Livable Lessons

Advice from the Friendly Streets Initiative

Strategies for success from working on the ground in Saint Paul, Minnesota

This article is adapted from America’s Walking Renaissance, a free downloadable book from America Walks. AARP is a sponsor of America Walks and a partner in its Every Body Walk! Collaborative. Used with permission.


A man traveling by foot  and a young girl on a bicycle cross a pedestrian bridge that's decorated with a banner for the Friendly Streets Initiative Better Bridges

Better Bridges is a community-led effort to re-engage Saint Paul neighborhoods that were disrupted and displaced by Interstate 94. — Photo by Jon Pavlica Photography for the Friendly Streets Initiative

The Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI) based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, facilitates community organizing through creative public engagement events. The nonprofit helps communities improve public spaces, collect and analyze data and navigate city planning processes.

Related: How Block Parties Can Build Bridges

Here, some of FSI's strategies for success.

1. Rethink Community Engagement

It's no longer good enough to simply present neighborhood people with a plan and ask them to approve it. Residents are the world's leading authorities on what their communities need. They must be involved in the planning of a project from the very start. Their ideas and goals must be given serious consideration every step of the way.

2. Show How New Ideas Work

Installing temporary prototypes of proposed improvements lets everyone get a feel for how well they work. It can dispel unwarranted fears and reveal potential problems.

3. Recognize Connections

Social, economic, cultural and psychological issues are all linked. A better sidewalk or walking trail can boost economic opportunity, racial inclusion and community aspirations as well as transportation. Understanding all that's at play with a given project leads to more successful outcomes for everyone.

4. Tap the Power of Partnerships

In its short history, the FSI has partnered with a long list of groups ranging from the city of Saint Paul to the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, from neighborhood organizations to foundations, to youth groups, arts groups and to higher education groups, private businesses and out-of-town organizations including The Better Block and 8 80 Cities.

5. Take Public Art Seriously

Art is not a frill — rather, it's indispensable in helping people reimagine their communities and discover new approaches to old problems. "Asking people to draw or paint or act out what they would like to see in their neighborhood allows everyone to think differently and find new inspiration," notes Robyn Hendrix, arts organizer for the FSI from 2014 to 2016. "The arts activities brought kids and families out, and created a festival quality that also drew more low-income people and people of color," adds FSI director Lars Christiansen.

6. Work With the Community

Learn who are the real leaders are. They're not always who you expect. Learn about neighborhood concerns. Speak the community's language (literally and figuratively). Listen.

7. Be Flexible

No "community visioning" method is universal. What works in one place may flounder just a few blocks away. Discover the tools the community itself uses.

8. Make It Fun

"A feeling of festivity, levity and wonder enliven the conversations about public spaces," says Christiansen. "Have a sense of play in everything you do." FSI events have included mini-golf, living statues, chalk drawing, flagmaking and lots of music and food. 

Page published December 2016


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