Ashley Hanson

As I begin to reflect on all that I have learned and experienced over the last year, I am reminded how grateful and fortunate I am to have been selected, along with my collaborators Wing and Jim, for this amazing journey. We have witnessed micro-transformation that we can hope will have a beautiful butterfly effect on the planning process. We have witnessed ourselves being pushed and challenged and stretched and inspired. We have witnessed daily moments of awesome wonder.

Being a part of Creative CityMaking I was constantly stretched and asked to think about my work and my environment differently – from a different “point of view.” Wing and I came into this year-long adventure with the goal of collecting many different “points of view” through our respective art forms, in a way that can inform the City planning process. As with embarking on any project where you imbed yourself within a community and / or system of working, I knew that through this process my personal point of view would also begin to change, but you are never sure how that will impact your work and life when you begin.

The best way for me to explain what I have learned is through an exercise that the artists and planners participated in during our first weekend of Creative CityMaking. This exercise was led by Wendy Morris and – as simple and perhaps even potentially polarizing as it was – I have found myself referring to it many times in conversation about how Creative CityMaking has impacted me.

An orange was placed on a piece of paper in the center of the room. We were asked to draw a line down the center of the paper and to label one column “artist” and one column “planner.” The prompt was simple: describe the orange from the lens of each. But the deeper prompts came with my personal reflection on the exercise. How would an artist describe an orange, how would a planner? What are its uses? Do we see it as a resource? A work of art? A representation of the food system? Who owns it? Can it be defined? Who has the right to define it? Is there a right or wrong answer?

The metaphor is clear, of course. How would an artist describe a City or community and how would a planner? What do we each see when we look at the same subject? What are our points of view?

We were then asked to keep the lens of the “other” in mind as we made our way through the City. This has stuck with me. I can no longer look at the City as I did before this exercise or before I was involved in this Creative CityMaking experience. Now, I can see the economic nodes being developed, the choice to include more multi-family housing units, if a street is pedestrian friendly or not, how far the sidewalk is from the storefront… the list goes on. And, although I have seen these things in the past on an objective basis, now I have the ability / desire to see them from a different point of view. The ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and ‘whos’ behind the City I live in.

I can truly see the complex nature of asking a group of people to “describe an orange,” let alone decide how it should be distributed, developed, shaped, changed, to accommodate the needs of everyone… It’s a big job.

And yes, it has given me a much greater appreciation for the challenges City Planners face on a daily basis, but beyond that, it has made me realize how important it is to have a common language to “describe the orange,” so we can at least have a place to start. Perhaps that is where the art comes in – to be that common language.

We have spoken often about what we are trying to accomplish, and I see this as a two-fold response. On one hand, we are attempting to fulfill the goals of the Creative CityMaking program by informing the city planning process with new, creative community engagement strategies that can be implemented long after our contract expires. On the other hand, we are genuinely trying to find out what the community wants.

I think it is important to highlight some of the challenges that exist within each of these goals, as a way to decipher if the strategies we have developed work. One of my first concerns is thinking about the implementation of these strategies after the artists are no longer a part of the process in an official matter. I do believe that the planners see the value in what we are creating, but my concern is the amount of time the planners have on each project to implement the strategies. We have taken that into consideration when designing our strategies, but we are also beginning to understand the planning process better, and realizing the reality of time constraints and systems in place that make it challenging to continue this kind of work.

As artists, we often have the luxury of taking the time we need to complete a project, as we are often working on our own schedules. With this project, our time was so limited that it made for an interesting challenge; the more we learned about the planning process, the more we tried to find ways that both adhere to and challenge the existing model – but, again, we have that luxury and the planners might not.

The second goal is trying to find out what the community wants. The engagement strategies that we have unrolled do show results that can be aggregated into somewhat concrete information that can help inform the planning process. Both Wing and my methods try to get at the heart of what people want through questions, which often results in qualitative data that is not always easy to aggregate. We have done our best to work within the quantitative model, but recognize that much of our interaction is lost in distilling down the information into predetermined categories.

Recognizing the limited time that we had to work on this project, we started to see our interactions and engagements as a kind of gateway to getting the community excited about participating in city planning; to get them thinking about what they do want, and ways that they can express those wants to impact change. With many of our participants, our engagement is the first time they have participated in the planning process. We hope that through our approach they realize that it is not an intimidating process, that they have significant ideas to contribute, and hopefully, that they now know they can continue to engage and have an impact on the future of their community.

I think what it boils down to is trying to get at the singular core question behind this work – are we engaging people that otherwise would not be engaged in shaping their city? And the ways in which we can ask and answer that question are infinite, but the goal remains the same. Everyone has a right to not only participate and be heard, but have easier access to participation. Everyone has the right to be listened to and have their opinions taken into consideration. Everyone has the capability to be a Creative CityMaker – and our hope is that through this work, more people will believe and act on that notion. And hopefully the tools of engagement and measurement that are provided and created during this year-long project can help inform the larger local and national evaluation conversation.

Ashley Hanson is a theater engagement artist who lives in St. Paul

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