Creative: Thinking Outside the Box

By: Nicole Eaton, Charlotte Communications & Marketing

Fran West at the Firestone Park Kick-Off Summer Party event.

Charlotte is quickly growing and changing, which means city employees are stepping up and finding new ways to engage with communities. One of those project managers is Fran West with Engineering and Property Management (E&PM). Fran works on projects within the Sunset/Beatties Ford Comprehensive Neighborhood Improvement Program (CNIP) and uses creative approaches to her projects.

Fran has been with the city for about a year after working in the consultant environment. She came to the city wanting to have a greater influence on projects and to really connect with the community she’s serving. While there are plans and engineering elements to projects, the real part of her job she enjoys the most is public engagement and finding creative solutions to problems. The community may not know whether they want a 6-foot or 12-foot sidewalk, but they do know that they want to feel safer walking. For her, it’s all about creating the win-win and making sure residents get what they need.

With many projects, residents are more used to project managers coming to a public meeting and telling them what is happening with a project. There may be some display boards with renderings of a few streetscape choices along with a PowerPoint presentation to explain the project. And maybe there’s a feedback form at the conclusion of the meeting or a website to visit to input feedback.

“Being creative is thinking outside of the box. It’s doing things differently and re-envisioning old processes. What we have done for the past 20 years isn’t always the best approach with the communities we work with today. We have to be innovative and proactive in how we approach truly engaging with the public.” –Fran West

Last October, Fran and her CNIP team approached the Sunset/Beatties Ford neighborhood about the Oakdale-Nevin pedestrian and bike path project which would connect seven parks. Over 100 people came to the public meeting, which is large for a public meeting, and they didn’t want the project. While bike paths and greenways are successful in other parts of the city, they couldn’t understand why this project wasn’t favored. So the team stopped talking and started to listen. And soon they realized there were concerns far greater than connecting the parks. That concern was crime.

After digging deeper, the team realized the park in question was Firestone Park. For residents, this park was home to crimes and a place where they did not want children playing. Typically engineers, build and design, they don’t find ways to combat crime. To help the community, they had to fix the crime and get creative.

Their idea was to clean up the park to create sight lines, create ways for CMPD to patrol the park and plan the park’s future. The team partnered with Mecklenburg County to hold a Kick-off Summer Party. In the morning, there was a park clean-up to remove the underbrush and make the park safer. Residents volunteered their time and qualified for matching grant. After the cleanup, a party for the kids followed. There were bounce houses, face painters, a food truck and an ice cream truck. For the first time, they were able to see how fun the park could be. There were envisioning boards set up to inspire and track what the community wanted the city to plan in the park. Over 180 people attended and it was HUGE success!

The event not only improved the park, but it connected the city to residents and helped build trust. The event was so successful that Firestone Park has been added to the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation’s “Summer Play Days” program which also partners with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Mobile Food Trucks to bring kids meals and provide them with a morning of programmed fun.

Kids playing at the Firestone Park Kick-off Summer Party.

In another project, the Lakeview and Reams Road Intersection project, the CNIP team faced a different challenge. There were two proposals of whether a traditional signal or a roundabout was needed where these two streets intersect. The community was hesitant about a roundabout and preferred a signal because they knew how it operated. This is a community of aging in place residents and they were nervous. So the team invited the community to participate in an interactive priority pyramid which helped the community identify their top priorities for the intersection. The feedback showed that the priorities matched what the roundabout would address best, but residents didn’t want a roundabout. They were at a roadblock.

Creativity takes persistence. It can be challenging. Someone once said, “You know you’re doing the right thing when you hit a road block.” And when Fran and her team hit a road block, they became even more driven to find a solution that works.

So it was time to get creative again. For the next meeting, the team created a 35-by-35 vinyl mat of a roundabout. The team was able to physically walk people through how a roundabout works, complete with people acting like vehicles and pedestrians. Once they understood how to drive through a roundabout, they saw how it aligned best with their priorities. This hands-on approach helped the residents realize that a roundabout was what they wanted. They were so appreciative of the creativity and thought city staff put into listening to their concerns and finding a way to help them understand roundabouts. Fran says, “When Ashley (Landis) suggested this, I knew it would make or break the project. I never could have imagined how successful it would be!”

Roundabout vinyl mat created for a public meeting for the Lakeview and Reams Road Intersection project.

Every project is different, but in every project there are ways to be creative. And the creativity movement is happening across the city like with the Eastland Mall event.

Fran says, “The more we are challenged, the more we learn. And as we see new engagement ideas with other projects, it sparks new ideas for how we can creative on a different project.”
Sunset/Beatties Ford CNIP Team: Fran West (E&PM), Scott Correll (Charlotte Department of Transportation (CDOT)), Stephen Bolt (CDOT), Cherie Grant (Housing & Neighborhood Services), Erin Chantry (Planning) and Ashley Landis (CDOT). Not all pictured.