Photos: Student projects arranged downtown, courtesy of Streetscape Lab 2014

Can innovative street furniture improve the way people perceive downtown?

That was the question at the heart of a recent collaboration between the Downtown Improvement District and the University of Minnesota College of Design, which tasked undergraduate students working in an empty City Center retail space to activate public space and solve problems for downtown pedestrians.

Their rough prototypes were put to a field test for several weeks to see how the public would react. The projects included a standing counter for the food truck lunch crowd, free wooden chairs on Nicollet Mall, a hose spraying mist at hot pedestrians, signs featuring walking and biking times to local destinations and a wiffle ball field in Peavey Plaza.

"In many cases in downtown Minneapolis… a public place is less successful because of how it’s designed or programmed or the adjacent uses," said Ben Shardlow, the director of public realm initiatives at the DID, which is funded through assessments on downtown properties. "And in some cases, it’s because the street furniture that’s there is configured in such a way that it doesn’t work. Or, in more cases, it’s because there’s nothing there. There’s no furniture, there’s nowhere to sit, there’s no greenery.”

Shardlow said rather than try to refine the student prototypes into full-fledged models, they will use the findings to inform future designs about improving public space. Use of the counter, for example, will factor into future discussions about the facilities needed to support outdoor lunches downtown. Other collaborations downtown, such as a "parklot" on Hennepin Avenue, are supplying similar information.

“By making public places more livable and inviting, then it will increase use of those spaces," Shardlow said. “And fostering more positive activity is crucial in creating safe, lively public places.”

After arranging their projects, students watched from a distance how people interacted with them. Tom Oliphant, one of the course instructors, said it was thrilling to see pedestrians extend their hand to grab some mist from a hose arranged near Peavey Plaza.

“It was just this really teeny little intervention, and it just made their life better," Oliphant said during an exhibit of the projects last week.

In addition to free wooden chairs that were placed on 6th Street and Nicollet Mall, the DID put its own metal chairs near its office at the Young-Quinlan Building.

"It took a while for people to realize that they could sit down," said Kathryn Reali, the DID's chief operating officer. "I think people felt that … I must have to buy something before I can sit down in these chairs.”

Undergraduate Andra Zerbe, a rising junior, designed street signs that inform walkers and bikers how long it would take to reach nearby destinations. She was considering visitors to the All-Star Game who were unfamiliar with the city.

“Someone’s coming in, they want to know where to go. Here’s a suggestion," Zerbe said. "You use Google Maps afterwards to figure out exactly where you’re going. But here’s something that maybe you weren’t thinking about."

Instructor James Wheelers' class focused more on Peavey Plaza, where they created an ad hoc wiffle ball field replete with scoreboard and beside giant jenga sets and the Swedish game Kubb. The reflecting pool in the below-grade plaza is not currently active, giving people few reasons to venture down into the space.

“It was really about kind of figuring out how people would want to interact in a space that’s really kind of underutilized," Wheeler said. "And just trying some things out.”  

The ball field got some use during the All-Star Game festivities, from a little league team waiting to march in the parade to a group of men who discovered it later at night.

"We know that Peavey Plaza isn't going to become a wiffle ball field," Shardlow said in an e-mail. "But what did we learn about what happens when you give people something to do there other than sit?"