a gallery of photos showing possible improvement projects for this diverse community. People stick green post-its to ones they like; pink ones to those they don’t; and yellow for maybe. At another tent, people are invited to share their own desires and ideas for improving their neighborhood, with suggestions including "fewer cars" and "more street parties."
As part of their "community-led mission," the organization hosting the event, Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI), is conducting surveys with as many people as possible in English, Somali, and Oromo (a language spoken in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya) to learn more about issues in the neighborhoods surrounding the freeway.
The Friendly Streets Initiative grew out of a group of volunteers working with various neighborhood organizations to make biking and walking safer in St. Paul. In the summer of 2011, they sponsored a series of parties along Charles Avenue which runs through a racially- and economically-mixed community a few blocks from the freeway to discuss community concerns. The group created a survey to measure residents’ opinions and offered a photo gallery of innovative street designs found around the world.
Closing off blocks on Friday evenings, the parties featured food from local restaurants, games, and the opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other better. “More than 700 people turned out and we got a real sense of what the community thought,” recalls Lars Christiansen, an urban sociologist at Augsburg College who lives in the neighborhood and is now FSI Director. “What they liked and what they didn’t.”
The most popular ideas became the nucleus of the Charles Avenue Friendly Street plan, which emphasized four street improvements: (1) Better-marked crosswalks at busy intersections; (2) Traffic circles, which help slow the speed of vehicles at low-volume intersections; (3) Medians and other modifications at busy intersections, which provide refuge for pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the street; (4) A raised intersection, and sidewalks bumping out into the streets at select locations.
The volunteer committee formally organized themselves as the Friendly Streets Initiative to build support for the Charles Avenue project among neighbors and on the city council, and construction on Charles Avenue began in 2014 along a four-mile stretch of the street.
“FSI built grassroots support for change in St. Paul, a city reputed to have lots of opposition to bike and walk projects,” observed Jessica Treat, director of Transit for Livable Communities in an interview earlier this year. Since then TLC has become FSI’s fiscal sponsor. Treat credits FSI with mobilizing young families and other groups in the city who don’t usually weigh in on planning decisions, which showed political leaders the depth of public support for walk and bike projects.
Council Member Russ Stark, whose ward contains a section of the project, notes that FSI has changed how business is done in St. Paul. “By talking to people where they live, by using block parties and other means to find out what people value on their streets, they’ve helped change how we do civic engagement. We usually hear from a vocal minority on projects, but we don’t necessarily know what the public as a whole thinks.”
One of FSI’s major pushes now is a project coming out of the Better Bridges Bash to create better bike, foot and transit access in neighborhoods on either side of the I-94 in between the Capitol and the Minneapolis city limits. This includes Rondo, the historical African-American neighborhood where photographer Gordon Parks and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins grew up, much of which was bulldozed in the 1960s to construct the freeway.
“It was a beloved community,” says Melvin Giles, FSI community organizer, who remembers Rondo as a young child. “People would walk to the neighborhood store and kids could see all the others kids. They’d play baseball and football in the street. You couldn’t do those things today.”
What was once Rondo is probably the worst place in St. Paul to walk today, with a freeway ripping through the middle of the area and bridges that feel dangerous and dispiriting to cross.
“They seemed not to care a lot about poor kids and African American kids getting to school, or anywhere else, when they built the freeway,” remarks Anne Parker, an artist working with FSI who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years.
Conditions are grim on many of St. Paul’s I-94 bridges. Many walkers endure sidewalks so narrow that they must scrunch together to walk side-by-side, and switch to single-file if any other walker needs to pass.
“A lot of outside groups who want to help the neighborhood just come in and start doing stuff—FSI did not do that,” says Melvin Giles, explaining why he joined the group. “As an organization we help the community decide what it wants by offering a process for people to think about what they want from their streets—and then we will work with them.”
The long-term goals of the project are to call on the community’s expertise and creativity to inspire fresh thinking about transforming these bridges from barriers into connectors between neighborhoods. Planned reconstruction of the freeway offers opportunities for big ideas that stir excitement in the community. Ranking high among the ideas proposed: a land bridge, wider sidewalks and narrower car lanes, bike lanes, better winter maintenance, greater attention to disabled users, traffic calming, making it feel more like a public space, and adding a cultural wall to celebrate the history and art of the Rondo community.
In the short term, FSI wants to tap community expertise and creativity for ideas on improving existing bridges. “The whole point of FSI is to transform streets of fear into streets of joy, in ways both large and small, affecting the physical environment and the emotional one,” says Christiansen.
Here are the chief lessons of Friendly Streets Success, which can be applied in other communities around the country.