Seven Urbanism Lessons from the Minnesota State Fair

Minnesota State FairMuch like Al’s Breakfast, the State Fair revels running against the conventional wisdom about what Minnesotans want in an urban experience. That’s one of the big reasons I enjoy going, and make sure to do so each year.

There’s a lot that urban designers and decision makers can learn from the fairgrounds, and here are seven “fair points” that I’ve gleaned over the years…

1. If you create a good place, parking doesn’t much matter

During most of the calendar year, in nearly every neighborhood meeting, online comment thread, and chat with a local business person, I hear the clear message that congestion-free traffic and easy-slash-free parking are the most important things to the success of a place. You’d think that nobody will go to a destination or move to a neighborhood if they can’t park easily for free by the door, or have to deal with the slightest amount of inconvenience.

And then, each year, millions of people line up for the State Fair. Obviously, it’s extremely hard to get to the fair and expensive-slash-imposisble to park. People walk for a mile to get to the fair only to pay to enter and walk around some more.

Why? Because the Fair is unique and the experience is worth it. If you create a great place, it will trump traffic and parking.

2. Contrary to popular belief, people like crowds

Minnesota State Fair Parade“Nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded” is a sentiment I hear all the time in reference to active parts of the city like Uptown or Downtown or wherever. (It’s all relative.)

It’s true that some people don’t like crowds, and avoid densely-people’d spaces. And that’s fine. If people prefer isolated quietude, there are certainly many choices available to them.

But for many others, crowds are a feature not a bug. Many people in Minnesota do, in fact, enjoy crowds. As William H. Whyte once said, “what attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

In short, people like people. In particular, people like watching people. At root, this is what the State Fair is all about. And it’s what living in a city is all about, as well.

3. Many small-scale businesses are better than one or two large ones

To me, the State Fair is all about having hundreds of tiny little attractions instead of one or two large ones. Yet sadly, fine-grained, bottom-up urbanism is increasingly rare in this day and age, where consolidation and centralization are the norm. That’s one of the things that makes the Fair so attractive to me!

Thankfully, there are trends running against the economic currents, where small-scale diversity is alive and well. For example, farmers’ markets, food trucks, or “food hall”-style places like the Midtown Global Market or the (soon to open) Keg & Case market in Saint Paul are all flourishing. I am glad that opportunities remain for small-scale low-overhead enterprises to find footholds in our cities, because much of the time, the kinds of buildings that traditionally harbor small-scale retail are vanishing from commercial streets.

(See also: the history of downtown Minneapolis.)

4. Benches are a secret to walkability

Makeshift seating at the Minnesota State FairAnyone who’s been to the fair knows how wonderful benches can be. Sitting on a bench after walking at the fair is like drinking a beer after mowing the lawn. After a mile of sore feet, the feeling of having your body supported by something besides your legs is unmistakeable.

The lesson is that any walkable city should have benches, ledges, or other sittable spaces available with regular frequency. Ideally these should be free to use and open to the public, and placed in comfortable spaces.

5. No cars is a relief

One of my many pet peeves is the whole “distracted pedestrian” narrative that only seems to be getting worse as our cities are struggling to reconcile technologies — the car and the smart phone –that are fundamentally at odds with each other.

Well, every pedestrian at the fair is a distracted pedestrian, and yet nobody gets hurt.

Like crowds, distracted pedestrians are a feature, not a bug. We want them!

The problem, of course, is cars. If you want to create a vibrant walkable place, you have to slow cars down to the point where people can window shop, carry food, and have conversations while walking around. Taming the cars to creating safe spaces for the full social spectrum of street life should be the goal in any walkable area, especially in a downtown.

6. Strike a balance between the old and the new

Minnesota State Fair CrowdTo me, the State Fair offers a nice balance of tradition plus change. The fair and its vendors are neither ossified in amber, nor a place that thoughtlessly sheds its past. From off-hand conversations that I’ve had over the years, I know this balance is something that the Fair decision-makers work hard at striking.

I mean, personally, I could not care less about the “latest food trends” or new rides or whatever. But certainly these things appeal to someone. Just keep your damn hands off Ye Olde Mill, and I’ll be happy.

7. People will walk a lot more than they say they will

Despite millions of years of evolution, walking is not something that comes naturally to many people in Minnesota. The impression I get in conversations and online is that most people would do almost anything to avoid walking through a city, and would sooner die-slash-drive to Woodbury than park their car two blocks from a store.

And yet, in a walkable place like the State Fair, people walk for miles until their feet are sore. And this isn’t just “young and fit” people that I’m talking about. People who are all kinds of shapes, ages, and abilities end up walking (or scooting) around the State Fair without much problem.

It’s an inspiring sight and gives me hope for cultivating a culture of walking in Minnesota. The amount that people walk is one of those things that is massively dependent on place. Walking is a cultural thing as much as anything else.  In some cultures, walking a mile or two is not a big deal and hardly worth mentioning. Yet in Minnesota, much of the time, walking a two blocks to reach a popular restaurant seems like an affront, worthy at the very least of a five-minute conversation about the decline of society.

To me, the State Fair proves that, , if you give them a good reason to do so and a welcoming environment, Minnesotans will walk after all. Thank god.

People Walking at the Minnesota State Fair

In conclusion…

Well, that’s it. Maybe I’ll learn something new this time at the fair, so stay tuned.

If you go yourself, look around and ask yourself whether or not our cities and neighborhoods could use a dose of Fairground vitality. Feel free to share your observations in the comments below.

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48 thoughts on “Seven Urbanism Lessons from the Minnesota State Fair

  1. Bob Roscoe

    very nice article. At first I thought it was Babe Ruth who said “Nobody goes there anymore – its too crowded.” But it was Yogi Berra.

  2. Stu

    Ahh Bill. I hate to point out that the State Fair happens during the summer. In the winter no one will walk at all. At all.

    We need more drive thrus places. Like actual drive throughs, picture car washes but instead of getting your car washed, you get to drive right in and park, then drive right out. The traditional drive through is too cold for me, all that window rolling down and reaching and what not. Brrrrrr.

    I know that sarcasm is a violation of the forum rules but I had someone look at me like my pet died when I explained that I have a detached garage. The horror of walking, ever so briefly, outside in the winter.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I walk more in the winter than I do in the summer (because I bike in the summer and take the bus in the winter).

      Weirdly, I find walking warmer than driving in the winter. If you drive, you have to go get in a cold car (scientifically proven (?) to be the coldest of environments) and wait for ages for it to warm up. Worse, you’ve dressed for the assumption that you’ll be warm in the car, but then you’re just sitting there in the cold. And you eventually have to get out of the car, often times not in a heated environment.

      It’s a lot warmer to just dress warmly and them move around and have your body create heat to warm you.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        Yeah walking can keep you warm in winter, even in single digit temps (as long as the wind isn’t whipping…)

        But why are we thinking about this in August?

        1. Stu

          That is my fault. Sorry.

          But yes winter walking is the best. I enjoy it.

          As to the article at hand, it was quite good.

          My only suggestion is that on weekends the Fair needs to deploy some sort of multilevel street grid. Think Wacker Drive in Chicago. More room for everyone! Fewer dirty looks for those of us pushing strollers! Another Sweet Marthas!

          1. Skyway Scampering

            “My only suggestion is that on weekends the Fair needs to deploy some sort of multilevel street grid.”

            State Fair skyways would be distinctly Minnesotan.

    2. Craig

      I enjoy walking a mile to work EVERY work day of the year (and home again for lunch). My wife and I hit up a few Outdoor Christmas markets every year too…

  3. Anon

    This is a great article because it shows how the state-fair-attendees (many of whom are probably not urbanists) actually seek out urbanist features.

    It warms the cockles of my heart to imagine a NIMBY riding home on a bus, happily-weary from a day of walking, suddenly realizing in horror that their joyful day was created from the components of their nightmares.

  4. Christa MChris Moseng

    This is right on target, and there are probably even more that can be added, including:

    • People will bike no matter how hostile you make it (removing the como bike lane and forcing bikers from the west to share lanes with a stream of shuttle buses, not all of which give adequate space)–whereas if you put literally any effort into making it less hostile (secure bike corrals) the dividends are multiplied in reduced car trips/demand for parking space.

    • People will use mass transit when you make it frequent, comfortable, and convenient, and appropriately price parking.

    • Walkability entails having a variety of appealing destinations, closer together than car-prioritization can ever allow.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Someone tweeted the other day that the parking price for official Fair parking lots is $14 a day, very very cheap. Meanwhile, at private lots across the street, parking is $40 or more.

      Just another example of how local governments undervalue parking.

      1. Karl

        The $14/day for the on-site lots is extremely undervalued, but why are the fair’s 34 park and ride lots scattered around the East Metro free of charge? This appears to be quite the generous freebie. For the cost of providing these, a charge to adults riding the shuttle on Saturdays and Sundays at minimum doesn’t seem unreasonable.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Same reasons park and rides for downtown express buses are free. We want to encourage people to use them rather than driving their car downtown or to the Fair. If you charge for them a non-zero number of people will decide just to drive all the way.

        2. Brian

          Up until around 1990 or so fairgrounds parking was free and a very limited park and ride system was 50 cents per person. The Fair made a bold move and decided to charge for parking and use the parking revenue to pay for a greatly expanded free park and ride system. I am not sure if the State Fair Express buses started the same year or not.

          The State Fair decided to work with Metro Transit to provide the park and ride service as Metro Transit had the buses, drivers, and dispatch system to make it work. It also helped that the Transitway had just been built. The Fair had to hire private buses for the park and ride after some years as it was determined that Metro Transit could bid less due to getting their buses essentially for free through federal grants.

          The Fair still offered free parking for cars with four passengers for a number of years to encourage car pooling, but they charge all cars now. some cars would just pick up pedestrians to avoid paying for parking.

          1. John

            Brian, you got this mostly right. Federal law prohibits Metro Transit, and any other public transit provider, from providing charter service when private companies are willing and able to provide the service. Therefore, Metro Transit is not allowed to provide the free shuttle service paid for by the fair. They are allowed to provide the express service because it is paid for by the rider and Metro Transit (if there is any deficit).

            1. Brian

              My understanding is the reason Metro Transit and other transit systems are not allowed to provide these services is because a public transit providers gets lots of taxpayer money and thus can provide the service for a lower cost. For example, they have no cost of capital for buses since the federal government provides grants for new buses every 12 years.

      2. Brian

        The State Fair is authorized by the state, but is hardly a government operation. They get no tax revenue from the state and are run by an independent board.

        Most of the nearby parking seems to be in the $20 to $25 range. $40 was probably on a busy weekend day. The State Fair should be doing dynamic parking pricing, but how do you communicate that? If parking prices increase as the lots fill up then you’re going to have upset people as they find out others paid less than they did on the same day.

        People would just have to accept that the busier things are the more they have to pay. It would cost the Fair some money to set up so ticket sellers are charging the right price and would probably need dynamic signs with the current price.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

          That’s fine, but they kind of run Falcon Heights… I wish they were better at managing transportation. I’m sure it’s a huge headache and challenge, but even someone like myself (not an expert) can see things they have been doing wrong for years.

        2. Frank Phelan

          Pricing should change by the day, according to the historical attendance patterns. Sure there is variability, but simplicity is good too.

          If people choose to drive instead of paying to park at a park and ride, demand for on site (or nearby) parking would go up. So people would decide to pay 3 or 5 bucks to park at the park and ride rather than $20 to park at the fair.

      3. Monte Castleman

        The market rate for State fair Parking is probably more than $14, but it’s probably not $40 either. I get the impression those private lots are full of people desperate because the official lots are full. If you announce the State Fair lots were $40 in advance I’m not sure you’d fill them, more and more people would park in the neighborhoods and walk or decide the State Fair isn’t worth it and stay home.

  5. Jack

    Great post, Bill.

    I used to love Ye Olde Mill, but they did kind of wreck it with a bad paint job.

    My favorite part of the fair is revisiting the old pavilions. My favorite is the Fine Arts Pavilion, which I think is one of the oldest. I also love the WPA-Era pavilions that remind me of the Wicked Witch of the West’s Art-Deco castle in The Wizard of Oz. I also love the “newer: Creative Activities building (1960s-70s) because I used to enter school art projects there and took home a few ribbons when I was a kid.

    I miss some of the old, smaller booths that have been mostly replaced with flashier, new ones, and I really miss the old Penny Arcade.

    Oh well, I’ll keep going back.

  6. Brian

    I dislike huge crowds and the only way I would visit on a weekend would be if I went early morning and left by 1 pm. I knew plenty of people who will never go to the fair because they dislike crowds and the hassle of getting there.

    After the problems with opening day bus service and the traffic near the fair I suspect there are people who won’t be going back. I know someone who said they had to wait an hour to get a bus at one of the free park and rides. Plenty of reports about huge lines and hour plus waits for the State Fair Express buses.

    1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      I dislike crowds, too, and that is why I prefer county fairs. All the same stuff as the state fair, without the crowds.

    2. Matty LangMatty Lang

      I went on Friday (lowest attendance day due to weather) and it was a very nice, not super crowded experience. I also took regular Metro Transit routes (Green + A Lines) instead of the Fair shuttles and got dropped off at the main gate after a 25 minute trip. I guess the key to making it super easy is not involving a car at all.

  7. Jim Welsch

    I think you nailed it, Bill. The only thing I would add that I truly love is that the fair feels like the most diverse place in the state, easily, at least in the central parts of the fairgrounds.

  8. Monte Castleman

    The State Fair is the exception that proves the rule. Just because people will put up with not having parking, put up with crowding. put up with stopping at a bunch of small stores instead of getting all their shopping done at Walmart or Target, or walk all over creation one day a year doesn’t mean they’d be willing to do it every day. I go to the fair like it seems everyone else, but I get home to my space and don’t want to go back again until next year.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      There are lots of great places that people will walk to, streets, restaurants, or parts of the city where the attraction is worth some extra effort.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      But is it really an exception? Lots of people show up to other events where parking is an issue and it’s going to be crowded. Sports events, Pride, Aquatennial, Uptown Art Fair, St Patrick’s Day Parade. Heck, even just Open Streets gets pretty big crowds where the main draw is that there won’t be any cars.

      1. Janne

        Speaking of it not being an exception, we see people want this every day and weekend, year-round.

        Heck – we see it at LynLake, Uptown, Dinkytown, Warehouse District, NorthEast, Grand Avenue, Lowertown, and more places all the time.

  9. Serafina ScheelSerafina Scheel

    My family of five drove to the State Fair this year after years of struggling with family biking or bussing. Found free street parking, and did the handicapped dropoff/pickup for my 85-year-old mother-in-law. It felt ridiculous because we are only two miles away. The insanity of the traffic around the Fair makes the absence of cars inside even more of a relief.

  10. Brian

    I worked for State Fair as a summer job for seven years. The irony was we drove everywhere on the fairgrounds before the Fair itself started. None of the workers would ever consider walking around the fairgrounds and it would have been a huge productivity loss if we did walk.

      1. Brian

        Trucks were used outside of fair time. I believe they use golf carts or similar during the fair now unless an urgent repair requires a large vehicle. There has been a big push for probably 15 years to minimize vehicle traffic on most of fairgrounds during the fair. The fair even built a new road to keep cars headed to parking lots off the streets used by pedestrians.

        I worked for the fair during the summer for seven years and then worked only during the fair for another sixteen years after that until 2010.

  11. Karen Nelson

    One additonal thing I would highlight about the appeal of the Fairgrounds is the trees. I went on beautiful, not very hot day and still loved getting under the shade of the trees. Fair does a lot to maintain those trees.

    The trees soften a lot of the grittiness of the Fairgrounds. The Miday gets by without them via lots of color and motion but rest of fair would look pretty sad, nit so architecturally appealing if not for trees.

    Also, think of how fair does “green space”. It really doesn’t have parks but the fair has some nice landscaped seatring areas, patios tucked in in small spaces- never enough seats for all those people but still, without much space, carve out pleasant alcoves. This is more like old cities that have tight buildings but still manage to squesse plants and sidewalk cafes in, that make all the difference.

  12. Karen Nelson

    Another thing this article has made me think about is the economy of the state fair, as Bill you note the granularity of the small businesses and the balance of the businesses, old and new, etc.and then the issues of how transportation is/is not market driven, tand what happens just ituside the fair.

    The fair is a classic mixed economy. It is centrally planned but market driven. Land is owned by non-profit, nit by individual lot owners. Many business thrive there but Fair has huge power to yank them, mow down their place of business etc.

    Imagine if a whole city was run the way the fair is?

    Want to open a business in our city, well does it serve the community balance?

    Want to take a primo location?.don’t buy it from last occupant but pay rent/cut of revenue to public owners of that space.

    If whole neighborhood is run down and not working and doesn’t have great historic, traditional affection according to central planners, tear it down and start over with new leases.

    Don’t let big chains come in instead have preferences to small local businesses.

    Fair repsonds to what is popular and makes good revenue but also what brings best overall fair experience. The mix/balance thing.

    Imagine instead if fair was run like our cities and a lot that could be sold to private hands and they could do whatevr was zoned with that spot, no restrictions. Wouldn’t the inside of the fair start to look more like the outside on Snelling during the fair? Wouldn’t things that made most money individually but have less appealing mix, be the norm?

    We are too limited in how we think about managing our land, cities, – private owned lots and zoning and public streets built for primarily for cars everywhere are the prevailing ways we manage our cities, but the fair shows whole other ways we could arrange our cities and economies.

    1. Monte Castleman

      That’s another example of how the fair is an exception that proves the rule. Maybe people enjoy this for one day buying trinkets and junk food, but how many people would put up with stopping at one booth for light bulbs, another booth for meat, another booth for bread, another for socks, another for canned goods all year round? And not being able to park by any of them. And paying a lot more money than what they could be bought for at Walmart, all in one trip.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        That sounds a lot like a classic main street. You park once, shop or hang out at seven places, and it’s a place that attracts people for the experience as much as the utility.

  13. Frank Phelan

    I used to use the free park and rides. Sometimes I used the one close to my house, sometimes I drove to one on Larpentuer not far from the fair.

    What I didn’t like about them was the unpredictability. I can’t recall right now if they advertised a certain regularity as far as every 15 minutes, or twenty minutes. But I could easily wait 20-25 minutes. If you pull up as the bus is pulling away, and the next bus is lagging a little, it felt like a waste of time.

    Sometimes I parked at one of the free park and rides on Energy Park Drive, close to Snelling. It was close enough that if I didn’t want to wait for the bus, I could just walk to the gate.

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