Now more than ever, we need A Field Guide to Public Spaces

-Editors note: is once again presenting essays on Twin Cities’ public space from students at Macalester College. Read through all the essays from this and previous years here.

“No justice, no streets!” This pronouncement rang out during the many demonstrations for racial justice that have taken place since the summer of 2020 in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. Such demonstrations took place in the everyday space of the city: streets, parks, and parking lots. They also took place in the monumental public spaces outside of city hall and on the steps of the state capitol. These activities speak to the importance of public spaces in our lives for enacting American ideals of democracy. These activities further raise questions about how and when public spaces serve such important functions and how they might be bolstered to help realize the promise of democracy in a pluralistic society. In this piece, I present A Field Guide to Public Spaces, which has been created to engage these issues and questions.   

The events of 2020, in both the Twin Cities and elsewhere, have brought renewed interest in and enthusiasm for urban public space and added new pressures and constraints on how public spaces are used and by whom. This mix of opportunities and constraints for using public space show up in the public health concerns surrounding the spread of COVID-19. During the lockdowns of 2020, many people sought serenity and recreation in outdoor public spaces, which added unprecedented demand on these facilities. The economic fallout of pandemic shutdowns and adjustments to public health precautions exposed the massive degree of precarity we live with in 21st century America, leading thousands of unhoused people to seek refuge in the public spaces of the city. And many of the unhoused were eventually policed out these spaces, compounding their plight. In the parlance of our times, public space is having a moment. Are we prepared to understand deeply what this means for our society’s well-being, aspirations, and foundational values? 

The Field Guide for Public Spaces provides resources, ideas, and detailed case studies that offer guidance and food for thought that help prepare us to address such issues. The Field Guide was created to examine the state of public space in St. Paul and Minneapolis by engaging an overarching question while studying specific instances of public space: Are we making inclusive decisions in the design and maintenance of public space that promote a democratic society in St. Paul and Minneapolis? This question matters because public spaces demarcate who is included and who is excluded from “the public.” Moreover, as the events of 2020 have shown, public spaces serve as a critical piece of infrastructure for political voice and circulating social critique and commentary, and constructing alternatives to the status quo. In effect, everyone in the United States has been called to understand and support how public spaces are a part of how – and whether – our society lives up to its ideals. 

In response to this call, the Field Guide has been created and maintained by students and faculty in the Geography Department at Macalester College. The Field Guide serves as a resource for evaluating the “inclusiveness” of public space and examines how specific public spaces in Minneapolis and St. Paul perform along dimensions of access and inclusiveness. Students labored intensively during June and July of 2021 to investigate the state of play in public space in the Twin Cities through detailed case studies of specific sites. Informed by over a dozen hours of field observation for each site, the essays in the Field Guide investigate the complex ways public space promotes and hinders social inclusion and democratic ideals. 

As a matter of course, the investigations reported in the essays are informed by current social science frameworks for examining the inclusiveness of public spaces. The essays do not intend to declare places as good or bad. Rather, they focus on how aspects of design, management, and use define who is included in the public. Through this, the A Field Guide to Public Spaces analyzes how public and private decisions shape the building of a city that works for everyone. 

We invite you to read and engage the essays in this collection and consider how the questions and lessons they present apply to you and the public spaces that are a part of the city in which you live. Indeed, it seems that how we manage and use public spaces will have a profound effect on the health of our democracy, both now and in the future.

-Dan Trudeau, Macalester College 

Macalester Student Perspectives

About Macalester Student Perspectives

Contributing writers to this column were college students enrolled at Macalester College in Saint Paul. These posts were part of classes in the Environmental Studies, Geography, and Urban Studies Programs.