I moved to St. Paul last summer for work. Sadly, after just one short year, I am once again relocating for work, so I am leaving St. Paul. I came here from a large East Coast city where I relied on walking, biking, and transit to get everywhere because I don’t own a car. That’s what I’ve done here in the Twin Cities as well, although it hasn’t always been easy.
While I am excited for my next chapter in life, I will miss St. Paul quite a bit. It left a great impression on me in many ways, and I wanted to share my thoughts as a relative newcomer on what the city does (and doesn’t) do well urbanism-wise. St. Paul bills itself as “the most livable city in America”. That’s not a quantifiable claim, obviously. But from a qualitative perspective, does St. Paul live up to its own tagline?
One caveat: Although obviously a huge factor in livability, I’m not going to discuss St. Paul’s housing market. It is too complex for this post, and many more knowledgeable people have written extensively on the topic here on streets.mn. (Plus, my views are a bit skewed based on several years of living in one of the most expensive cities in the country.)
What St. Paul Does Well
The park system. So, this is probably the most obvious one. There’s a reason St. Paul has the second-highest ranked municipal park system in the United States (beating out Minneapolis, which sits at #3)! There are so many fantastic parks here, large and small, scattered all over the city. They provide wonderful opportunities for recreation and relaxation while combating the urban heat island effect. My favorites? Mears, Rice, and Raspberry Island Parks downtown. Hidden gems? Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary in North End and Mattocks Park in Mac-Grove. It is also great to see the city continue to invest in opening new parks, such as the Midway Peace Park.
The trail system. St. Paul is also known as an excellent city for biking (ranked #18 in 2018), in large part due to the Grand Rounds network and other off-street, multi-use trails. And 2020 was a great year for biking in St. Paul, as the city opened 20 miles of new bike infrastructure, half of it fully-protected. Several of these trails, including Johnson Parkway, Wheelock Parkway, Como Avenue, and Ayd Mill Road, are some of the best examples of urban bike infrastructure I’ve ever ridden in the United States. Wide, well-paved, with (generally) well-designed intersections, although there’s definitely room for improvement in spots. The prevalence and increasing connectivity of these trails, especially on the East Side, make it really easy to traverse wide swaths of the city without doing much on-street riding. A huge asset not only for recreational riders and bike commuters, but also folks who don’t feel comfortable riding in mixed traffic.
Small-scale retail in residential neighborhoods. This is mainly a benefit of its pre-war grid system and (surviving) urban fabric, but I love how many small retail locations you can find in otherwise residential neighborhoods. These locations not only provide great local amenities for residents, but add to walkability, streetscape diversity, and economic resilience. This type of residential-commercial neighborhood mixing is not something you see much of in post-war developments. They also make for good spots to implement tactical traffic calming improvements.
Street tree canopy (some neighborhoods). Certain parts of St. Paul have absolutely phenomenal tree coverage. Half the charm of walking or biking through Cathedral Hill or Mac-Grove consists of the wonderful trees that provide plentiful shade and natural beauty. This is not the case in all of St. Paul, however (see below), and of course the Emerald Ash Borer is a huge issue that threatens the continued vitality of St. Paul’s urban tree canopy.
The transit system. Coming from a city with an extensive metro / bus network, I was at first a little concerned about the ease of getting around St. Paul without a car. After all, as much as I’d like to, I can’t use my bike for every trip! However, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of coverage by Metro Transit. I might have a different opinion if I had to rely on the bus or light rail every day, but for running errands or getting around generally, I think St. Paul certainly does a decent job compared to most American cities (the Twin Cities metro had a pre-COVID transit modeshare of about 4.8 percent—dismal by developed world standards but pretty good by US standards). Again, the grid system probably helps, but I’m also a big fan of Metro Transit’s fare system—the To-Go Cards are convenient to use, intuitive, and well-integrated across multiple modes. Also, I’ve found the transit operators are super nice! Favorite bus line? The 62 for the views going across the Mississippi.
The coffee scene. In my humble opinion you can’t have a truly excellent city without a solid local coffee scene that provides a host of third space options. I think St. Paul definitely punches above its weight when it comes to good coffee roasters and coffee shops. St. Anthony Park and Mac-Grove are particularly blessed with a solid density of local coffee places. My favorites? Bootstrap Coffee Roasters for the quality of their roasts, JS Bean Factory for their outdoor patio, Caydence Records & Coffee for their unique aesthetic, and Claddagh Coffee for their freshly-baked scones!
Where St. Paul Can Improve
I’ll preface this section by acknowledging that much of what St. Paul struggles with from an urbanism perspective stems from the destructive and racist legacy of urban renewal, from the leveling of neighborhoods to build the Capitol Mall to the destruction of Rondo to build I-94. Repairing much of the damage will take a lot of time and money (like with the Rondo Land Bridge proposal), and of course the city will never be able to regain even a fraction of what was lost. That said, here are some things I think St. Paul should continue to focus on going forward.
Disparity in park access and equity. While the park system here is truly outstanding, equity in park access remains an issue. Neighborhoods comprised of a majority of people of color have 30% less park space compared to the city median. The silver lining of this metric is that St. Paul does better than Minneapolis on this front, where the figure is 58%. Still, more work needs to be done, and the opening of the Midway Peace Park should hopefully help narrow the gap.
The best off-street trails rarely connect to important job clusters or retail destinations. While they are amazing places to bike, trails like Johnson Parkway, Wheelock Parkway, and the Mississippi River trails by and large are much better-suited for recreational riding as opposed to commuting or just traveling around the city. They largely weave through park space or low-density, single-family home neighborhoods. Some notable exceptions to this are the Capitol City Bikeway downtown as well as the new Ayd Mill Road trail. But if you want to do some shopping on Grand, hit up a restaurant on University, or bike to work anywhere outside of downtown, it’s not always easy to do so in a low stress manner unless you are willing to meander through residential backstreets. The intrusive presence of highways throughout the city as well as dangerous, high-speed stroads like Snelling, Lexington, and West 7th certainly don’t make things easier.
I’m not sure if these factors at all impacted Nice Ride pulling out of St. Paul, but it’s a huge shame that the city doesn’t have a bike share system. I used bike share quite frequently in my former city, and would have loved to have done so here. Alas, I was forced to turn to scooters at times!
St. Paul is plagued by an excess of surface parking and parking ramps. Due to a history of bad land use policies like minimum parking requirements, approximately 8% of St. Paul’s land area consists of surface parking, with another 25% of land taken up by roads. Surface parking lots spread everything out, making it less practical or feasible to navigate the city in anything but a car. They also create dead spaces in the urban fabric that result in increased safety concerns. Not to mention they suck up heat in Minnesota’s increasingly-warm summers and are a disaster from a purely aesthetic perspective. I mean, just look at the Midway area:
The Minnesota Capitol Area, as well as adjacent Lafayette Park are also largely islands of nothingness that make getting in or out of downtown on foot or by bike a pain. Bill Lindeke has written an excellent piece on why Minnesota’s capitol area is so terrible when compared to Wisconsin’s.
Thankfully, St. Paul may finally start to reverse some of this damage by following Minneapolis in eliminating minimum parking requirements altogether. Also, the state Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB) has some exciting plans to knit together a piece of the Capitol area by redeveloping the now-vacant Sears site into a connected urban neighborhood with a public park at the center.
The skyway system is an eyesore and kills street life in downtown St. Paul. Literally the only reason I’ve ever had to use to use the skyway was to go to my dentist. I hate how the skyways remove foot traffic and retail frontage from downtown, leaving much of the streetscape consisting of parking ramps and blank street walls. It is also a very inaccessible system to enter from the street as a pedestrian—signage is terrible and it seems like the system is primarily intended to be self-contained. You drive in, park in a ramp, enter the skyway, go to your job or errands, return to your car, and leave. I agree with much of what Bill Lindeke says in his 99 PI interview on the skyway systems of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The cities would be much better off if the skyways came down over time.
I also don’t buy the “it gets cold here” argument. I’ve lived in several cities, a few of which experience quite cold winters and more snow than St. Paul. None of them had skyways, and people managed perfectly fine. Honestly, for all the talk of Minnesota having harsh winters, I’ve found Minnesotans—at least those in the Twin Cities—to be pretty wimpy when it comes to cold weather. Most complain about it constantly and never want to venture outside to go anywhere, instead electing to travel everywhere in the pampered comfort of their cars. I walked to work several days this winter when the temperatures were minus 10 degrees or less and it was totally fine, refreshing even. But I digress.
So, is St. Paul the most livable city in America? Maybe, maybe not. But I absolutely loved living here for a year and will miss it dearly. It’s a great city that has a lot to offer and generally affords its residents a very high quality of life. I still plan to stay on top of urbanism/housing/transportation developments in St. Paul (and remain a regular reader of streets.mn). Who knows, I might end up back here one day! I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that idea.