The Yard Part 4 – A Vision for an Active Urban Park

The Yard must be an active urban space, regardless of design. During the Park Committee meeting last week, co-chairs David Wilson and Tom Fisher went around the room asking people about their favorite park. Examples given included Hyde Park in London, the High Line in New York and Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. The most common attribute given, and a common denominator, was because these parks were “active.” That said, as the Park Committee moves at lightning speed to come up with a vision and begin fundraising for The Yard, it seems reasonable that the vision be more rooted in how it is used more than what it looks like.

Kids in the Fountain - Arch

We need not overthink and overdesign The Yard. That’s not to say design isn’t important, just that design alone won’t guarantee an active place. And frankly, there isn’t time to overthink design if the ribbon cutting is to occur in August 2016 when the Vikings stadium opens. What an active urban park needs is a place to gather like a fountain, arch or statue, plenty of places to sit, some shade, and programming to attract people at all times (like Washington Square Park in New York, above). An elegant, timeless design can allow flexibility for a wide range of events and gatherings while providing opportunity for elements to be added later.

Aerial View

Washington Square Park in New York City bears this out. At the Park Committee meeting, when Mayor Rybak’s turn came to give his favorite park, he cited Washington Square Park (above), which fits the mold of an elegant timeless design. Wide, tree-lined pedestrian paths converge at an arch and fountain (gathering place). Seating abounds. The park is flexible and accommodates formal and informal gatherings and events.


The Park Committee emphasized flexible space to accommodate a variety of events, and Rybak in particular was adamant that activity occur year-round. This is very important. Just take a look at the ice ice rinks at Discovery Green in Houston (above). The most popular places at the Lakes Loppet this past winter? The Surly beer garden and all the informal gathering places on Lake of the Isles. Minnesotans love to come out for winter activities if they are provided.

In the discussion of what is envisioned at The Yard there are passing references to a playing field. I think this notion should be reconsidered. First, grass is very hard to maintain, even as playing fields. Crowds trample grass. Heavily used urban parks often tastefully rope off grassy areas to prevent cut throughs and any use other than tossing a Frisbee and sunbathing. Second, a presentation of other downtown parks given to the Park Committee didn’t show a single large playing field. Third, playing fields are really only active when an organized sport is being played – they risk being vast expanses of underutilized land at other times. Lastly, organized sports have a hard enough time generating income in other locations – they should not be on valuable downtown land. The Vikings will pay $13 million annually for their field two blocks away – this is more in line with the underlying land value. The city and metro area are filled with playing fields. Besides, if people want genuine space to play, they can go to Gold Medal Park.

Speaking of Gold Medal Park, I’ve never heard anyone describe it as “active.” Yet discussion of The Yard continues to reference Gold Medal Park as setting the minimum standard for design and use. This is a mistake. Want proof? As of last week, Gold Medal Park’s sidewalks hadn’t even been shoveled! Yes, Gold Medal Park is award winning for its design, but it is clear that design alone does not attract people and perhaps Gold Medal Park is the most compelling argument that the key to success at The Yard is a robust programming budget. A simple tree-lined sidewalk programmed with a market (see Discovery Green below) does far more to activate a park than design.

Booths on Paths

Just look at what the Vikings envision for events in The Yard (below). Tailgating, fireworks, major gatherings. A large playing field or a grove of northwoods trees, for example, aren’t the right setting – a large, flexible, elegant, timeless urban park design is.

Landscape Plan_Page_39

Given the general agreement on the Park Committee that The Yard be “active,” I strongly encourage them to engage Project for Public Spaces. PPS has a long track record of helping activate and maximize the use of public spaces, including downtown parks. Let PPS help us arrive at a vision for this park as an active gathering place for all of Minneapolis, then engage HR&A Advisors to help come up with a fundraising strategy for The Yard. HR&A has extensive experience helping public entities prioritize funding streams. I also recommend that the Park Committee and CPED staff to read the new book “How to Study Public Life” by acclaimed urbanist Jan Gehl (I’ve ordered my copy).


During this visioning process, look no further than the Piazza on the Mall (above) for how to generate activity. The Piazza is an example of tactical urbanism, which populates underutilized urban spaces with activity and generates enthusiasm and political support for permanent changes. Before any dirt is turned, use an existing Star Tribune surface parking lot to host an event. Bring in temporary trees and benches. Have a temporary beer garden and live music in the summer or ice rink in the winter. This can only help potential funders envision what The Yard will one day be like, and maybe they will pay for that fountain or arch, and be more willing to support that all-important long-term revenue stream for events and programming.

The Yard is going to be a different kind of park, like nothing we’ve seen in the Twin Cities. As they envision what The Yard will be, tell the Park Committee to engage PPS to help ensure an emphasis on “active.” We need a place to do yoga in the morning. We need that place to celebrate a World Series victory. We need a place to eat and drink. We need a place to meet friends downtown. We need a place to gather and light a candle when a leader like Nelson Mandela passes. We need a place to sit and watch the world go by. We need an everyday active public space at The Yard. We need a place to host events year-round.  We need a place to kiss.

Times Square - The Kiss

(this was crossposted at Joe Urban and is part 4 of The Yard series at this site by Sam Newberg and/or Max Musicant, following part 1, part 2 and part 3)

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

33 thoughts on “The Yard Part 4 – A Vision for an Active Urban Park

  1. Chris IversonChris Iverson

    Great thoughts, Sam. Zombie Pub Crawl used two of the Strib lots for their Quarantine Zone over the past couple years. The stage, beer concession lines, and food trucks really helped turn this normally brain-dead area (pun intended) into a lively destination of sorts. If enough people were to use the parking lot constantly for events like this, a green park would not even necessarily be needed. Arguably, people make areas into something cherished, not grass alone.

  2. Andrew

    Excellent article! I completely agree that the empty-grass-field-softball-diamond thing is done ad nauseum elsewhere in the city and The Yard needs to be different. It should be a destination in itself. I hope you push all these ideas at our city council and the people planning this out.

  3. Evan RobertsEvan

    More prosaic questions for the success of the park. Are there going to be restaurants, cafes and bars in the buildings immediately abutting the park? What about public restrooms?

    I am not in favor of minimum restaurant requirements, but restaurants and cafes are a key ‘natural’ generator of activity and “eyes on the park.” Look at the success of St Anthony Main for this symbiosis of private dining venues and public space.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      My understanding of the Ryan Companies Downtown East plan, the first and second stories facing The Yard will have equal amounts of commercial space. I’d guess the ground floor space could be more tailored to sit-down restaurant use with a liquor license, including sidewalk seating, whereas I’d speculate the skyway space would be more suited to daytime workers.

      I personally feel it is a profound shame that skyways exist at all, as their mere presence and having some retailers in them draws people away from the street level and The Yard. Let’s hope a couple good restaurants move in at the street level and provide a good presence to complement The Yard.

      I think there is general agreement that there should also be a restaurant/café in The Yard, and I’d advocate for public restrooms as well, including a family restroom!

  4. Morgan

    Whew! While I love this series and am very grateful for it, I am pretty apprehensive about The Yard. While I know that the Downtown Council’s 2020 plan calls for a “Central Park” I can’t help but think that The Yard lacks a natural constituency.The other week I was thinking that what would be best for The Yard is for it to eventually to be developed like City Center in Washington, DC. City Center was the old convention center site that had quite a few good civic uses, from concerts to inter-city bus depot, in the roughly 10 years between the demolition of the old convention center and the final development being put together. I know that Ryan wants to get these parcels off the market, but I don’t think that the rationale for the park is very good.

    I think that the signature downtown park for Minneapolis should be the expanded and revitalized Gateway Park encompassing the lot across the street from the library. I think that it is in a much better location to be Minneapolis’s downtown park than The Yard. I know that the parcel across from the library has its issues, but I think that we can fix them. I also don’t think that downtown Minneapolis can absorb two really well programmed public spaces,

    I think that developing a constituency for The Yard, including a nonprofit to do most of the programming, because I don’t think that the MPRB can, will be very organic and take quite awhile. But with the start that you and Max have given that process I am becoming for optimistic.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      I don’t really have an opinion, but why do you prefer the Gateway Park idea? The new developments going up on the adjoining block would provide some additional constituency, but right now that block is fairly devoid of activity too.

      1. Morgan

        While I know that there are some residential units in the Ryan Development, most of the office workers will leave. Maybe they’ll eat at some food trucks but for the most part they will not support much activity at the Yard, especially on the weekend.

        I think that the Gateway site is better situated near major attractions and districts, like the Warehouse District, North loop, Nicollet Mall, Hennepin Bridge and Near Northeast, Target field, Target Center, the Hennepin Avenue theaters, etc. I think that the Gateway Park will compliment all of this other already existing activity. I think that the Gateway Park has more likelihood of success, while The Yard might very well remain devoid.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          Morgan, you get at a very interesting point. Currently both locations are somewhat devoid of activity. In the Gateway area, the library and Whole Foods help provide anchors and backdrops for green space, and the argument can be made that the new stadium and Wells Fargo buildings and one day redeveloped Armory represent anchors for The Yard.

          Interestingly, open space does not appear in the location of The Yard in any official city plans. It was only when the stadium and Downtown East plan came along that a park was proposed. As well, the Downtown Council is the entity pushing for the Gateway area park, but I’m not aware that the city actually recognizes this.

          So in some ways it may come down to how incoming mayor Hodges prioritizes these varying park ideas on balance with other plans like funding Nicollet Mall’s rebuilding. Stay tuned.

          1. Adam MillerAdam

            I would also fear that the existing library Off-peak clientele would lead to similar attitudes that doomed the prior Gateway area civic amenities.

            1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

              Yet another reason why programming and activity are so important, regardless of the park’s location downtown

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        Good point – why limit it to one park? I think the answer is a combination of political will and most of all, money. I’d love to see both parks built, funded long term and successful, but I have to speculate that downtown Minneapolis will get only one park/square that is highly programmed and the central gathering place. It would be unfortunate if differing opinions resulted in neither happening.

        1. Morgan

          Jenni and Sam,

          We want good, active public places that add to the civic realm. If a public place does not do that, then the real estate is better for the city and its citizens on the tax rolls as private property. The decision to remove property from the tax rolls must be very diligently considered.

          When planning for parks, while public spaces are certainly going through a renaissance, I think that it is important to remember that we are not in the heyday of parks as recreational and social behavior. Many of our best public spaces were built in the 1880s to 1920s, a time when people lived in small units with large households, people did not have air conditioning so it was very warm in the summer months indoors, men did not participate in the domestic economy at all so they were almost never in the house, very few people owned cars so almost all trips were done on foot or streetcar, children’s play was highly unstructured and took place almost entirely in public, and the internet did not exist so it was not a channel for socialization.

          None of this is true today. Parks have less natural, inherent demand now which is why programming is so important. Most of the demand must be actively created through marketing, and that is actually very resource intensive.

          When we deploy these resources to create a public space it needs to be awesome. With regards to the “why not two parks” question I do not think that there is enough demand to support both parks right now. Downtown Minneapolis is pretty dead at most social times of day, and while a park will help I think that two would be over building. Two parks means that both would be less successful, at least for the next 10 years.

          And as far as “great” cities go, we must be honest with ourselves. Minneapolis has a very low residential density. If by great cities you are referring to New York, Paris, San Francisco, Madrid, etc. then we are no where close to their density, employment, and amenity numbers. No, our city cannot support park infrastructure and amenities like those cities can.

  5. Adam MillerAdam

    Excellent thoughts, although as to playing fields, I can see making use of any large stretches of grass as impromptu fields for corporate/adult softball and kickball leagues ala the National Mall in DC. But I agree that setting up playing field infrastructure is setting aside space for only occasional use.

  6. Janne Flisrand

    I really dislike Gold Medal Park. It’s design is lovely… viewed from above. Like, in a helicopter, airplane, or from the 4th story of the Gutherie. Being in it I feel exposed and uncomfortable…

  7. John Bailey

    Thanks for birdogging all this stuff Sam. I didn’t know about the playing fields proposal. That would be a crying shame. When I moved here Gold Medal Park had just opened and I remember thinking it was actually closed because no one was there. I thought we were sneaking on.

  8. Adam MillerAdam

    At the risk of proposing work for others, a comparison to other local parks would be very interesting. Fountain Square in Cincinnati and Washington Square Park have been used as comparison, but both are as much town square as park. Bryant park seems closer to the park/square hybrid we’d be going for. But it too benefits from surrounding density and major draws for visitors.

    How would it compare to Loring Park, the Sculpture Garden and Gold medal park? How do the sizes compare? How many visitors do those get? Are the successful by the relevant criteria? How much programming do they have? How safe are those parks? It could be illuminating.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I’ve begun to assemble a chart of comparable parks and squares around the country- criteria include a downtown location and a size of less than 10 acres. Interestingly, Bryant is the only “park,” as the others are called “square” or “commons” or “campus.” As I indicate in Part 2 of this series, based on these other downtown parks around the country, it is reasonable to expect development of The Yard to cost $25 million or more, and most importantly, annual budget could exceed $2.5 million. These are rough estimates by me, but are based on the most similar downtown parks I found.

      I caution us to compare to existing Minneapolis parks for several reasons. Gold Medal Park is nearly 7.5 acres, Keep in mind the McGuire family leases the land from the city and Guthrie, which partially explains why there is minimal programming and usage. Loring Park is 33, which is way too big to compare, and doesn’t have the density of usage for meaningful comparison – it is kind of a neighborhood park for that edge of downtown. And the sculpture garden, well that is a sculpture garden – since we already have this wonderful place, no need to compare it other than size, which is 11 acres, and visits, which according to their website is 325,000 annually (way too low for The Yard).

      In Part 3, Max showed us how we need nearly 2 million visitors to make the Yard active, and how the Lake Harriet Bandshell is the closest thing to programming and visits to what the Yard should be.

  9. Dale

    I’m going to be the cranky naysayer. Central Park is probably the most used and famous park in the country and it is mostly grass, green space, walking/running trails. It does have some plaza areas too, but the majority of the park is green.

    Sorry. I’ve been to too many dead urban parks and plazas built with a ton of hardscape.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Central Park is 883 acres, compared to 3.4 at The Yard, which doesn’t have a lot of room for expanses of green.

      The way to avoid a dead urban park/plaza is a robust programming budget to keep it active. This is exactly the point of these four posts by Max and I. Part 5 promises to go into further detail on this!

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I think I read in David Owen’s “Green Metropolis” that most of the expanses/grassy/woodsy areas of Central Park are rarely used. Yes, the baseball diamonds get used during scheduled games, and people use the trails for running/walking, but most people stick to the outer edges when doing so (or at the areas with programmed events or attractions like the ice skating pond, zoo, Bethesda fountain, etc. My personal experience there the 2 times I went (once in late March and the other in early October) confirm this notion.

      Owen points out that the acreage of Central Park would be better used if split up into a bunch of 1-3 acre parks throughout the city. Increase the surface area (sidewalk) : park land ratio and you’d get a lot more users, in total. Some could be larger parks (the size of The Yard) with a baseball diamond or something useful for sports, others could be smaller squares used for civic events/gathering places. How many more people would be within half a mile of a quality space with shade, fresh air, benches, programming, etc?

      Minneapolis is no Manhattan, but the same principle should apply, IMO.

  10. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    With regard to the street running through the middle of the park, I can’t help but wonder if this was just a case of people (the developer/city/county/etc) not talking to each other at all. When they released the renderings for the Ryan project and the stadium within a couple weeks of each other and each didn’t include the other’s project, it really seemed like that had happened. And so now, to maybe obscure that a bit, we’re just throwing the street through the middle of it and moving on.

    Unsolicited opinion #4,519: What they could do is scrap the block with the piddly six story apartment building and the two-thirds block ‘o park, and do something like a building wrapping around a public square on the corner of Portland and 4th Street that faces the remaining, full-block park and the Wells Fargo buildings. Throw some restaurants or something else active down there (fountain?) and call it a day.

  11. MplsJaromir

    Love it how people think we can use Manhattan as an example for Downtown East. Comparing DTE to the densest area in the U.S. is beyond dumb.

  12. Sam NewbergSam Newberg (Joe Urban)

    An interesting study just came out from MIT exploring public spaces around the country. Download it at this page:

    One thing jumped out at me in this report was about Discovery Green – nearly 70% of visitors came from the suburbs. I think it is realistic to expect a similar percentage at The Yard if it is indeed successful at attracting more than 1 million visitors. Events before Vikings games would bear this percentage out, if not more so.

  13. Walker

    Sam & Max, great series. Maybe I missed it, but what about the spaces adjoining The Yard—all of the surrounding buildings? Will there be sufficient cafe’s for a quick or leisurely bite? And stores to buy pop or kleenex within eyesight of where people are hanging in The Yard? Will all of the sidewalks across the street from The Yard be inviting, lively, and active around the clock or dead most of the time?

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg (Joe Urban)

      Walker, the short answer is I don’t know. Details like that have not been ironed out. As I mentioned in an earlier comment to this post, Ryan plans quite a bit of retail space, split half and half between street level and skyway. What businesses will locate where will not likely be known for more than one year.

      My guess is sidewalks across the street from the Yard as part of the Ryan development will be rebuilt to a more pleasant condition, but there is no reason to expect other sidewalks will be improved unless leaders insist upon it – not a bad idea. Keep in mind, beautiful sidewalks won’t necessarily attract people. Hopefully a well-programmed park will….

      To that end, the fact that skyways will be built in the Ryan development ensures that fewer people will use the sidewalks.

  14. Archiapolis

    Excellent work on the original posts and the commentary as well. It makes me very happy to see people so engaged and thoughtful about space. What I’m hearing so far is: get funding for operations, “programming” is key, and the rest will take care of itself. I agree that these are the most crucial pieces but I also think design is a HUGELY important factor. To be sure, Ryan’s concept is highly focused on their own developments and the rest is “eyewash.” “The Yard” is really a placeholder. Like it or not, this is brilliant salesmanship by Ryan – it is VERY hard to argue against a large green space downtown and it looks like a massive commitment of goodwill by them. Throwing out renderings of shiny buildings surrounding a large tree-lined park does a LOT to garner support. Politicians trying to objectively question how such a park is funded and operated is NOT glitzy, NOT splashy, and looks like “government” which, it appears, people don’t have a high opinion of. Ryan has positioned themselves as a benefactor here despite foamy unanswered questions about funding and operations of “The Yard” and the project STILL won approval in record time. I’m blown away by how fast this got approved despite these unanswered questions that are being explored in these posts. Since it appears that we are “stuck” with “The Yard”, I think design will be the critical third leg of the stool (operational funding + programming + design). Could someone generate a post specifically geared towards the design of “The Yard?” A lot to explore there…

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