A program to help homeowners create welcoming community gathering places and an experiment to see if a little sticker can encourage people to get out and vote are St. Paul winners of the Knight Cities Challenge, a program that will split $5 million among 37 projects meant to help cities attract talented people and encourage civic engagement.
The challenge garnered more than 4,500 ideas to make the 26 communities where Knight invests “more vibrant places to live and work,” according to a statement from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announcing the winners Tuesday. “It asked innovators of all kinds to answer the question: What’s your best idea to make cities more successful?”
To Max Musicant, the idea is to help people get to know one another with more engaging open spaces. He got the idea to transform empty lawns into “vibrant places full of life” after a fire alarm sounded at his Minneapolis apartment building a few years ago. As his neighbors milled about, he realized he didn’t know them.
“So I went and bought cheap chairs from Home Depot and just started sitting there,” he said. “Within the first week, I got to know half my neighbors.”
An $82,400 grant from the Knight Foundation will help Musicant develop tool kits for St. Paul homeowners and other property owners to use their yards and open spaces to foster a sense of community. Part of the effort will include a pilot project involving 15 to 20 homeowners in the Hamline-Midway, Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods.
“I think it’s going to be awesome,” he said.
Aaron Sackett, a behavioral scientist at the University of St. Thomas, has studied the effects of those little red “I Voted” stickers that people wear on Election Day. He wondered: Would sending out “I Plan to Vote Today” stickers in the mail ahead of time get more people to the polls?
The “I Voted” sticker is “a little bit of a behavioral reward, like pressing the lever gets a treat,” Sackett said. “The other benefit is you go back to work and everybody sees it.”
Sackett’s idea is to use that “nuanced form of peer pressure” with stickers mailed to every registered voter in St. Paul. He and project partner Christopher Bryan, a University of Chicago associate professor, got a $170,275 grant.