By BARRETT COLOMBO

How might a city better involve its citizens in local government and encourage a stronger sense of community among residents?  University of Minnesota (U of MN) students tackled these and other issues to recommend strategies that could place the City of Minnetonka at the forefront of innovative efforts to encourage connections among its residents.

City staff and students from two University of Minnesota classes made their way over icy roads to meet at the Minnetonka City Hall on Monday, December 11, to present findings from the neighborhood identities project, sponsored by the Resilient Communities Project (RCP) . The presentation was one part of a much larger RCP partnership with the City of Minnetonka to focus on issues of resilience in the community over the course of the academic year.  Students from two different courses at the U of MN took very different approaches to address the question: How might better connections with and among residents be developed over the next few years, and what role might new or existing neighborhood organizations play?

Student recommendations included building upon existing community organizations to better connect residents, supporting an electronic networking platform for community organizations, and using design thinking to understand residents’ relationships to each other and to local government in the age of smart phones, texting, and social media .

The students noted that while residents may connect with their neighbors simply because of proximity, they are just as likely to connect with others in their community based on common interest. “There are two realms: the geographic, but also the virtual realm, Professor Virajita Singh explained. “Our work explored whether we can connect the two and see if there is an overlap. It is very clear that communities of interest are trying to learn what others are doing.” The students recommended specific approaches for networking that could promote community cohesion within the city and encourage stronger connections between local government and residents.

Minnetonka City Manager Geralyn Barone remarked that one of the design concepts developed by a student—which employed the idea of geographic neighborhoods as beehives and the bees’ flight patterns as representing community networks, relationships, and social interactions—was particularly helpful: “The beehive concept was an ‘aha’ moment for me, because it emphasized to me that people are connected to communities, but it just might be in different ways.  We want to listen and be thoughtful about how people interact and choose to interact, then facilitate these connections.”

Students from the course Neighborhood Revitalization, taught by Professors David Hollister and Lauren Martin, interviewed directors of local community and neighborhood organizations in Minnetonka, and researched case studies of how neighborhood organizations developed and function in other cities in Minnesota and elsewhere in the nation. Laura Holey, a graduate student in Hollister and Martin’s class, discussed the benefits of combining local interviews with research on models from across the country. “Paring our research down to a city the scale of the city of Minnetonka was really helpful—even though our research on models didn’t really line up perfectly with the interviews, it was manageable,” Holey said.  “Every interview gave us more information and hints on what Minnetonka was about, and what it needed.”

Another course, Design Thinking for Action, applied design thinking approaches adapted from architecture and product design. Maggie Satler, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, remarked that, “The perspective of design thinking can be really helpful in developing creative new solutions for creating neighborhood cohesion.”

Students and city staff agreed that a multidisciplinary approach to key issues of resilience benefited both the city and the students.  As Dean Porter, a student in Hollister’s course,  explained: “The fact that the design thinking class was working on this from a whole different perspective was something that was really enlightening to be a part of. Its interesting that many of our recommendations were aligned.”

Barrett Colombo is a program associate for the Resilient Communities Project.

Building on common interests to strengthen community connections
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