Co-designers bring community to DMC projects
Work on Discovery Walk and rapid transit designs target new voices to ensure community is heard
Wafa Elkhalifa said she feels her voice is finally being heard as Destination Medical Center unfolds.
“I felt the lack of being included, having our voice included, in these projects,” she said of years of watching plans be made.
Then she was asked to serve as a community co-designer for the Discovery Walk project, which is creating a parkway along Second Avenue Southwest between Mayo Clinic ’s Annenberg Plaza and Soldiers Field Park.
“I know that part of making this park included my voice and the voices of communities that I associate myself with,” she said of the ability to bring community feedback to the project. “We had a part in it, so that's really awesome.”
As designs are finalized for Discovery Walk, city and DMC planners are also using co-designers to help develop an anticipated rapid-transit system connecting the Mayo Clinic west parking lot on Second Street Southwest and the Mayo Civic Center.
"What we were trying to do with this is to engage the folks who struggle to engage and have a desire to do so."
— Kevin Bright, DMC EDA director of energy and sustainability
Engaging new voices
The seven Discovery Walk co-designers were part of a pilot program that started in early 2020. The goal was to create a team of community members with diverse backgrounds that could engage others and bring feedback to consultants hired to design the new public space.
“We had been seeing a lot of familiar faces at our meetings and were curious about doing something new,” said Kevin Bright, director of energy and sustainability of the DMC Economic Development Agency.
He said the goal was to draw in people who represent the broader community and might not typically show up to community meetings where they felt like another face in the crowd.
“What we were trying to do with this is to engage the folks who struggle to engage and have a desire to do so,” Bright said.
Part of the effort included paying a stipend to tackle barriers, such as a lack of childcare, transportation issues or potential lost wages. A grant for $450 for each participant covered the initial efforts with some added support from the design expenses.
Since the co-designers were expected to go into the community and ask others about what the project needed, Josh Johnsen, the city’s project manager, said it became critical work.
“We value their expertise and their opinions and they provide a lot of benefit to the city and therefore they should be compensated,” he said.
Britton Jones, a senior associate for Coen+Partners, the Discovery Walk design consultant, said the support also helped ensure added diversity, “both cultural diversity as well as diversity of knowledge and different perspectives of the world.”
As a result, Elkhalifa was able to bring ideas linked to her experiences as a Sudanese immigrant and Rochester Public Schools equity specialist, and her fellow co-designer Jeremy Westrum offered a connection to people dealing with brain injuries, as well as the perspective of a small-business owner.
“It makes perfect sense to do this,” Westrum said, pointing to the unique insights each member brought to the discussions about design and how the four-block space would be used.
"I really looked at this from a perspective of how we can use Discovery Walk to address mental health in our community."
— Jenny Rho, Discovery Walk community co-designer
The co-designers said they believe their insights, as well as perspectives they gathered from other community members, made a difference.
Jenny Rho, an internal medicine physician from Community Health Center, said she considered her role to be a voice for public health, while also bringing insights from patients in underserved communities.
“I really looked at this from a perspective of how we can use Discovery Walk to address mental health in our community,” she said, pointing to a top priority cited in Olmsted County’s Community Health Needs Assessment.
She pointed to the inclusion of positive messaging on benches, spaces for meditation and access to information on mental health techniques as some of the elements that emerged through the process.
Jones said the community voices also helped ensure the design would be accessible to all community members. It included elements designed for people with physical challenges, but it also added ways to address cultural inclusion.
“For example, many cultures tend to gather at night, so it was talked about how the lighting of a space can feel more inviting and also create a sense of safety,” he said, noting that it will create a public space open to a variety of uses.
Elkhalifa said she sees such elements as having a potential to bridge cultural divides.
“We talked about having the space available for communities to utilize it, where we can exchange cultural information, having space that’s safe enough for people to just have a conversation, break barriers, and so forth,” she said, adding that cultural celebrations could be held that invite the entire community to participate.
"I feel like I'm representing one part of the community living here and their voices. My voice is also representing their needs, and how we can make our transit be more for everyone."
— Kim Sin, rapid transit community co-designer
Similar connections are also part of the discussion as a team of 10 co-designers help develop plans for the rapid-transit system through downtown along Second Street.
Kim Sin, one of the rapid-transit co-designers, said the community work keeps local users at the forefront.
“I feel like I'm representing one part of the community living here and their voices,” he said. “My voice is also representing their needs, and how we can make our transit be more for everyone.”
Fellow co-designer Sylwia Bujak Oliver said the diverse opinions also ensure all potential concerns are addressed.
While Sin points to insights he brings as someone who struggled with public transit when he started working downtown at University of Minnesota-Rochester, Bujak Oliver brings the perspective of a resident living within walking distance to the western section of the planned route, which she said would benefit from improved access to more businesses.
Both provide a variety of other community connections as immigrants who are active participants in local events.
“We were trying to bring different perspectives to the table and see what is most important to us,” Bujak Oliver said, noting safety and ease of use were issues raised.
While a variety of perspectives are involved, Bujak Oliver said the co-designers appear to agree on one thing: The proposed transit route needs to expand to help more residents.
“That was the feedback we all brought to the table from the community members we met with,” she said, noting the group was told the work is expected to grow after the initial downtown route is in place.
"It's been really an amazing and different experience from anything that I have seen before, and I hope that this would be the way Rochester handles any new projects that are happening."
— Wafa Elkhalifa, Discovery Walk community co-designer
Bright said a desire to do more was also seen in the Discovery Walk process.
With construction set to start this summer, he said city and DMC officials continue to talk about the possibility of expanding the project to create a better connection with Soldiers Field Park, which could add to the $18.8 million project using state DMC funds.
“One of the intents of this project was to start connecting public park infrastructure in the city,” he said, adding that the co-designers pointed to that as a community goal.
Rho said she sees the connection as important, but also understands the limits of public projects funded by tax dollars. Still, she said the discussion was important.
“We are certainly not getting everything we want, but at least they are listening,” she said.
The co-designers said they hope the city and DMC officials continue to listen as future public projects emerge, and the officials said the plan to.
“It's been really an amazing and different experience from anything that I have seen before, and I hope that this would be the way Rochester handles any new projects that are happening,” Elkhalifa said.