This past Saturday at downtown St. Paul's Urban Flower Field, all the vestiges of a winding-down summer were on display: falling temperatures, live music and a final stop by a bright red van from which workers handed out tasty frozen treats — and city surveys.
For the past two summers, the Pop Up Meeting van has lured people to St. Paul public meetings by taking the meeting to them. The brainchild of city artist Amanda Lovelee, Pop Up Meeting has been used to meet more people and find out what they want from their city without requiring them to go to City Hall, a recreation center or public library.
Covering topics ranging from the city's proposed downtown River Balcony to the future of electric vehicles to what kinds of features folks want at a new park, Pop Up Meeting appeared across the city 31 times this summer. Staff members basically tap people on the shoulder as they walk past the van and ask them questions. Those who filled out a short survey received a free icy treat as a reward. In its first summer, Pop Up Meeting made 17 appearances and quizzed 1,000 people.
"Last summer, we asked people if they had been to a city meeting before," said Lovelee, who works with Public Art St. Paul and started the project with a grant from ArtPlace America. "Seventy percent said they have never been to a city meeting. That shows we are reaching people who have not been reached through civic engagement before."
On average, the little red van garners about 100 surveys in a couple of hours at an event, she said. During a recent festival featuring designs for the proposed downtown River Balcony project, residents completed more than 300 surveys — at least judging by how many of the frozen treats they gave away. Those treats, by the way, are the product of St. Paul's own St. Pops.
"People fill out a few questions, then people get a free Popsicle," Lovelee said. "It's a great way to get a lot of feedback."
Going to the people
Lovelee is one of two city artists with Public Art St. Paul, a nonprofit program that works closely with the city to bring art into people's everyday lives. Since 1987, Public Art has used the city's public places — parks, streetscapes, bridges and other structures — as platforms for projects ranging from an inner-city sculpture park to images and colors cast upon clouds of steam floating out over the Mississippi River.
Lovelee, who in 2014 helped create the Urban Flower Field at the site of the future Pedro Park, dreamed up Pop Up Meeting after an evening meeting held to gather public input on a playground redesign attracted about seven people. She spruced up a former Public Works Department van and headed out around town to gather information that the people working in the city's Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Planning and Economic Development departments and elsewhere want from an often-uninvolved populace.
City staff members liked the project so much, a number of departments divvied up its $35,000 budget to help cover the second year, said Mollie Scozzari, a spokeswoman for the St. Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development. A $40,000 budget is proposed for Pop Up Meeting next year.
Lucy Thompson, principal city planner, said Pop Up Meeting "is a cool tool." Eleven of Pop Up Meeting's 31 stops this summer were related to planning staff projects.
Survey with a view
At the recent River Balcony Prototyping Festival, Thompson said Pop Up Meeting helped staff members gather opinions that were especially relevant. Set up near a plaza overlooking the Mississippi River downtown, Pop Up Meeting made it easy for participants to envision what the project could mean for St. Paul, she said. All they had to do was look.
"It is surprising how few people know just how beautiful the riverfront downtown is," Thompson said. "And if we were asking them about River Balcony, sitting in a room somewhere using PowerPoints, they wouldn't know. But [with Pop Up Meeting] we were at the river and they get it immediately, way more than they would have."
The real value of the program, she said, is "it gives us one-on-one face time with citizens."
Lovelee, whose other projects include Friendship Forest, which seeks to help people connect to nature by planting and nurturing trees, said she's pleased that the little red truck has gained such traction with the city and its residents.
"It really started with me having a crazy idea: 'Let's just try it,' " she said. "But the response from the city has been strong."