Public designers in the Twin Cities are varied in their training, audiences, strategies, and tools to create social impact. They include architects, public artists, a state employee seeking to end homelessness, and a narrative designer seeking to write new pathways to racial equity.
What unites them is that they help people to tell forgotten stories or share new ones. Through participatory design and conversation, they empower others to find a home for their particular voices.
Today, in a state that is 80% white, Voices for Racial Justice exposes hidden structures. VRJ works with communities of color not just “be at the table”—but to “lead the way toward a more inclusive and equitable Minnesota.” But you can’t lead a conversation if you can never share your unique experiences.
Ashley Fairbanks makes this happen as VRJ’s Director of Narrative and Network Building—a title that she created to convey her purpose. In a superbly-written 2016 article for the Twin Cities Planet—“What one Native woman thinks everyone should know about Native people,” Fairbanks sheds light on her distinct perspective as a member of the White Earth Nation. She brings to life the challenges and the sense of burden that many Native Americans face in explaining their cultures:
“In organizing circles, there is a commonly accepted idea that you never have to be anyone’s teacher. As an Anishinaabe woman trying to do change-making work, I’ve never felt like I have that option. There are so few of us, that if we don’t share our narrative, who will? If only half of us graduate from high school, how do we get our stories out there? If only 13 percent of us graduate from college, how much burden do we have to rely on that 13 percent to always be the ones to tell our story? To always be the ones at the table?”
The role of being a “spokesperson” for a misunderstood culture is something that most Euro-Americans never know, or even consider. Yet Fairbanks is a gifted communicator who does just that. Having received grants and fellowship from both arts and policy organizations, Fairbanks describes herself as a “public artist” and “interdisciplinary designer”. She designs activities and public events for VRJ that foster idea sharing, writing, and expression. She crosses disciplinary boundaries to build social connections and to reveal participants’ stories of structural exclusion along with future pathways to overcome it.
One message for public interest designers across the country is that it’s good to have groups like Voices on your team. As advocates for neglected viewpoints, they can make projects from public art events to neighborhood planning much richer. Storytellers like Fairbanks can teach both practitioners and their public clients how to communicate through stories. In this way, they can build more personal bridges of communications in their work together.
Public Design for Everyone: Works Progress and ThreeSeven
Whereas narrative designers like Ashley Fairbanks help people share their own stories, ThreeSeven helps people to interact with public architecture and even to help build it. As an architecture student at the University of Minnesota, Troy Gallas, ThreeSeven’s co-founder, had a late night epiphany in the design studio. It was sometime around 2003 and he was thinking about the depth of the great architectural works he was studying. “I realized that there was more to architecture than beautiful forms or functional spaces, it was about bringing people together and creating environments where a community can be fostered and strengthened,” he recalls.
Although this insight is a basic tenet within the Impact Design community, it can be a striking revelation for a young student inundated with the Beaux Arts paradigm that architecture is essentially aesthetic—and that the visual realm of forms and spaces matter most.
Gallas was one of the early members of Works Progress and more recently, ThreeSeven. Both community design groups grew out of a cultural buzz in the Twin Cities around in the early 2000s when students began to embrace the idea “service design” and an expanded sense of “design” itself.
Gallas explains that these early conversations “eventually grew into Works Progress where we were able to explore new and unique ways of showcasing and building community through exhibitions, events, and community spaces.”
Ten years later, Gallas still thinks beyond traditional professional roles and established definitions of beauty in architecture. “We honestly haven’t really defined specific goals for ThreeSeven as our work is always evolving based on the projects that come our way. We’re constantly shifting between public art, placemaking, architecture, and design.”
Working with ThreeSeven’s co-founder Patrick McKennan, Gallas describes the following three projects and their impact:
The C/Arts: Mobile Art Carts we designed for Springboard for the Arts. One is a cart for artists to sell their work, another is a cart for social practice artists, and a third is a stage for performance artists. The carts can be checked out for free and wheeled around Lowertown St Paul.
The “Living Bus Shelter” that we created for the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and Metro Transit aimed to activate transit stops with high ridership and no amenities by reimagining what a bus shelter can be.
The “Water Source” was designed as an interactive installation at the River Balcony Prototyping Festival in St. Paul. The project encouraged participants to participate in the installation by tracing in yarn the path their drinking water takes from the Mississippi River through a network of channels and treatment facilities and eventually to their neighborhood. “Water Source” was aimed to educate about the journey St Paul’s tap water takes, reconnect participants to the Mississippi River, and create an opportunity for them to engage in creating the sculptural work itself.
Most people in metropolitan regions rarely notice the ecological systems all around them or the potential beauty of streets that they visit every day. Through projects like “Water Source” ThreeSeven sheds new light on the landscapes and public spaces where we live. In doing so, they help to build a broader public interest and commitment to their stewardship.
Private Practice/Public Interest Architecture
Founded in 1953 and based in Minneapolis, HGA is one of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the country. Over the last twenty years, the company has expanded to eight offices across the country in regions ranging from San Francisco to Washington, DC.
During this time, the firm has grown to 850 people; and across all the offices—and most of the new hires are relatively young.Jessica S. Horstkotte explains that many of them want more from their careers than a salary and promotions. Like Troy Gallas, many of them went to school in the early 2000s during the Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2007. Many of these graduates choose where to work today based on opportunities for life-long learning and community service.
Jessica S. Horstkotte explains that many of them want more from their careers than a salary and promotions. Like Troy Gallas, many of them went to school in the early 2000s during the Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2007. Many of these graduates choose where to work today based on opportunities for life-long learning and community service.
HGA Community Action began in 2015 as a grassroots effort. In 2016, firm leadership began to actively support their work and by the end of that year, 237 employees had contributed across all offices.
The following are three Twin Cities examples as described in HGA Community Action’s 2016 annual report:
—West Broadway Public Plaza Demonstration Area. HGA partnered with artist Emily Stover and contractor Field Outdoor Spaces on a proposal for a new public plaza in North Minneapolis. Our concept for a flexible gathering place was designed to improve public access, decrease the perception of crime, and enhance aesthetics along West Broadway Avenue in Minneapolis.
—The HGA Minneapolis office provided short-term design services to four local organizations that we selected through an RFP process. Each group worked with a team of 5-6 HGA employees, coming together to explore their needs and co-create solutions during an intensive, eight-hour workshop.
—Rochester, Minnesota Community Design Workshop. “Activating the Alley”
HGA helped to re-envision a prominent alley in downtown Rochester in collaboration with key city stakeholders. Our contributions included overall strategy, guidance on grants to fund the project, and design concepts that could support a safe, attractive, and business-friendly experience year-round.
For many large national design firms like HGA, supporting public design within their corporate structures is good for business and attracts new talent. International firms such as HOK and Gensler have community design programs of their own. As public impact design is further defined and implemented, it is likely that firms of all sizes will soon follow. Impact Design Hub can become a forum where design firms share ideas and stories of success.
Systems Design puts Housing First
Like ThreeSeven’s design to visually express city-wide hydrology and HGA’s work with neighborhoods, public interest policy designers in the Twin Cities are connecting and revealing complex social systems. As Minnesota’s State Director to Prevent and End Homelessness, Cathy ten Broeke entered the housing field in 1993 and today explores the structural systems that cause and perpetuate homelessness. By stepping back to find the overall connections between public policy, funding sources, public health, and design—she is public designer of long-term systemic change across Minnesota.
“Ending homelessness does not mean that no one ever again will have a housing crisis,” she says. “It means that we will put systems in place to ensure we can prevent the crises from leading to homelessness whenever possible. When someone does become homeless, we must ensure that it is rare, brief, and only happens once.”
Safety, improved job skills, and looking beyond immediate barriers are all connected in ten Broeke’s planning. “I believe in the ‘housing first’ approach, which means ensuring people get connected to housing first—regardless of their particular barriers – mental illness, sobriety….” Then clients are given the varied support they need to sustain that housing.
It all starts with having the security of a home place. “Everything is much easier and more successfully addressed when someone has a safe and stable place to live.” In this sense housing is both a human right and a foundation for public health and wellness. The lesson for impact designers nationwide is to meet with and collaborate with planners whose skills and backgrounds are very different from one’s own. Artists and architects can learn from environmental scientists. Policy planners can work with groups like VRG to understand in a more personal way the experiences of people facing challenges of poverty, mental illness, and homelessness.
Overcoming Barriers: Connected Parks and Public Art
Public designers like Cathy ten Broeke cross disciplines and agency boundaries to address to ask new questions. Over the last 140 years, the Twin Cities region has built its most successful public designs by doing just this, by casting aside old barriers and taking a larger view.
In 1883, the landscape architect Horace Cleveland convinced Minneapolis business leaders to build a new kind of park system for an emerging city—one that linked natural resources such as lakes, rivers. A few years later, Cleveland’s vision for parkways and regional design expanded to the rival (and sometimes loathed) city of St. Paul.
Cleveland saw the two cities not so much as competitors—but as a greater region that he called “the United Cities”. He planned for parkways on both sides of the Mississippi River and stronger connections parkway connections between them.
In the early 1970s, progressive state leaders created one of the first regional governance systems in the country. Guiding planning for five counties, the Metropolitan Council checked leapfrog sprawl and protected ecological systems throughout the region. As an echo of the work of Cleveland, they hired renowned landscape architect, Ian McHarg to create a regional plan identifying sensitive ecological areas and critical groundwater recharge zones. Today, parks and nature preserves throughout the region are sited in such places to preserve them.
In Saint Paul today, public artists continue to address such ecological systems and public spaces city-wide. But their tools are more than parks and boulevards. They embrace the public arts of performance, storytelling, exhibits, and festivals that spark new conversations. Over ten years, Public Art Saint Paul has supported artists through fostering new roles for them community and ecological planning.
Colleen Sheehy serves as the group’s Executive Director. After working with the relatively static object-based collections of art museums, she grew fascinated with public arts planning where space itself becomes a stage for gathering and meeting others.
Sheehy believes that the most pressing issues for public artists in St. Paul relate to social equity and climate change. Her team addresses equity through community engagement with deep listening to the history and cultures neighborhoods. For example, Sheehy says, “In our work on the food plans for the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods, it’s been critical to collect the food stories and to understand the cultural assets of the communities….”
To address the global threat of climate change, Public Art Saint Paul involves artists in transforming civic infrastructure. Sheehy is encouraged that agencies like city water and parks departments, along with expansive watershed districts, are involving artists in helping to rethink storm water infrastructure. Environmental artist Christine Baeumler serves as Public Art Saint Paul’s Artist in Residence in the Capitol Region Watershed District. Recently, Public Art Saint Paul’s “City Artist” Aaron Dysart joined a team to think about artistic treatments of storm water in a city park.
Regarding social equity and ecology, Sheehy cites the all too obvious fact that “the greatest challenge is the automobile. It has dominated urban design for at least 60-70 years. Streets and highways have divided communities and make it harder for people to connect on a face to face basis.”
After generations as dividing walls, arterials and freeways can be rethought as public spaces where such events can happen. “I think we need bold new ideas rather than working around the edges of what exists. We’re talking not only about design issues but about cultural and behavioral change.”
Sheehy believes that artists as facilitators can make the biggest social impact through working in such public spaces and with communities. “When I think of design, I don’t think of just the built, physical environment, but the process that generates the physical design.” This is a scope far beyond creating object-based statements.
Environmental advocates across the country can find examples in their own communities when urban renewal, public “plop” art, and fortress-like buildings desiccate downtowns. It’s time to think about how this all happened—and how public interest design can overcome top-down vision behind it.
Lessons from a Complicated Regional Past
At its best, The Twin Cities have historically planned for the greater whole—and for the long-term. At our worst, we have shown the arrogance to believe that we know the answers now—who can live here and who should not, who can be a “designer” and a planner and who cannot, what stories, cultures, and historic places merit recognition.
But, as Colleen Sheehy argues, we can no longer afford to be so confident and narrow. “We are at a point in human history when all professions need to have relevance and impact on making a better society so that we can address the unprecedented and urgent issues and conditions that we face.”
Fortunately, a new generation of Twin Cities professionals in design firms and allied fields are pushing for greater public involvement. For them, reaching out to others and learning along the way is part of satisfying career. They are intentional about reaching out to people overlooked and considering the long-term effects of policy, transit planning, and education on their communities.
Speaking of the unintended consequences of his own work, Troy Gallas hopes that, “as the placemaking trend continues to grow, it won’t turn into another form of gentrification. We need to be careful about showing up and telling a community what they need. A lot of damage has been done ‘in the public interest’.”
This is a powerful lesson. In a region where public policy once sought erase entire cultures, restricted for Jews and anyone of color from moving to new neighborhoods, spurred explosive and segregating urban sprawl, and destroyed much of the historic fabric of its downtowns, we should be humbled by the lessons of our history. Gallas notes that what we “need to listen, engage, and think critically about what we’re doing as designers.”
The message is that so single era has all the answers for public design. Minneapolis and St. Paul are still more relatively isolated and homogenous than most American regions of their size. We should remain aware of our limited regional sphere of discourse, questioning, and cultural exposure. Yet, there is also an extraordinary tradition of charitable generosity and long-term thinking. There are more stories and cultural histories in the Twin Cities than anyone can never know. Public designers here today are helping to reveal these stories, to identify our lingering predispositions, and to consider what solutions we might be missing.
During the last week of May 2017, as this article was being edited for posting on IDH, the world-renowned Walker Art Center in Minneapolis found itself in a major a public relations crisis over public art. It stemmed directly from the Walker’s and an artist’s lack of knowledge of Dakota history in Minnesota. As described in my article above—in 1862, Minnesota was home to the brutal US-Dakota War.
At the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Walker commissioned a large wooden sculpture, “Scaffold” by Los Angeles artist, Sam Burton. Resembling a children’s play structure, the work actually depicts various gallows used in hangings throughout American history. One of them is a replica of the gallows used for the hanging of the “Dakota 48”—48 men from the Dakota tribe hanged in Mankato, MN during the US-Dakota War of 1862—the largest mass execution in American history. Neither the Walker’s curators nor Burton had any sense of the ongoing impact and pain associated with these hangings. No Indian tribes in Minnesota had been consulted. The Walker and Burton thought the sculpture would be “instructive”.
By May 26, as the Walker promoted and described all of the new works in the Garden set to open on June 3, the true meaning of “Scaffold” was revealed. Then, a week-long protest ensued, plunging the Walker into perhaps the largest and most embarrassing controversy in its history.
After a May 31 meeting at the Walker, tribal leaders, city, and Walker staff agreed on the demolition and possible burning of the piece. The possible burning may take place on Pike Island below Fort Snelling. This is the site where of the 1862 concentration camp for Dakota women, elders, and children. They were incarcerated there immediately after the Mankato hangings.
For more information
June 1, 2017 coverage by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis):
June 1, 2017 coverage by the Los Angeles Times:
May 30, 2017 coverage by the New York Times: