Invest in North Minneapolis: Incorporating community values into thoughtful design

A group of high school students, North Minneapolis community members, and University of Minnesota School of Architecture students pose for a photo in a bright room. A wall with design project posters is behind the group.

Invest in North Minneapolis is a collaborative architecture and urban design effort organized by the University of Minnesota School of Architecture that reimagines the Northside neighborhood. Over the fall, youth in the Northside Safety NET program, University of Minnesota architecture students and professionals, and Northside residents worked together to infuse the community’s values and experiences into thoughtful architecture and urban design. 

A complex history of displacement, violence, and harmful policies, such as government-sanctioned redlining has created sustained poverty, inequitable wealth accumulation, and inequitable public investment in North Minneapolis. The goal of the studio is to help shift equitable design to embrace a community-led and values-driven approach that reflects the concerns, ideas, and priorities of community members. 

A series of hands-on workshops, reviews, and co-design events were conducted at Farview Park in North Minneapolis to help advance this goal. Graduate students, community residents, and Northside Safety NET interns participated in the activities. Northside Safety NET is administered by Environmental Initiative and helps educate and train the next generation of environmental stewards. 

Co-instructors, Professor Julia Robinson and Adjunct Assistant Professor Savannah Steele, led the studio and designed a process in which interns and community members guide the work of graduate students. “What if a good idea can come from anybody, and anybody can use any idea in the space?” During co-design events, facilitated discussions, and guided design time, students, interns, and community members discussed issues facing the community. Steele explained that in architecture, students are often assessed by their individual contributions, but in this course students are evaluated on “creating opportunities for other people to grow and succeed.” 

Taking part in a studio with such a different approach to architecture was a new experience for graduate student Cassidy Johnson. “Designing with instead of for a community is absolutely essential,” said Johnson, who described the course as an opportunity to step outside of her comfort zone and connect with others in new ways. 

The program was exciting for Northside Safety NET intern Chairish Byas, who enjoyed being part of a collaborative process where her experiences were taken into account. Every week the interns provided feedback on the graduate students’ work and co-created designs by drawing and modeling. “I felt like myself and what I had to say was truly valued. I truly felt I offered a big help and contribution,” Byas reflected. The Northside Safety NET interns worked on designing and drawing waypoint stencils for the 26th Ave. overlook and Theodore Wirth Park. The waypoint stencils will be installed in summer 2023 with the Minneapolis Parks Foundation and the Northern Greenway. 

Community member Cynthia Hickman is familiar with spaces where “community members will try to voice their opinions and they are not recognized, or if they are recognized, they are not valued.” Taking part in a design process where community members and youth were critical to the evolution and success of the project “enabled [her] to have hope that things can change.”