My Seven-Year Ride on the Green Line

Posted by Mary Kay Bailey on
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On June 14th decades of planning, years of engineering, and two seasons of major construction culminated in the launch of the Green Line (formerly known as the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit project).

Linking the downtowns of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the 11-mile Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, travels primarily on University Avenue through some of Saint Paul’s most diverse neighborhoods and into Minneapolis where it passes the University of Minnesota and terminates at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins.

This billion dollar infrastructure project has always been about so much more than the tracks and trains. Living Cities recognized this as an early investor in the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC) – a group of 12 local and national funders seeking to create benefits “beyond the rail” for residents, businesses, and neighborhoods. They followed up their CCFC investment by selecting Corridors of Opportunity as one of five Integration Initiative sites in its inaugural round. This regional partnership invested in projects to advance equitable transit-focused growth in the Green Line and multiple other transitways in the region.

I’ve had the privilege to be part of this journey for the past seven years as a resident, consultant, partner, and funder – and here are a couple of my reflections.

Policy is Personal

In 2007, residents were questioning the station spacing along the eastern end of the line – where the train was only slated to stop at one-mile intervals through the city’s most transit-dependent neighborhoods. The primary reason for this was a federal Cost Effectiveness criterion- a pass-fail measure that focused on the travel hours saved by projected passengers and trumped all other criteria for Federal Transit Administration (FTA) project funding. Just two years earlier, when I was a policy analyst at the USEPA, our team was building a case that this criterion was penalizing smaller urban areas, basically requiring them to find ways to speed travel through the city. Fast forward, I’m consulting for a coalition of neighborhoods in order to make the case for additional stations using data and research, and am struck again by how a federal policy plays out on the ground. Fortunately in the Twin Cities, this didn’t stop the talented and persistent Stops for Us campaign who championed the stations locally and all the way to DC. The result: The Green Line experience led to overturning a flawed policy in 2010 and the Hamline, Victoria, and Western stations are now serving riders. If ever a small group of people changed the world….

Weathering the Storm – Together

Fear is the first emotion that comes to mind when I think about 2010-2012. What had been a planning exercise for years, was about to become a major construction project – which for the hundreds of small, mostly minority and immigrant-owned businesses along the line was a daunting prospect indeed. The story and details have been told many places – most recently by the Minneapolis Fed – but for me the “Prepare, Survive, Thrive” strategy devised by the Central Corridor Business Resources Collaborative (a group of business and community organizations, government and philanthropy) remains an inspiration for strategic collective action. During the two years of heavy construction a diverse team of business specialists, fluent in many of the languages spoken on the corridor, provided a mix of marketing and business planning assistance, low or zero interest loan products, and a voice for small often minority or immigrant owned businesses. The result: Of the nearly 400 businesses assisted during this time period, 99% remained in business.

Investing today for tomorrow

In places across the country, the introduction of LRT has often led to increased property values and rents. For the Green Line to be successful, members of Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and the Corridors of Opportunity (CoO) initiative wanted to ensure that low and moderate-income residents could still afford to live in the adjacent neighborhoods. The Big Picture Project partners set a goal of creating or preserving 4,500 affordable units along the corridor by 2020. The Living Cities-backed CoO loan fund invested $4.4 million in five multi-family/mixed use projects along the Green Line, which is slated to produce 483 units of housing, 67% of which are affordable. CoO resources and the Frogtown Rondo Home Fund are also increasing housing stability for homeowners and turning vacant lots and foreclosed homes into wealth-producing assets for area residents. The results: In May, the Big Picture Project released its first progress report which found that, 2,076 new and preserved units have been created, with 545 units in the pipeline. At this pace, 346 units are needed annually to meet the goal of 4,500 units by 2020, which many believe can be achieved.

One Corridor - Five Continents

Seven years ago on my now-defunct blog about the hidden gems of the Twin Cities, I penned a piece called an “Ode to University Avenue: Part 1” (I never seemed to get around to Part 2), which likened this auto-oriented arterial to the historic “El Camino Real - rather than linking missions, presidios, and peublos, it connects Hmong and Somali neighbors; African-Americans and old school St. Paul Irish; the State Capitol and the Turf Club; the U of M and the Love Doctor.” Now, the Green Line runs down University Avenue, allowing many more to experience the incredible diversity of place, spaces, people, and cuisines along the corridor. The Central Corridor as Cultural Corridor is bringing people to the corridor over the summer and fall months to highlight the arts and culture in the area. The Little Mekong district has launched a series of Night Markets this summer, introducing Twin Citians to the traditional Asian experience of food, entertainment, and vendors under a twilight sky.

Keeping the momentum and promise

With six weeks under its belt, the Green Line is exceeding ridership expectations and more than $2.5 billion in commercial and residential development has occurred near the line. But since this story has never just been about the rail, I’m struck by a recent article from Insight News, where Dr. Beverley Oliver Hawkins, CEO of the community development organization Model Cities, says:

"I smile to myself when I see all of the faces and ages at the Victoria Station. There's a lot of diversity – some in suits, some in shorts, some with babies, some senior citizens. I see it every day; many new faces coming here, some just out of curiosity. Now, we just need to give people reasons to get off at these stations and visit our businesses."

Her quote highlights the opportunities that remain now that Green Line is operational. There are local assets to showcase and strengthen, jobs to create, and projects to develop. In two years when the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative sunsets, we want to see a Green Line where businesses are healthy, residents can find and reach work more easily, low and moderate-income residents can afford to live here, and that high-quality investments continue to be made in this important corridor.

Mary Kay Bailey is the project director for the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and the Partnership for Regional Opportunity/Corridors of Opportunity initiative at the Saint Paul Foundation. Mary Kay directs the operations of these cross-sector initiatives to support development in the region’s transitways that benefit people of all incomes and backgrounds. She initiates program activities for the working groups, boards, and other partners and has sought, reviewed, and recommended investment opportunities for both initiatives.

The State of Inequality in 6 Articles: Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Economic Opportunity Act

Posted by Elizabeth Vargas, Nadia Owusu on
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Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The Act was the centerpiece of LBJ’s War on Poverty and the fruit of the Civil Rights Movement. As President Johnson stated, it was created to “eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this nation by opening…To everyone…the opportunity for education, training, the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.”

Programs created through this legislation were aimed at improving access to quality education, job training, and loans for small businesses to attack the roots of unemployment and poverty.

While we’ve come a long way since 1964, there is still much work to be done, as evidenced by the unfolding events in Ferguson where decades of disinvestment and racial tensions have come to a boil following the shooting of an unarmed African American teenager. A year ago, in recognition of two other important anniversaries, our CEO, Ben Hecht, shared his reflections on the progress we’ve made as a nation to increase access to opportunity for low-income people and people of color. He found that, though there are many reasons to feel heartened by overall improvements in educational attainment and economic opportunity, the evidence still points to a sobering, expanding, wealth gap along racial lines in this country. A year later, his words still ring true.

Read more from Ben here:

At Living Cities, we are committed to catalyzing and supporting enduring change to increase the economic well-being of low-income people. We must continue to wage war on poverty, and to dismantle the systems that continue to perpetuate inequitable outcomes for people of color.

In honor of today’s anniversary, we have compiled a number of articles that shed light and provide substantive data on the state of inequality and the War on Poverty 50 years later.

We hope that you’ll read these and be encouraged to take action to disrupt inequality in America.

Disrupting the Teams and Score-keeping: August 19 Twitter Chat

Posted by Elizabeth Vargas on


Tomorrow, August 19th at 1pm Eastern Time, Living Cities will host our fifth and final Twitter Chat on #DisruptingInequality. The chat, Disrupting the Teams and Score-keeping, will be co-hosted by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson (@tyboyea), our Director of Collective Impact at Living Cities. During the chat, we’ll discuss Collective Impact - What is it? What role does the framework play in disrupting inequality? And how can we apply the principles of Collective Impact in our efforts to improve the lives of low-income people?


We invite you and your organizations to participate in tomorrow’s Twitter Chat. Living Cities will moderate the chat via our Twitter handle, @Living_Cities, and the Hashtag #DisruptingInequality. You can also follow Tynesia with @tyboyea.

Over the course of an hour, we will pose a series of questions about the state of inequality and the role that collective impact plays in disrupting the issue. Participants will have 10 minutes after each question to share their thoughts, feedback, and other relevant information before we move onto the next question. At the conclusion of the hour, all participants will be invited to share their final ideas.

Questions for Participants:

  1. How is #collectiveImpact different than collaboration? Can it help in #DisruptingInequality?
  2. Have you seen the principles of #CollectiveImpact applied to address problems of #inequality? What are some examples? #DisruptingInequality
  3. We have applied #CollectiveImpact to address workforce development, TOD and health. What are other potential areas where collective impact could help in #DisruptingInequality? #TII_LC
  4. How can we authentically engage communities in #collectiveimpact efforts? Do you have examples? #DisruptingInequality
  5. Through our #CollectiveImpact work, we’ve found that feedback loops are key to success. What feedback and/or data do you track in your work? #DisruptingInequality
  6. #CollectiveImpact requires that we all change our behavior. How has/does your institution need to change in service of the result?


Your participation is crucial to disrupting inequality. Living Cities recognizes that the issue of inequality is complex, and difficult to solve. We are open-sourcing solutions to you, our followers, so that we might co-create a path forward in disrupting inequality.

Please join us tomorrow, August 19, 2014 at 1pm Eastern Time for our fifth and final Twitter Chat on #DisruptingInequality. We also encourage you to read our Annual Report, Disrupting Inequality: A Living Cities Perspective in 2013, in advance. If you have questions about participation or involvement, please email Elizabeth Vargas at

How City Halls Can Help Construct Stronger Neighborhoods

Posted by Susan Crawford on

This piece is cross posted from the Data-Smart City Solutions blog hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Last week, the UN reported that more than half of humanity now lives in cities; by 2050 two-thirds of people will, up from just 30% in 1950. Given the grave challenges facing the world's booming urban areas—including global warming, economic dislocation, and crumbling basic infrastructure, among other torments—tomorrow's mayors will need to take bold steps to ensure their constituents live in dignity and safety. But public distrust of dysfunctional, faceless government is profound, resources are limited, gaps between groups are widening, and many are unaware of the role of government in their lives—which makes citizens less likely to support major initiatives.

One way to fill the drained reservoir of public trust in municipal government is to make city hall more visibly—and continuously—responsive. Digital technology can help: by using data to optimize the use of limited city resources and communicate clearly (with a friendly voice) across a range of platforms, a city can make life noticeably better for its citizens. The hard question is whether cities will use data to make genuine citizen and neighborhood engagement—affecting policy decisions and the allocation of resources, and potentially solving some problems altogether—possible. So far, cities in America are being cautious. There is much more that could be done.

A few weekends ago, at a "Civic Academy" put on by the City of Boston's Department of Information Technology aimed at training neighborhood groups to use social media tools, Mayor Marty Walsh stepped to the microphone in a short-sleeved shirt to provide some energetic cheerleading: "We want to make sure we're using every channel available" to reach constituents, he said—including every flavor of social platform, from Tumblr to Twitter to Instagram. (This is a link to a list of every social channel maintained by Boston.) What's great about Boston's training sessions, taking place in the city's new District Hall innovation space in South Boston, is that their goal is to help neighborhoods help themselves--not just publicity for city initiatives.

Communicating by way of social media is both easy and helpful. Boston's tireless tweeting following the Marathon bombing of last year and during the endless snowstorms of this past winter unquestionably made an enormous difference to Bostonians and others anxious for news. Boston is not alone in its creative use of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. New York City has more than 300 social media channels, and the City of Chicago is not far behind. Many cities collect and analyze geolocated public tweets to help them get ahead of urban issues; when people Tweet about train delays or noises, the city can listen.

When it comes to policy decisions, however, digital technology is mostly being used to announce rather than construct. The City of Palo Alto lets anyone access, visualize, and share its budget and financial information by way of its OpenGov Platform. Houston hosts an online Budget Bootcamp that decodes city budget lingo, and many cities ensure that their budget figures are easily available online.

Participatory budgeting, in which citizens have a hand in allocating resources, has both a long history in Brazil and the support of the White House but has been slow to emerge in U.S. cities. In New York City, residents of ten participating city council districts voted earlier this year on how to spend about $14 million of capital funds. Similarly small experiments in Chicago and San Francisco, as well as a recent youth-oriented effort in Boston, have not had a significant effect on policy.

Just as engineers need to build buildings that don't fall down, we need to construct public institutions that won't crumble. It is now possible for cities to use screens, data, and handheld devices to help neighborhoods be visible to themselves—what are the issues? where are the resources?—and allow citizens to organize in ways that will provide dignified, useful assistance to one another and, in partnership, to the city as a whole. (See, for example, Micah Sifry's recent story here on techPresident on the work that SeeClickFix is enabling in concert with the city of New Haven.) All the best-intentioned tweets in the world won't substitute for finding a way to authentically harness and respond to civic energy. Governments are part of neighborhoods and aren't moving; getting people used to working together this way is essential.


Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property at the Harvard Law School (2014) and a co-director of the Berkman Center. Her blog originally appeared on TechPresident.

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