The Twin Cities Reimagined

Guest Blogger James Rojas on Planning for Inclusion: Notes from The Twin Cities Re-Imagined Interactive Model


The Twin Cities Interactive model was a thought-provoking, diorama of Minneapolis, St. Paul and spaces in between. The model was designed for the viewer to ponder, explore, and participate in creating a vision for the region’s future.

Northern Spark, White Nights coordinated the urban planning venue as well as others through out the Twin Cities. The landscape of Minneapolis and Saint Paul became a gallery of many creative interventions for one night.

The Twin Cities interactive model was placed in the lobby of Minnesota Science Museum, which was the perfect venue for participants to explore the urban landscape of the region. The lobby’s floor existing global and local maps created a dialogue between the model of real and imagined places.

The installation also created an intimate scale that balanced out the cavernous lobby space. The installation was located near the entrance of the lobby and greeted hundreds of participants to the museum all night long. This set the stage for participants to discover what creates the place in which they live. The installation enacted the lobby of the museum like any great public space where there was room for active and passive participation. People created their worlds while others watched the phenomena.

The Interactive Model

Twin Cities interactive base map

The Twin Cities interactive model was a conceptual representation of this place that captured its landscape and urban form. Landscape architect John Kamp and urban planner James Rojas collaborated together to create the model. It represented how open spaces and building could be integrated in the region. This was achieved by locating Saint Paul and Minneapolis on either ends of the model with open space in the middle. The Euclidian street grids, designed by Rojas contrasted greatly with the sensual forms of nature and open space, designed by Kamp. This dialectical process of nature and humans forms our environment today.

The eight feet by four feet base map of the Twin Cities was constructed from foam core, plaster, moss, construction paper, cellophane, tape and hundreds of small structures.

It captured the region/s majestic Mississippi River and it’s historic urban form of small blocks, narrow streets, and monuments. The base map of the model condensed Minneapolis on the west, and Saint Paul on the east and spaces in between which became open space. These cities became the northern boundaries of the model. The curve of the Mississippi River became the southern border of the model.

Geographical features such as the Mississippi River and its islands were created. Landmarks such as Stone Arch Bridge, Loring Park, and the various bridges across the river were also created.

The region’s major streets such as the Hennepin, Nicollet, Kellogg, Shepard Road, Washington and others were laid out.

In addition bike lanes, pocket parks, median islands, light rail lines, were added. These infrastructure interventions establish this model as an art piece for creative, urban thinking about the Twin Cities and not a replica.

These interventions helped the viewer visualize physical changes to their cities. These interventions also provoked a quick response from the participants about transportation, open space, beauty and sustainability.

Many of these features were labeled like a map to help people who are spatially challenged to read it quickly.

The five hundred small structures placed on the model added life or a third dimension to the map base. Rojas created one-inch scale buildings. These buildings were made of wood blocks, tile, jewelry, plastic game pieces, tape and many other materials. Some building were painted and designed to capture the essence of the existing structures such as the Foshay Tower. The buildings added a fine grain texture and detail to help capture the urban vibrancy of the Twin Cities.

Like a painting the model illuminated the Twin Cities beauty and charm in a creative, intellectual, and graphic presentation.

The Process

As the model was installed in the museum’s lobby many people were intrigued by its size and graphic design. Once a majority of the small buildings were placed on the model and sculpted to represent the Twin Cities. Tall buildings represented downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul. This set the stage for the interaction.

This collection of small, jewel-like buildings that shimmer in the light attracted people to the installation. Some participants were fascinated by the design and construction of the small buildings. They scrutinized individual buildings. They liked the overall composition of the buildings that formed streets, and skylines. They looked for building materials they recognized such as Jenga blocks, Lego, buttons, saltshakers, and everyday recycled objects.
Once at the model people were told they could touch the model and move or remove buildings as they saw fit. They were no wrong or right moves. Many times children ran up to the model and started to play with it. The parents will tell them stop touching the model and we would say it’s okay. Many adults, on the other hand, had to be told it’s ok to touch it and were handed buildings to be placed on the model. This broke the ice and got people thinking about the urban form of the Twin Cities.

Participants observed the miniature vibrant landscape for a few minutes and than they began to read the model as a map. They would begin to orientate themselves on the model/map with the help of labeled street names, landmarks, and geographical features. Once participants understood the diorama they began to interact with it and rearranged the building and landscape pieces on the model.

From this point on the viewer becomes the participant and projected themselves into the model. By projecting their memories, by touching and by moving the small buildings on the model they began to investigate various urban forms that create the Twin Cities. They develop and sculpture their own ideas about its physical nature.

The installation was a transformative experience for the Minnesota audience of mainly adults. They received the Twin Cities diorama with great enthusiasm. People contemplated the model and milled around it. They smiled, laughed and spoke to strangers about urban planning issues. They stayed anywhere from five minutes to thirty minutes with it and some returned all through the night to see the transformation.

They asked the following questions: Where are we located on this map? Where is Saint Paul, or Minneapolis? Where do I live or want to live? Many times participants tried to locate their residence either on or off the map. “I really don’t know Saint Paul so I will concentrate my efforts on Minneapolis were I live,” one participant said. Whatever we forgot to create the public built such as the additional bridges, churches and the cherry fountain in the Walker’s Sculpture Garden.

“As children we all played with blocks so we all can participate in this urban planning activity because we never lose that skill” one participant said.

Everyone brought their personal baggage to the diorama. Young men took risks and built tall, precarious towers. Women were the most enthusiastic because many of them never have this opportunity to build and create cities. Many women thought about home and what that means to them by examining forms, shapes and colors. “I placed three trees surrounding my house by the river” one woman said. “This row of dark building looks like public housing. I need to change it,” another woman said.

The open spaces become the target of lots of unwanted development. “I have always wanted to live by the river or in the park.” This reflects why we have sprawling suburbs! People can understand open space more easily than infill development in the city.

Many men and woman took this opportunity to implement and build ideas they had to solve urban problems. “I will create a bridge.” “I built a zip line.” I built skyways up in the sky.” “Minneapolis needs a pink skyway” “Vegetable gardens are important to have in Minnesota.” These were just some of the dozens of comments generated from the model.

Participants walked away with a sense of accomplishment, hope, and empowerment. As peopled played –they dabbled, moved a few things around, talked about how cool it would be if only…. and then they moved some more things, see something new take shape, begin to have real conversations about re-envisioning the cities (“Wouldn’t it be great if…”)…. and, finally, they walk away realizing how empowering it is to “play” with these movable pieces, how truly dynamic and plastic (in the sense of changeable/adaptable) cities are, and how much potential this kind of exercise has for truly reinventing our cities. No doubt there will continue to be gender (not to mention cultural and class) differences in the way people approach design of urban spaces…. but in this paradigm, those differences intersect and become catalysts for a whole new vision that, while not necessarily gender/culture neutral, will be truly inclusive, integrating global and multicultural perspectives (and people and spaces) seamlessly into a cityscape that is vital and sustainable by virtue of its usability and livability for all people.

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