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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.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.

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