Benjamin Shaffer Grey

By Benjamin Shaffer • May 20, 2015

The City of St. Paul, Minnesota has a new way to engage with the public: a Pop Up Meeting truck.  The colorfully-decorated truck will go to public spaces and solicit public feedback this summer in exchange for locally-made popsicles.  By meeting people where they are, St. Paul believes it can engage with a broader range of community members, including those underrepresented in traditional community meeting audiences.

The idea for the truck came from Amanda Lovelee’s experience at public meetings. Amanda is the City Artist, a position created from a partnership between Public Art St. Paul and the City of St. Paul. As part of her role, she goes to neighborhood public meetings with art supplies and asks children to draw their block while their parents participate in the meetings. She noticed that these meetings were usually held at inconvenient times and locations that required childcare and transportation to attend. This gave her an idea: what if the art and the meetings could go to parents and children where they already were?

Though she is an artist-in-residence paid by a small nonprofit, Amanda sits in the St. Paul Public Works department. This unique position enabled her to develop the Pop Up Meeting project.  The project consists of a colorfully-decorated, electric Ford Transit carrying locally-made popsicles, comment cards, and a sign that says, “Ask Me How to Get a Free Popsicle.”  On one side of the truck, along with the flavor of the day, is the question of the day.  Parents receive a free popsicle for answering a question, responding to a survey or writing a love letter to their city. 

This summer, the truck will help gather feedback on St. Paul’s 8-80 initiative, a bond fund to promote economic development, by taking the traditional planning charrette to the park, the block party, the rec center and the grocery store. City planners will come along for the ride to hear directly from citizens.

Amanda pointed to a number of factors that allowed the project to get off the ground.  First, Public Art St Paul’s artist-in-residence program has been a mainstay in the city government for over 10 years.  With that history came trust.  Second, her position in Public Works allowed her to more easily work with fleet services to find a vehicle.  Finally, she had the space to innovate and think.  She told me, “We have a little more freedom when it comes under art because we can test things and don’t have preconceived notions.”

The Pop Up Meeting will be hitting the road this month, the latest example of how cities are thinking outside of the box to broaden and deepen their public engagement. Amanda spelled out the goal of the truck simply – “To help people remember why they love their city.”