Tourism Urbanism in Park Rapids

Every year my family takes a vacation to Brookside Resort on Two Inlets Lake, near Lake Itasca and Park Rapids, MN. Despite the great hydro-biking infrastructure on Two Inlet’s Lake, the best urbanism in all of Hubbard County is in Park Rapids.


Traffic jam on bikes in the lake.

Park Rapids is a small town (pop. 3681) with an economic eye on the lake country and tourism. Downtown Park Rapids confines itself to about a block on either side of Main Avenue, for about three and a half blocks, with one and two floor buildings, ground floor retail, slow traffic, excellent pedestrian amenities, and many businesses facing the street, the small town charm is not lost on the visiting vacationer.


Seriously, everything faces the street, interacts, and even shelters pedestrians.

An argument against excessive traffic controls, the different colored pavements mark intersections, parking, and crosswalks, even as the central parking and low speeds may violate the expectations of many metro area travelers.


Beautiful Park (in the middle) Rapids


Ok, so I stole the park in the middle joke from a T-Shirt…

The sidewalks are wider than normal, about eight feet wide, and several awnings shelter the inevitable rain for the tourists in town (why would you leave the lake on a sunny day?), the windows and displays cater directly to passerby,  the buffering of the sidewalk from vehicles with nose in parking, and the slow speeds of vehicles on the street lead to an awesome pedestrian environment.


Although this building faces the cross street, it avoids a blank wall, provides shelter and still gets a passing grade for its contributions to the pedestrian environment.

Main Avenue is a great street, however there are a few very minor issues. The main issue has to deal with the fact that the street is almost strictly segregated, between tourist shops on the north half, and businesses geared for locals on the south half of the street. Otherwise, some more bike racks, and an extension of the Heartland Trail across U.S. 71 would properly round out a fantastic street.

The segregation of Main Avenue is likely due to the economic efficiency of clustering similar businesses, allowing them to feed off each other’s customers by concentrating the shared customer base. This is seen mainly among the tourist shops (I will not go specifically to a novelty T-Shirt store, but between the ice cream parlor and the candy shop/movie theater combo… I might stop by, however I only need one haircut), but there are some issues with this segregation of stores.


The Park Theater’s promenade is classic urbanism and it is awesome that it still exists today.

Segregating the stores leads to an awkward allocation of parking, with summertime having the touristy north end of Main’s parking entirely utilized, while the south half is wide open. This makes the businesses with a mixed customer base less attractive, as locals must walk past two blocks of kitschy tourist stores to see a movie, get dinner, or a drink. By finding a way to thoroughly mix the businesses, and their customer bases, the street can be active along its entire length, and allow for people to find parking easier on the block of their choosing. The parking being spread further would calm traffic along all of main street, allowing everyone to enjoy the restaurants, theater and bars, and utilizing the space that has already been built.

Please share thoughts on what your perfect small town downtown would be!


Looking north, there are few empty spaces.


Looking south, the parking is much more available across the street.














Joseph Totten

About Joseph Totten

Joe is a graduate of Civil Engineering-Transportation and Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota, and has a masters degree from Portland State University. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Joe has worked with nonprofits and public agencies in MSP and Portland.