Opinion editor’s note: This commentary was presented by Prof. Dan Trudeau of Macalester College and members of his class on the political geography of urban public spaces. They are listed below.
In his May 2018 State of the City address, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter called for citywide community engagement to “build a city that works for all.”
The mayor is seeking to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods through investment in schools, libraries and public safety personnel. But public spaces should also be included in this charge, because they keep us connected to one another and put us in day-to-day contact with our common values as a community. If St. Paul is to be a place that works for everyone, then the city must ensure that its public spaces reflect those values.
The effort to build open and inclusive public spaces faces multiple challenges. It is a common cost-saving measure for city governments to cede the management of public space to private interests. In Minneapolis, the city’s newest public space in the Downtown East Commons is managed by a third party, which restricts allowable uses of the space. Public spaces are also increasingly managed to deter certain uses and users. In St. Paul’s Mears Park, for example, classical music blares at the central pavilion, which effectively narrows the range of who is included in the public.
This increasing privatization of public space grinds against Carter’s message. As a city that has achieved high marks from the Trust for Public Land’s evaluation of public park access since the year it was included, St. Paul has been on the forefront of ensuring access to public space. We owe it to ourselves and the city to continue this record through the careful stewardship and inclusive revitalization of the city’s public spaces.
We are responding to the mayor’s call through our work as a class at Macalester College, studying the geography of public spaces in St. Paul. We assembled a set of resources for evaluating the inclusiveness of public space and are sharing our observations in our Field Guide to Public Spaces in St. Paul.
Inspired by field guides that ask users to consider their environment and link particular experiences to general trends, we’ve examined select spaces in the city. From neighborhood parks to St. Paul’s skyway, each of us carefully examined a public space. Distilling ideas from urban design and city planning, we’ve studied the tension between civic representation and privatization in public spaces. We frame this tension through a guiding question: Are we making inclusive decisions in the design and maintenance of public space that promote a democratic society in St. Paul?
Each essay in the field guide investigates the complex ways a public space promotes social inclusion or not — often at the same time. We do not declare places as good or bad. Rather we focus on how aspects of design and management define who is included. Through this, our field guide parses out how public and private decisions shape the building of a city that works for everyone. This multimedia guide is available online at stpfieldguide.wordpress.com.
Our guide is a start to an ongoing discussion about how to build a more inclusive and democratic city. While neither exhaustive nor comprehensive, it is a timely contribution.
Our capital city is experiencing a renaissance. The population is growing. The city is host to a rapidly changing community. Decisions around the former Ford plant and policy concerning how to promote denser development will shape opportunity for decades to come in St. Paul. At this moment, it is crucial to consider the design and management of public spaces in St. Paul — how we make choices determines whether we promote an inclusive and democratic society.
We hope readers and community members will build on our work. We invite feedback and critical discussion. The Field Guide to Public Spaces in St. Paul provides a well-informed place to start.
Dan Trudeau is a professor of geography and director of urban studies at Macalester College. Members of the class contributing to this article are Julia Bayer, David Black, Ceren Dolma, Ellie Hohulin, Henry Nieberg, Luke Sageser and Michael Wood.