A small area plan with big ambitions: Frogtown’s illustrated SMAPL is a document of tactical urbanism

A “small area plan” is a very common development document for individual districts within a city. Typically the stuff of purely esoteric urban planner interest, these are documents containing focused plans that address issues in specific areas of the city. While every city has several sitting on their shelves, they aren’t exactly known for being engaging reading material, nor do they see many eyeballs.

The Frogtown Neighborhood Association (FNA), representing the 1.7-square-mile neighborhood of Frogtown in St. Paul, Minnesota, hopes to change all of that with their dynamic Small Area Plan project (SMAPL).

Frogtown is part of the citywide community outreach system, and a small area plan is a document required by the city. Caty Royce, Director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, said they wanted to shift their plan to be something broader than just the standard livability issues typically addressed in such documents – issues of zoning, or crime reduction, or budgets.

“These are pretty dry documents that are supposed to be 10-year visions for the neighborhood that end up sitting on shelves,” she says. “We wanted to do something different.”

The pressure for FNA to develop the SMAPL was acute. They had just gone through a rigorous and competitive Capital Improvement Process for a proposal that involved renovating an old theatre into a performance arts space. The committee of community activists that vote on the proposals awarded them $430,000 for the project.

Unfortunately for FNA, Mayor Chris Coleman, who also sits on the advisory council, has the authority to review the projects and change them as he sees fit, which he did – re-allocating the money to a shooting range for police. When confronted on it – Royce said outright, “He stole our money and I want it back” – he simply replied, “It wasn’t part of their small area plan.”

“This was a perfect example of why a small area plan might be important,” Royce explains. “We were at this moment where we wanted to create a cartoon around the question, ‘How do we get people to even care about the SMAPL and convince them it’s important?'”

When work began on this project, FNA Assistant Director Sam Buffington leveraged his connections with local performance artists that ultimately led them to Myc Batson, known creatively as Myc Dazzle.

Dazzle is a designer and storyteller. With a degree in creative writing, Dazzle also taught himself design and marketing and has an additional background in education. He has also long had an interest in urban planning and design, so when this opportunity came along it was a convergence of all of his skills and interests in near-perfect synchronicity.

Plus, he grew up in Frogtown.

“Frogtown made me who I am,” he says. “I decided early on that I wanted the SMAPL to connect with everyone from ages 8 to 80 and use it as a call to action.”

Small area plans tend to be verbose documents written in a narrative style. Dazzle decided he was going to make a graphic novel instead, something more visually-driven that wasn’t so bogged down with planner jargon.

“It’s written in my own language, using my own words,” he says. “It was my job to break that [planner] language up so people could understand it. We want this to be an education tool about what it means to be an urban planner.”

The resulting document, which will be officially released in October, consists of 110 illustrated pages and includes a glossary of terms. It focuses on eight characters that represent the different development interests of Frogtown as defined by the FNA’s advisory council – affordable housing, land use, transportation, entrepreneurship, education, arts, quality of life, and economic vitality.

Dazzle created these characters to represent the residents of Frogtown and to look like Frogtown residents.

“Frogtown is probably one of the most diverse communities in the country,” Dazzle says. “Within five blocks you see six different cultures.”

Royce breaks it down by numbers: “As an organization we are working to represent an extremely diverse community,” she says. “Frogtown is the home for new immigrants. Our community is 23 percent white, 27 percent African American, 29 percent Southeast Asian, and we have a growing population of Latinos and East African immigrants. It is extremely diverse. So figuring out how to represent that many voices, you have to do it through artistry. You have to use artists. It has to be something that reaches people in a fairly quick way and across cultural borders, and artists do that.”

Dazzle used his characters as embodiments of Frogtown’s diversity. He hopes that people will see themselves in the characters, and he also hopes that it will serve as a call to action: Frogtown community members have previously been frustrated by bureaucratic red tape and lack of resources when trying to implement needed changes in the community, and SMAPL aims to be an empowering document for those people.

“Tactical urbanism is the main thread of what we’re trying to bring into Frogtown,” says Dazzle. “There is a call to action that’s rooted in empowering the community to make the changes it wants itself rather than waiting for the government to do it for them.”

There was an extensive period of outreach leading up to the creation of the SMAPL document. Dazzle says everything in the document is in the community’s voice; everything in it had to be informed by the things they heard during their community outreach in order to fairly represent the community.

“This is for any community that has been forgotten. The fight against gentrification is a heavy thread in this document.”

Dazzle also strove to take a unique approach to the content contained with the small area plan, beyond its nontraditional visual representation.

“One of the things in this document that hasn’t been in past small area plans is a perspective that zooms out some to look at what’s happening throughout the nation and around the world – issues like climate change and the mechanization of jobs. With us being primarily a working force community, knowing these jobs won’t exist in 10 years and how to address that was important to me as a person to include. When you think of certain fields like retail and the service industry, those are the first jobs that will probably be gone. What do we do with that excess human capital? We need to start asking those questions yesterday.”

Royce says the FNA has already been using the characters Dazzle created in meetings not just with community members but also with city planners, and will eventually do so with policymakers.

“If we were at a forum talking about employment issues we would bring [that character],” she says. “People were very captivated by it. It brought forth a sense of creativity and openness to ideas that I hadn’t seen before. They are very interested in the idea [of SMAPL], and using it as a way to further embed artistry in a world that is usually very dry and not very people-oriented. This re-centers people through creativity and artistry, which is really necessary right now for the urban community to find creative strategies around issues like gentrification.”

Royce’s next concern is how to make SMAPL a “living document” that can affect policy change. Recalling the success they’ve seen by starting their monthly community forums with improv performances, getting people out of their seats, laughing, and getting them thinking outside the box when talking about SMAPL issues, she feels that SMAPL’s unique and charming approach can have a similar effect on policymakers.

“How do we make this document a living document, especially around anti-gentrification efforts? How do we translate this document into policy? If we can get policymakers laughing as they’re looking at cartoons, I’m hoping policy changes will be a little easier to implement.”

All images courtesy of Myc Dazzle and the Frogtown Neighborhood Association. 

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