This week, the City of Rochester and DMC cut the ribbon on a full-scale model of a future transit station for Rochester’s new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to be known as Link. Constructed from wood, nails, and paint, this temporary installation promises an immersive experience where community members can learn more about Greater Minnesota’s first BRT line.
The stations are being designed with the benefit of insights from a dozen co-designers, community members who contributed ideas about how to make the stations more appealing, functional, safe, and user friendly. Features will include level boarding, enclosed spaces for shelter, off-board fare payment, high quality lighting, and passenger information screens.
Coincidently, this is also the 5th anniversary of Rochester’s first prototyping festival, Placemakers/Rochester Prototyping Festival. That months-long initiative, hosted by DMC, Rochester Downtown Alliance, and Rochester Art Center, was designed to test ideas, engage, the community, and show progress.
I have fond memories of the training sessions, workshops, and pitch competitions involving more than 100 community members who later formed 16 teams which advanced their ideas for building a more healthy community. Beyond suggesting ideas, these teams were responsible for building, installing, displaying, and advocating for their respective concepts.
It is thrilling for me to see that many of these concepts have already found their way into the downtown environment. For example, the protected bikeways on 4th street, the green wall on Center Street ramp, a pedestrian-first approach to street crossings in Heart of the City, an educational approach to stormwater treatment on 1st Avenue, innovative seating arrangements in Peace Plaza, and a connectedness to human health conditions, again in Peace Plaza, can all be traced to ideas and conversations that emerged during the prototyping process.
However, the real legacy of Placemakers might be that it normalized the idea of prototyping in the urban environment and, importantly, that community members can play an active role shaping the physical design of their city.
What better way to test a novel idea than to build it first, at scale, and experience it in real life? We have seen this work with benches and seating platforms in Peace Plaza, the placement of trees and furnishings in Discovery Walk, outdoor patio spaces and parklets throughout the central business district, and now with transportation initiatives like the Rapid Transit stations and the autonomous vehicle by EasyMile.
Moreover, community participation in Rochester has continued to evolve, most notably with the addition of the community co-design approach. This methodology ensures that cohorts of Rochester citizens are invited to the design table, bringing their respective lived experiences to help shape design decisions…alongside professional designers, engineers, and architects.
Looking ahead, I can imagine a next generation of prototyping to include temporary activation of pre-development sites. Think of any downtown location currently vacant or blighted that could be transformed into productive use, if only on an interim basis. Perhaps an off-leash dog park, community gardens with an education center, a food truck park, shipping containers transformed into a pop-up retail center, a downtown skatepark. These are just a few of the examples I have heard.
Rochester is well known as a place of health science research, testing, and discovery. We should leverage this culture of innovation as we invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the public infrastructure of our city.
This is a monthly column by Patrick Seeb, Executive Director, DMC Economic Development Agency.