-Editor’s note: streets.mn 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.
Como Regional Park is a vast, multifaceted 441-acre park that serves as the centerfold of St. Paul’s vibrant Como Park neighborhood. It is the most heavily used park in Ramsey County, drawing in an estimated 5.1 million visitors annually. It is also the second-most visited park in the greater Twin Cities region, trailing only the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. The park is owned and managed by St. Paul’s Parks and Recreation department, although many different government entities, including the Metropolitan Council and the Como Community Council, contribute to the park in a variety of ways, such as through funding, research, oversight, or advocacy.
As a whole, Como Regional Park is renowned for the Como Zoo and Conservatory and for its golf course. The park also contains a botanical garden and a small amusement park for younger park visitors. Nearby residents enjoy the park’s paved trails, including the 1.6 mile loop that circles the park’s Lake Como. Though Como Regional Park has a lot to offer, this case study specifically examines the area encompassing the Como Lakeside Pavilion, a public gathering space on the western shore of the lake.
The Como Lakeside Pavilion area is delineated by two parking lots to the north and south respectively, Hamm Memorial Waterfall to the west, and Lake Como to the east. The space consists of a set of paved trails for walkers, joggers and bikers; an open green area in the center with some picnic tables for outdoor activities and dining; the pavilion on the east side, which also contains the Dock & Paddle restaurant and restrooms; a lakefront seating area sandwiched between the pavilion and the lake which features the food vendor Lakeside Treats, a public fishing dock, the Wheel Fun Rentals shack, and the private rental dock; and the aforementioned Hamm Memorial Waterfall, an artificial falls, on the west side of the green area opposite the pavilion. Because the space is flanked by two parking lots and connected by a large web of trails, there is no obvious “entrance” to the space.
I visited the Como Pavilion area on seven separate occasions throughout June 2021. For each visit, I recorded the weather conditions and tracked general trends in the number of people and types of activities. Four of my visits took place on weekdays, and the other three were on weekends. I did my best to visit the space at a variety of times, visiting in the morning once, the afternoon four times, and the evening twice. Temperatures during my visits ranged from 77 to 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of my visits occurred during sunny weather.
Throughout these visits, I discovered that the park was generally busier on weekends and in the evenings. Most park visitors I observed were participating in optional, recreational activities, such as walking, cycling, and jogging. Using Jan Gehl’s classifications of types of activities, I consider these activities optional and not necessary because the area surrounding the Como Pavilion is mostly greenspace or residential, so it is unlikely that people would use the space to get to work or school.
Because the space is vast, it is difficult to track and count each individual and their activities, but on a Tuesday afternoon visit in perfect weather, I tallied general activities I saw outside the Pavilion for one hour. By a large majority, most people I counted were walking, followed by people engaging in physical activity (e.g. jogging, rollerblading, playing in the waterfall ponds). I also saw plenty of people walking their dogs and several people bicycling. In addition to this, I saw a lot of children (12 years or younger), a few of whom were masked.
Public Space Grade: OMAI
Recent scholarship on public space concerns the controversial notion that public space as we know it is ending. Scholars like Don Mitchell (2017) argue that as capitalism pervades, our society tends to create more “abstract space,” or spaces of privilege and the free flow of capital. This tendency involves an increase in the privatization of public space and an increasingly narrow definition of the “public.” In order to interrogate this notion of the “end of public space,” it is necessary to analyze and compare our public spaces along various dimensions of publicness.
To grade and compare various public spaces, our class decided to use Florian Langstraat & Rianne van Melik’s (2013) OMAI model of publicness. The OMAI model assesses the publicness of spaces according to four dimensions: ownership, management, accessibility, and inclusiveness. Graphically, dimensions with larger wedges are “more public” in that dimension.
Within the framework of the OMAI model, the Como Pavilion area scores toward “more public” on all four of these dimensions. This scoring is important in the context of the “end of public space” debate because the Como Pavilion area is an example of a space that has a nuanced level of public-private ownership and management. This is also important because the Como Pavilion serves primarily as a space for recreation and leisure rather than functions like democratic engagement. Knowing this, understanding why Como scores high in accessibility and inclusiveness provides valuable insight for academics to assess the state of public spaces in the future, and can help similar spaces to employ strategies to increase their accessibility and inclusiveness.
The Como Pavilion area is almost completely publicly owned, with the St. Paul Parks & Recreation department owning the space and maintaining most of it. However, the Dock & Paddle restaurant and Lakeside Treats food window are operated by a private catering enterprise called Lancer Hospitality and on a lease with the city. The rental facility is owned and operated by a private company called Wheel Fun Rentals.
The city maintains the outdoor areas surrounding the Pavilion. Except for the large Como Park Lakeside Pavilion sign that stands near the facility, there is little in the form of obvious signage denoting public ownership of the space at large. However, there are several smaller signs throughout the park that remind users of the park’s public management. There are also several signs for the Dock & Paddle restaurant outside the Pavilion. Because the space is mostly public but retaining some private ownership aspects, I have graded the Como Pavilion area as a 3 in terms of Ownership.
In terms of management, the Como Pavilion area is relatively lax in terms of signposted regulations—there is no obvious sign at the “entrance” to the space that lists every regulation for the space—but there are visible regulative measures in place, and a list of all the park’s rules and regulations is accessible online. At the times I visited the park, there were vestigial signs from the Covid-19 pandemic warning park-goers to be responsible and stay safe. Additionally, there were dog ordinance signs along the trails, and smaller signs prohibiting parking in the parking lots from 11 p.m. to sunrise.
Security cameras stand over the two parking lots, and the gates to the pavilion are closed on days where no events are taking place, causing confusion about whether the space is open to visitors who are not dining at the restaurant. Despite this, I continued to see people use the space, whether or not they were dining.
Other regulatory signs are evident, such as a sign prohibiting cyclists from locking their bikes to the pavilion gates, or signs imploring visitors to stay on the walking paths near the waterfall. Furthermore, the paved paths have painted symbols and lines on them designating which paths are intended for cyclists or pedestrians, and some biking paths also have arrows indicating which direction cyclists should be heading.
Although much of the space is managed in a public manner, the space retains a mixed level of public-private management with the Dock & Paddle restaurant, the Lakeside Treats window, and the Wheel Fun Rentals shack. Additionally, the space is remotely secured with security cameras, and the space is coded in certain ways to separate and discourage certain uses. Because of this, I can rate the space no higher than a 3 in terms of Management.
Como Pavilion has plenty of positive assets in terms of accessibility. The space is physically accessible to motorists and bicyclists, with lots of parking for vehicles and several bike racks and a large connected trail network for cyclists. The south parking lot even has two parking spots for electric vehicles, each equipped with a charging station. The space is also relatively easily accessible by foot for residents who live around the lake.
There is also a plethora of small luxuries that make the space more accessible. Plenty of seating fills the interior of the pavilion, and nearly all of this seating is movable. There is also plenty of seating outside the pavilion, most of which is also movable. None of the seating in the area appeared to be designed in any particular hostile manner toward houseless people.
Moreover, the space is well-lit during the evening, as plenty of lamp posts pepper the area. In terms of public health accessibility, there are bathrooms below the pavilion, as well as portable toilets outside the pavilion, one of which is handicap accessible.
Despite these positives, I found some hindrances to accessibility in the Como Pavilion area. Namely, the area itself is not easily accessible via public transit. Park-goers seeking to visit the space via transit would likely need to take the 83, 3, or 61 line to a stop at the edge of the park and then walk about a half a mile to the Pavilion. They may even need to take a larger line like the Green Line or the A Line to a stop where they can access one of these routes, which they would then take to a stop at the edge of the park and then walk. According to Google Maps, a typical mid-day weekday trip to the Como Pavilion from my house on Jefferson Avenue in the Macalester- Groveland neighborhood would take longer via public transit than via bicycle, even with St. Paul’s general lack of high-quality north-south bike routes. In order to take the fastest transit route, I would still need to walk almost a half a mile to access the bus, and walk a half a mile once the bus drops me off!
In addition to this, as aforementioned, the gates to the Pavilion are often left closed, leaving the openness of the Pavilion ambiguous to visitors. In these instances, it was difficult to tell if the space was actually open to the public or just to Dock & Paddle patrons.
Furthermore, the space can feel a bit isolated at times. Because it is walled in by the waterfall ridge and Lake Como, the space is really only accessible from the north and south. The waterfall ridge provides a bluff that makes the space feel sheltered, and the lake provides a buffer that perforates the general connectivity of the space.
Finally, on all of my visits except the last few, several amenities within the space were closed or not working. For instance, the Wheel Fun Rentals shack was closed for at least my first four visits, and the Lakeside Treats vendor was also closed until my final park visit. The public drinking fountain outside of the pavilion near the dock area was also not working until my final visit. I speculate these circumstances may be seasonal or consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thus, despite all of its positive accessibility assets, I cannot grade the Como Pavilion area as a 4 in terms of Accessibility because of the space’s lack of transit connectivity, secured landscaping, and inconsistent provision of facilities. I do believe the space is accessible enough to be a 3.
I found the Como Pavilion area very inclusive in many different ways. First, throughout my visits to the space, I saw many different activities taking place. The space is designed to accommodate a variety of uses, including all three of Jan Gehl’s types of activities. Most commonly, I saw people walking, jogging, cycling, dog walking, playing in the waterfall ponds, and socializing. These are activities that the Como Pavilion area is intended to accommodate.
Beyond these activities, I also saw plenty of other recreational activities, such as fishing and kayaking, and even inside the Pavilion, there were plenty of games like cornhole and jenga that I often saw children playing. The Pavilion also hosts other uses, like the public Indonesian Gamelan concert I attended for one of my visits, or private events like parties and weddings.
When not in use for events like these, the Pavilion appears to be generally used as Dock & Paddle seating. In this sense, much of the space is incredibly versatile. There is also informative signage in the greater space that informs visitors about the native plant gardens throughout the park.
Furthermore, I saw people utilizing the space in several other ways that do not necessarily reflect the intention behind the design of the space. On multiple occasions, I saw people taking photographs near the waterfall. Throughout my visits, I witnessed a family photoshoot, a wedding photoshoot, and a graduation photoshoot. On hot days, I often saw children playing in the waterfall pools. Though it was unclear as to whether or not this was prohibited, there were no signs specifically urging park-goers not to play in these pools. I also saw someone utilizing the trees in the space to set up a hammock.
Second, the clientele of the space is representative of the general public. Although Como Regional Park as a whole contains many natural and cultural amenities that draw visitors and tourists from outside of the Twin Cities and even the state, the space surrounding and including the Como Lakeside Pavilion appears to be an accurate representation of the surrounding set of neighborhoods.
Throughout my visits, I have perceived Como Lakeside Pavilion visitors to be people of all ages and many races. I saw a relatively diverse group of users enjoy the park on nearly all of my separate visits to the Pavilion. Research from the Como Pathways Project Report helps corroborate this observation. According to the Report, data from the Metropolitan Council shows people of color comprise 40 percent of visitors to Como Regional Park as a whole. The Report also notes how the users of the park represent diversity in income, citing Met Council data that shows that 32 percent of park visitors have incomes below the area median. Lower-income individuals are 50 percent more likely to visit Como than regional parks as a whole.
This diversity is visible not only through age, race, and income, but also in the sizes of groups in which people were visiting the space. I saw a wide variety of group sizes at the park, from individuals exercising solo, to couples walking their dogs, to friends walking in small groups, to large families going for walks or dining outside.
In addition to this visual perception of diversity, I read and heard several different languages at the park. The Como Pavilion, and Como Regional Park as a whole, lie near some of St. Paul’s most diverse communities, such as Frogtown and the North End. This diversity in language is reflected in signage throughout the park that, in multiple languages, encourage park-goers to provide their input to the city as to the improvement and future maintenance of the park.
Lastly, the general ambiance of the park is genuinely welcoming. I remember feeling completely captivated by the Como Pavilion area upon my first visit, with its picturesque views and lovely atmosphere. Throughout my observations of the Pavilion area, I never felt truly out of place. The park feels like a place where almost anyone can participate in some capacity and not feel like an outsider. Taking all of these perceptions of inclusivity into consideration, I believe the Como Pavilion Area to be a 4 in terms of Inclusiveness.
The Como Lakeside Pavilion area is a great example of a public space with a nuanced level of public ownership and management that yields a relatively accessible and inclusive park experience. The space provides plenty of accommodations and affordances to park attendees, but its lack of transit connectivity is somewhat disappointing. Mixed management and remote surveillance notwithstanding, the space feels incredibly welcoming, and it is understandable why such a wide definition of “the public” regularly visits the space.
One final important thing to note is that scholars debating the “end of public space” continue to raise the importance of public space in promoting democratic ideals. Because the Como Lakeside Pavilion area primarily serves as a space for recreation and leisure, there is little in the form of programming the space for democratic engagement. The Como Pavilion is not intended to be a central, politicized organizational space where people gather to advocate for a cause or protest injustices. More research may be necessary to interrogate Como’s effectiveness in this realm.
Future research on the Como Pavilion area or other facets of Como Regional Park would be more than welcome. Additionally, I was unable to explore the full extent of the Pavilion, as I never ventured inside the Dock & Paddle restaurant. It also appears that the Pavilion has a basement floor and a second floor, and I did not examine those spaces. I also did not rent any equipment from Wheel Fun Rentals. Future case studies may benefit from these more in-depth immersions into the space.
–By Karson Hegrenes. All photos by the author.