Portrait of the Artist...in the Public Works Department

“Things could be better.” That’s how Marcus Young introduced the impetus for his work as City Artist in Residence in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when we sat down recently.

Things could improve in the public dialogue about how we go about strengthening viability and productivity of our places, as well. So often, we focus on the important point that denser land use patterns are desirable because they lead to the right consequences: Accessibility to transit; housing inventory that provides alternatives to single-family structures; a reduced carbon footprint. Measures of building density are a physical way to gauge these quasi-physical benefits.

Young’s innovative work in Saint Paul, made possible by a supportive Mayor and City Council, as well as funding from Public Art Saint Paul, started with physical elements. Observing the City’s ongoing residential street paving and streetscape program, Young perceived new concrete not as a sidewalk, or as transportation infrastructure, but as a canvas. Today, new sidewalks in the City are stamped with poems. As the City’s foresters identify diseased trees for removal, Young observes an opportunity to mark them in a way that adds something to boulevards that orange rings on trunks don’t. He’s in the process of developing alternatives: Placemaking via arboriculture.

Early on in his current role, Young asked to amend his title from its original: Public Artist in Residence. He’s very specific about the rationale of the choice, which pivots his intended role in a fundamental way. “What art emerges from the city itself?” he asks, turning on its head the standard supposition that cities are frameworks for artistic decoration. Instead, Young views the city – its physical components, but more importantly its patterns of movement, its history, its people – as both the medium and the artist. Young involves himself in meetings of all types, across departments, at the City of Saint Paul, to combine City services with public art and vice versa.

Why does this matter? Here at Strong Towns and at a growing number of tables around the country, discussion is focused on the links among fiscal stress, governance, and land use. And the importance of creating change in these areas is precisely why we need to conceive of the opportunities and barriers in original ways. A key part of the value Young delivers as an artist embedded in the City structure is to provide an outsider’s constructive and critical perspective on existing systems that favor particular outcomes.

To highlight the outcomes alone is valid but incomplete; that’s where our shared work comes in. Examining the potential of zoning code provisions like minimum parking requirements or building setbacks, for example, is worthwhile, but these are consequences of chains of previous decisions. In these two cases, disincentives like the ad valorem property tax exert more influence than can be remedied by the zoning code. The pricing system we have established tolerates the selective omission of costs, obscuring how to create more productive places for all involved: Public agencies, community members, developers, investors. It’s ironic that the status quo is presented as rich in individual choices, when it entails a convoluted system of cross subsidy tilted toward short term development low both in density and productivity.

Marcus Young’s role as City Artist in Residence is worth noting for multiple reasons. In this context, the value of the artist has not to do with creative placemaking or the “creative class,” but about the potential for individuals to reinvent approaches to familiar processes. Producing different outcomes calls for introducing different inputs, and artists like Young are well positioned to make that happen.

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