Seems Worth Thinking About This Expo 2023 Thing

Earlier this year, Minnesota was chosen as one of three finalists in the bidding to host Expo 2023. Every five years, some city hosts a World’s Fair, and sometime in between those five year events is a smaller expo. That’s what Minnesota is bidding to host. The other finalists are Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Łódź, Poland, and the host will be decided in November.

The Expo is the odd international event that promises to not be a complete massacre for public finances. By law in the US, funding for all expo and world’s fair projects has to come from the private sector. The Minnesota bid committee seems to have had good success at assembling a pretty formidable roster of business and political figures to back the bid. Who knows, really, but Minnesota seems to have a decent chance of winning.

One thing that has been decided is the Expo’s theme. Minnesota has pitched a theme of “Healthy People, Healthy Planet,” which seems a fitting way to stroke the state’s ego as a health and environmental leader.

But there’s a lot we don’t know, especially about the event’s staging. In May of this year, members of the Bureau International des Expositions, who pick the host, apparently toured a proposed expo location “near TCF Bank Stadium.” That site is apparently east of the stadium, and mostly on land owned by the University. Other details that remain to be worked out are what white elephant will be built to mark the occasion. The bidders have envisioned “a prominently located national pavilion [that] will be converted after the Expo into a signature legacy medical technology museum.” That’s not exactly the Space Needle (1962 Seattle), but is clearly better than a doofy golden disco ball (1982 Knoxville).

Should Minnesota win the bid, urbanists have both practical and moral reasons for becoming deeply involved. Hosting an event like an Expo or an Olympics requires land on which to stage the event; land that will be dramatically transformed. Despite the prohibition on public funding, political capital will still be needed to support the bid in a myriad of ways. There is the will and the way to make change happen in the orbit of this event, and it’s therefore critical that people advocate for that change to be positive and to provide benefits that last long beyond the Expo, something that other big international events, especially Olympic games, have catastrophically failed to do.

Especially from a moral and ideological point of view, it is essential that the Expo and urbanist goals be aligned. The Expo’s proposed theme, “Wellness and Well Being for All: Healthy People, Healthy Planet,” is the same theme of most of the writing that is posted to this website. We want healthy communities where people use active transportation and are not hit by cars. We want cities where pollution in our air, ground, and waters is erased, and where the carbon hit to the climate is reduced. These goals merge together often, when we speak about walkability or bicycle infrastructure or density or mass transit.

In 2015, the bid leader and former Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie floated the Arden Hills ammunition site as one of several places being considered as the Expo’s location. It goes without saying, but to host the event at a site accessible only by private car would be completely antithetical to the Expo’s theme. The optimal outcome for people and the planet, in such a scenario, would be if nobody attended. So it was refreshing to hear the land east of TCF Bank Stadium floated as a location. As a baseline, the event would have to be held in a place that is walkable, bikable, and reachable by transit.

(Digression: I’d love to have seen the area around the Minneapolis Farmers Market and the future Royalston SWLRT station transformed, or else the outdated and now-contextually inappropriate Westgate office park demolished and rebuilt, but alas.)

The TCF Bank Stadium location fits that first bill, but so much more could be done. For one, the fair location should be held in, and result in the kind of dense, urban environment that leads to healthy people and a healthier planet. The University of Minnesota has already started talking about a kind of mixed use innovation district/tech incubator on land to the east-southeast of TCF Bank Stadium. (Is this the land that Expo 2023 committee has in mind, or are they looking just to the north, across the light rail tracks?) It would seem to make a tremendous amount of sense if both projects worked side-by-side to create an actual urban district that will host residents and businesses living and working in a healthy, environmentally friendly neighborhood the moment the fair packs up. Traditionally, World’s Fairs have left behind weird parks, with large open voids where there was once programming, and the occasional decaying folly (see: Flushing, Queens, for a classic example). But instead of pitching a bunch of tents in a grassy expanse, why not host pavilions on new streets, in new plazas, and on building decks? Hold the Expo in a site that is already urban, or failing that, have a redevelopment plan ready to go the moment the last visitor leaves.

You could also maybe do something positive for the Minnesota economy. Put aside the almost-certainly-nonsense estimated “economic impact” of the fair in terms of visitors. Think instead about how the hosting of the event could serve as a recruitment tool for health care and green companies. The Expo will, by default, serve in part as an international trade show for technologies and products in health care and green industries. It’s easy to imagine national trade groups scheduling their annual meetings around such an event. But could the event itself, and a new office district, and tied to a major research university, be used as a way to incentivise companies to move headquarters and offices to Minneapolis? Could it be used to convince international companies to open North American offices in Minneapolis?

Hell if I know, but to me, the possibility of having your offices within easy gladhanding distance of the biggest global trade show for exactly what you sell might be a strong attractor.

This is just spitballing, but the potential of this event to create something great, or to instead create a useless park, seems strong incentive for the streets.mn community and others of similar persuasion to get more deeply involved if Minnesota wins the bid.

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7 Responses to Seems Worth Thinking About This Expo 2023 Thing

  1. GlowBoy August 17, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

    I agree it’s really important to be sure we don’t end up with a big white elephant that doesn’t get well used and squeezes out other, better potential uses. Expos don’t have a great track record on this overall, Seattle possibly a major exception: not only the Space Needle but the whole Expo grounds get a fair amount of use for concerts, festivals, sports events, etc.

    And yes, urbanists should be heavily involved. If we play our cards right, we can leverage an event like this to get funding for major infrastructure improvements, as SLC did with the Winter Olympics.

    Agree that Arden Hills would be a ridiculous site for Expo – even if we built LRT out there to serve it!

  2. Matt Eckholm
    Matt Eckholm August 17, 2017 at 3:36 pm #

    U of M Students proposed building the Expo site on top of 35W – let’s do that.
    http://www.designcenter.umn.edu/documents/WorldFairSlides-web.pdf

  3. cobo Rodreges August 18, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

    Wouldn’t the best place be the state fair grounds? Whats the difference between an expo and a fair?

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker August 18, 2017 at 7:22 pm #

      Quite a big difference, and they will both be at the same general time. So they can’t be paired, apparently.

  4. GlowBoy August 18, 2017 at 7:02 pm #

    Hmm, good point. An expo *is* a fair, and we have the second largest fair in the country. It’s well served by transit, with the A-line running by and a massive fleet of shuttle buses running from all over the metro area during the fair. Gee, I wonder if we could hold the Expo there?

  5. Ben August 21, 2017 at 9:45 am #

    I strongly believe there needs to be some discussion with the Fair Foundation on holding it there even if it involves adjusting dates. It’ll be great to have the investments made somewhere Minnesotans frequent and will appreciate them. Second to that, I think this space next to TCF Bank stadium is a great option. It’s one of the few underused properties within city limits and the fairgrounds and campus are readily available. Secondly, I wonder to what extent some of the campus buildings could be used? It’s not like they’re super busy during the summer.

  6. Eric Saathoff
    Eric Saathoff August 30, 2017 at 7:19 am #

    Old 3M site on the East Side of St. Paul is still available. By then we may have the #54 and the Rush Line BRT.

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