Deep engagement informs city programs and spaces in Rochester, MN

Rochester co-designers attend a meeting together

This week, we are featuring member city Rochester, MN’s work to make community co-design a central approach to developing city spaces and programs. Rochester is bringing co-design into city procedures, beginning with a Discovery Walk that connects several of the city’s key public spaces. Mayor Kim Norton sees promise in using the co-design approach to address racial disparities and transform the way the city works. 

Community co-design is a development strategy that brings in community voices that historically have been left out of city procedures and decision making. In a co-design approach, project teams recruit “co-designers” from the community, usually from under-represented backgrounds. This allows for the incorporation of lived experiences into the design and implementation of various projects. It also pushes project leaders to build effective relationships with community networks they otherwise would not have much contact with. 

 “Co-design is a way to get voices not at the table actually at the table. We talk a lot about the STP – the same ten people. This is different from the same old community engagement strategies where we get the same survey responses, the same people applying for aid, etc.” – Mayor Norton

The first project to use co-design in Rochester was the Destination Medical Center’s Discovery Walk, a four-block area that connects several key public spaces in the city. However, it was through the Bloomberg 2021 Global Mayors Challenge that Rochester was able to use community co-design to improve city processes for the first time, investigating ways to encourage more BIPOC women to enter construction and built environment careers. Ten co-designers, including  BIPOC women within and outside the industry, industry partners, and union leaders and educators, were recruited to work on this issue.

“Interests were mismatched at first,” says Chao Mwatela, Rochester’s Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (DEI). “Industry leaders didn’t expect BIPOC women to be interested and BIPOC women did not see their own needs met. Trust was built over time.” Mwatela was hired in 2021 following her role as a co-designer for the Discovery Walk, and has overseen some of the city’s co-design work. Mwatela’s hiring – and making DEI work a well defined part of someone’s job – was a critical step and best practice for this work cited by Mayor Norton.

Once trust was more established, the co-designers designed three prototypes for BIPOC women recruitment – one within the worksites, one in training and apprenticeship spaces such as union and workforce development centers, and one within the public school systems. 

“There were a lot of ‘aha!’ moments. We realized that familial and cultural norms will need to be changed – both on work sites and within families as well. We want to redefine what a successful career means for girls in our communities, not just for the women, but the school counselors, families, and communities. Lots of things were learned on all sides.” – Mayor Norton

To date, there are around 10 city projects that have utilized co-design. Some were funded with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money or other grant funding, while others utilize already-allocated money otherwise going to consultants. Co-designers are paid for their participation, which includes project meetings and the meetings they hold with their community to get input.

The public benefits have been numerous. From delivering on the City’s commitment to equity to creating and strengthening meaningful partnerships, the co-design model is creating places and programs that actually benefit the residents they were designed for. “People say that co-design is expensive, but we have found that to be not true,” said Mayor Norton. “There is a real cost to things not working after the City has invested in them. It’s been a much more cost effective system in total.” 

The impact to individuals is undeniable and more immediate than the city anticipated.

“In six months, one co-designer has managed to find a job in a construction firm and closed on a house. We never thought we would get an immediate return in such a short amount of time.” – Chao Mwatela

Currently, the most pressing challenge is effectively sharing the impact and successes of the co-design approach with City Council and the community at large, but Mayor Norton remains optimistic. When asked about advice to communities looking to expand on their community engagement work, her response was enthusiastically simple: “Quit talking about it and do it!”

The cultural shift in how City departments look at design thinking is evident. “Recently, the Fire Chief reached out with help in diversifying the department. That was another ‘aha’ moment.” 

Mayor Kim Norton is the 45th Mayor (and first woman mayor!) of the City of Rochester, MN, having been elected Nov. 2018 and reelected Nov. 2022.

Chao Mwatela is the first Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion of Rochester, MN.