Meet the Nation's First 'Vitality Fellow,' Making Cities Livable for Everyone
St. Paul, Minn., wants its urban areas to welcome everyone -- whether they're 8 or 80 years old.
Last year, the city of St. Paul, Minn., won a $175,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to hire a so-called 8-80 Vitality Fellow, a first-of-its-kind position in local government. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman got the idea for the fellowship from urbanist Gil Penalosa, a former parks commissioner in Bogota, Colombia, who argues that cities should be safe and welcoming to citizens of all backgrounds and ages (from 8 to 80 years old).
In 2014, Coleman invested $40 million in a package of infrastructure projects that would further his goal of making St. Paul an 8-80 city. The money covers street improvements, the acquisition of land for parks, the renovation of a historic theater and the addition of bike lanes. With the Knight Foundation grant, Coleman's office hired Margaret Jones, the city's first 8-80 Vitality Fellow, to support the projects and ensure that the 8-80 principles inform the work of every city agency. Much of the job involves going out into the community, making presentations, hosting events and building relationships with residents who want to help make the city a more fun and equitable place to live and work.
In April, Jones spoke with Governing about her 18-month fellowship. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What does the Vitality Fellow do?
The main thing I do is look across the departments and make connections between people in the community and in city departments. A big thing in the job description was silo-busting -- getting people to work across departments. Although, I have found that it’s not just getting people to work across departments but within departments.
I’m bringing in speakers almost on a monthly basis, and we’ve been successful in getting a variety of people to listen to these talks. We’ve had people in the audience from the city, from the county, from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, from nonprofits and from downtown business associations. It’s getting people from within the city and across departments to start talking to one another.
Are there Vitality Fellows anywhere else? Are they called the same thing?
I don’t know of any. I don’t know that I would continue calling the position an 8-80 fellow. It’s kind of a fun title because people are like, “What’s that?” But I don’t think it's necessarily useful in terms of talking with other cities. We usually have to explain it, so I think one of the things I would recommend is crafting a new title.
How does someone become a Vitality Fellow? What’s the path that led you to this position?
I was the executive director for a neighborhood nonprofit community council. Within that neighborhood, I had been working on issues with different people in the city, in different departments -- police, public works, parks -- and in local businesses. I had an understanding of the role that the community plays and the role the community thinks it should play. When I was in the community, I would hear this idea of “The City,” this entity that’s sort of out there. So one of the things I’ve been trying to do since I’ve been here is put a face on the city, so it’s not just this idea of this huge government entity that can be perceived as an obstacle. More often than not, I think it’s just that people don’t realize all of the workings of the city. I feel like I am a face in the city that people can identify and call. I think that’s huge for any place.
When the grant money runs out, do you think there will be a vitality fellowship funded with city tax dollars?
If not an 8-80 Vitality Fellow, then I still think there should be some position that is trying to do the kinds of things that I’m doing. I definitely think there’s been a value added, for sure.
One of the things I’ve been asked to do is write a report and make recommendations. So my first recommendation will be that they keep me on. [Laughs] But in all seriousness, I do think that there is a place for me. Because of the role that I have now and the role that I had before this job, I know a lot of people in the community. I get calls from the strangest places and from people all across different disciplines, and they’re calling to ask me to help them get something going. They’re asking me to help make a connection.