Temporary Park, Permanent Impact: An Experiment of Public Space in Downtown St. Paul

[Part of the Saint Paul Field Guide to Public Spaces, put together by a geography class at Macalester College in fall 2018. See introduction here.]

By Ellie Hohulin

Urban Flower Field, located on the site of Pedro Park, exists temporarily in downtown St. Paul, or as “temporary” as you could call a five-year existence. Simple materials dot this tiny park — which doubles as a public art project — with movable chairs, flowers, seasonally community-painted rocks and a gravel pathway corresponding with the Fibonacci Sequence-inspired mural on the wall.

This park typifies what it means to create urban spaces that are impermanent in today’s society, becoming a means for civic engagement and community building for a developing urban center. Urban Flower Field and sites like it are critical to reimagining public spaces and building more inclusive cities.

Figure 1. The park focuses on three elements: movable chairs, flowers and a mural

Figure 1. The park focuses on three elements: movable chairs, flowers and a mural.

Inspired by the desire to turn something unused into a pocket park, urban artist Amanda Lovelee designed this space as a temporary solution to an empty lot that was moving slowly toward becoming a park. The lot, located at the southwest corner of 10th and Robert streets in downtown St. Paul, was previously the Pedro Luggage and Briefcase Center. Once the building was demolished, the space was left to the city, under the condition that it become a public green space.

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Figure 2. Pedro Park is in downtown St. Paul, adjacent to residential buildings and two blocks from the Green Line.

The area surrounding Pedro Park has rapidly changed in the past few years, becoming a vibrant and fairly busy area within an otherwise quiet downtown. The only grocery store downtown is directly adjacent to Pedro, with residential developments and street-level restaurants filling the rest of the block, many of them with windows facing the park. Three park visitors I talked to on a warm autumn day were spending time in the park as they waited to eat at one of the nearby restaurants. This unique placement downtown, with neighboring businesses and residential buildings adjacent to the park but few skyways nearby, forces people to walk on the street and, therefore, utilize this public space.

According to the Public Art St. Paul website, 6,000 people live within three blocks of the park, 4,000 people work within walking distance and 9,900 cars use the adjacent Robert Street daily. The park is linked to a variety of transit modes, providing the option for people to engage with the space, beyond the parking lots that form Pedro’s border. Buses are close by, the Metro Transit Green Line is only two blocks away and the red-dotted mural is visible from the highway.

Based on conversations I had with visitors to the park, the red-dotted mural draws people into this space, especially those who are not local to the neighborhood. The aesthetics and color of the pop-y mural offer great appeal as a place for photos, with hundreds of location tags of the park on Instagram; the site is a popular place even for senior-graduation or professional photos. Neighborhood residents, on the other hand, report being drawn to the park more as a public green space, compared to the vacant lot it used to be.

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Figure 3. Street-level businesses and residential buildings face Pedro Park.

The park is an experiment, and one that has succeeded in several ways, even receiving a Great Places award:

  • First, the space is temporary, an urban laboratory, testing ideas and visions of public space. Created on a budget of only $40,000, the park is a low-risk way to study how people use space, what the public wants out of a park and how temporary ideas can be the solution to seemingly permanent problems. Rather than walking past a gravel lot every day, people experience a space that beautifies the area and provides a place for gathering and civic engagement.
  • Flowers constitute the second part of the experiment. Until summer 2018, Public Art St. Paul was partnering with the University of St. Thomas to understand soil remediation in public spaces. The flower plots of the Urban Flower Field gave St. Thomas students the opportunity to research how flowers could transform this space. Since the partnership’s conclusion, local residents and community members now are in charge of planting and maintaining the garden space, giving locals a sense of commitment to the park, exemplified by the number of people I talked to who were from the area. Beyond the flowers, the space is configured in a spiral, mirroring the mural on the wall, and constructed in a way that is ADA accessible.

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Figure 4. Many of the chairs were blown over on a day when I entered the park.

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Evaluating public spaces

Is this public space helping to create a more inclusive city? That is a primary question of our study, and happily the answer is yes. But what does the future of this space look like? And how can a temporary space have an impact? Examining the star model sheds light on these questions.

Animation ranks highest, receiving five stars. The very nature of this space as temporary gives the potential for multiple options of engagement. Most notably, and central to the park, is the movable furniture. In each of my visits to the park, the chairs were distributed and grouped in different ways, to meet the needs of anyone who might set foot in the park. During one of my visits, a young man grabbed a chair and dragged it to the shade. Two friends walked in and pulled up chairs next to each other.

In theory, a large circle could be formed with all the chairs in the park, creating a space for community conversation or a larger meeting. The flexibility of the space allows it to be utilized in many ways, creating an inclusive environment. Although these movable chairs are a critical asset to the park, they can be unsightly. The wind routinely blows them over, and the seats pool with water after a rainstorm, making them undesirable for sitting.

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Figure 6. & 7. The park configuration and placement of chairs changes day to day, juxtaposed here between my first visit to the park, and my last.

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With three stars each, physical configuration and civility both ranked at the lowest, given the lack of privacy available in this park. The space is a fishbowl, sloping downward in a way that allows anyone walking past to look down and watch. People generally prefer some privacy in public spaces, gathering near trees or by larger structures to feel more secure and less observed. But Pedro lacks shade or privacy, due to its temporary state.

During the past years of flower programming, sunflowers filled most of the garden plots, with many of them towering over 5 feet. That gave visitors small pockets of shade, even in this tree-less park. Smaller plants prevail these days, making the only spots for privacy along the outskirts of the park, near the wall. The park is not elevated, making it easy to miss from the road, but extremely visible when walking on the block adjacent. This visibility also changes with the seasons, as grasses and flowers bloom or die out.

Throughout my eight hours at Pedro in fall 2018, 37 people visited, 22 of those with dogs. As the weather got colder, rainier and finally snowier, visitors to the park decreased, with many saying that the park is packed in the summer but less utilized in the colder months. Most visitors are from the area and use the park for dog walking. Some said they visit the park only with their dogs in tow.

Even so, other visitors use the space for lunches, catching up with friends or just exploring a new urban space, specifically one with bright colors. Many visitors cited the primary color composition as their favorite component of the space, with the flowers, rocks, chairs and mural bringing vibrancy to an otherwise monochromatic landscape. Yellow dots line the sidewalk outside the park, leading passersby into the park and bringing the visual design of Pedro to the much-used sidewalk. Due to the park being small, many people apparently feel comfortable being in it alone. Only five times did I see people enter the park in groups or without a dog.

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Figure 7. Map of Pedro highlighting the paths visitors took through the park during my October 21st visit.

Many of the desire lines within the park point back to this use of the space by humans with dogs. Lots of people choose to circle around the space, using the small grassy areas on the outskirts for their dogs to sniff and do their business. Even the trash can, which unfortunately is underutilized, exists on this route bordering the park.

The spatial patterns of movement through the park highlighted on the desire lines of this mapped visit show the use of space beyond its intended path and construction. I observed no one entering and exiting the park through the prescribed route. This navigation of space was consistent throughout my visits.

St. Paul, like many cities, has 5,000 acres of vacant land, both public and private. Temporary spaces and engaging with a space in transition can be the solution to many of our current urban woes, including the need to aim for more inclusive communities. Temporary spaces can solve permanent problems, giving cities a laboratory to explore what could become permanent features of parks, such as movable chairs. The lack of chairs being stolen from Pedro Park could lead to St. Paul equipping other city parks with lightweight, movable features.

Regardless of what its future may hold, Pedro has served as a laboratory for exploring ideas of what public space is and could be. Temporary public spaces that engage with people — and with art — can continue to make cities more inclusive and livable.

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One Response to Temporary Park, Permanent Impact: An Experiment of Public Space in Downtown St. Paul

  1. Lisa MClasen March 18, 2019 at 5:02 pm #

    Someone did try to steal a few chair stacks at the beginning. Her plan was foiled by a vigilant neighbor. The culprit said her church needed them. True story.

    I live in view of the park. This article is a good synopsis. The only thing I would disagree with is the feeling of privacy within ‘the bowl’. The sunflowers added to privacy, but the depression makes the space feel somewhat enclosed. You can see everything on the sidewalks and streets without feeling exposed.

    I will miss looking out at the mural, I doubt much of it can be preserved.

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