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Urban Development

How Saint Paul turns an everyday maintenance regime into public art

The Doable City Reader

There is so much that can be done to make our cities happier, healthier and more prosperous places. Every day in cities around the world, citizens and city planners alike are showing us how small actions can scale up to have massive impact. And they can in your city too.

That’s what the Doable City Reader is about. In June 2014, 8 80 Cities, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, brought 200 civic innovators from around North America together in Chicago at the Doable City Forum to share and discover methods for rapid change making. The Doable City Reader is inspired by the rich conversations amongst presenters and participants at that forum. It is a resource for any and all people who want to make change in their cities and is meant to educate, inspire and empower anyone to do so.

A program dubbed Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk invites residents of Saint Paul, Minn. to submit poems to be displayed as permanent public art. Some of those poems are selected by a judging panel and imprinted into the new concrete that is being poured. Replacing broken sidewalks is part of the regular maintenance regime of any city. But since 2008, the city of Saint Paul has turned this mundane task into an engine for infusing the everyday lives of its residents with meaningful public art.

Saint Paul artist-in-residence Marcus Young conceived of this unique program. As artist-in-residence, Young does not work for the city, but rather is embedded inside it. He came up with the idea one day when he joined the city sidewalk inspector on a routine walk to learn about the day-to-day ins and outs of her job. Young knew he didn’t want to use his time with the city to put up just one big sculpture. “I was really looking to affect the system but I wanted to tackle a system that was a little bit unassuming… a bit under-utilized,” Young said.

He said his dedicated role within the city is key to making this possible. Because he is embedded in the department, the process of creating public art is deeply integrated with the process of creating the city, instead of coming as an afterthought. That means being able to streamline art right into actions that need to happen anyway, like pouring fresh concrete onto sidewalks. His fresh and unique set of eyes see opportunity for public art everywhere — even the sewers, though it hasn’t gone quite that far yet.

Hundreds of poems now dot the city of St. Paul
Hundreds of poems now dot the city of Saint Paul.

“I was able to find a soft spot where I could really learn one system of the city, not be a burden to anybody and propose something where I felt there was room for creativity that had been overlooked,” he said.

The project is seen as a win all around. In times when the use of taxpayer money is always scrutinized, it’s an affordable way to plentifully populate the city with public art. Most citizens love it — the city gets over 100 submissions of poetry every year and frequently gets calls from people requesting poems outside of their house. (If they don’t like it, citizens have the right to request that a poem not be put outside their house.) And perhaps most poignantly, the public works department, often pegged as the bad guy who doesn't fix the potholes fast enough, now receives calls complimenting the poetry.

Hear Young speak more about the project in the videos below and learn more about the program here.