By Maura Haas
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.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a transitional period for public spaces. In the last year, we have shifted how we engage with each other and the spaces in which we do so, from distancing and isolation to a “return to normal.” Finding the space to safely exercise, participate in social events, or engage in recreation has become a priority for cities and their citizens. Old ideas, such as “open streets,” have been given new life, temporarily transforming public spaces into something new and necessary for the times.
Mississippi River Boulevard (MRB) in St. Paul has become one of these “open streets” during the pandemic. Southbound vehicle traffic has been closed off for months to allow extra space for bikers, joggers, and pedestrians to utilize the space. Adjacent to MRB is a paved trail lined with benches, part of the Mississippi River Gorge Regional Park. The City of St. Paul is now deciding if this temporary closure should become permanent, changing the way this public space exists in the community.
As just one example of the shifting appearance and personality of public spaces, this case study brings new light to the “end of public space” thesis. There is an argument to be made that impending privatization, the pandemic, and even online platforms have threatened public space’s existence. Perhaps, though, public space is not ending per se, just simply changing face. MRB’s transition from temporary to permanent is one avenue this change is taking.
Closely studying the uses, users, design, and personality of MRB’s “open street” and trail has offered insight into how public space as we know it is transforming into something different. To conduct research on this site, I divided a one-mile stretch of MRB and the trail into four segments (see Figure 2). This space is comprised of two subspaces, referred to here as the “street” and “trail.” The street and trail are separated by a curb, with the street further separated from vehicle traffic by orange cones. Thick forest runs along the trail to the west while expensive homes line the space to the east. For each visit to the site, I mapped foot, wheeled, and skate traffic along with the direction of travel in each segment and took more qualitative field notes on my surroundings.
Open To Change
Adaptability is central to city-making. Without the room to bend and shift to current events, cities cannot truly function at their highest capacity. Having adaptable, innovative designs and policies that can respond to citizens’ needs are of utmost importance. The built environment can sometimes hinder this adaptability, though. Imposing structures, fixed benches, and even trees are hard to move around and change when needed. This is why adaptable, flexible, temporary spaces— like open streets— are valuable for a city. “Open streets” are not a new concept, however. Latin American countries have long had streets void of cars, centered on pedestrian and bike activity. Open streets’ emphasis on physical activity proved important when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. They offered a way for residents to get outside and exercise while socially distancing.
The MRB open street is certainly a flexible space— movable signage and cones line the road, people easily move in and out of the street, desire paths allow people to go where they want. I frequently observed bikers weave between the cones, and joggers would slip around slower pedestrians on the open street. People are essentially free to move however they please, to use the space as they see fit. There are no concrete walls blocking them into one lane or road markings requiring bikes to be on one side of the road. This element of choice, especially on part of the user, strengthens the publicness and inclusiveness of this site. A temporary closure like this places few restrictions on a space, leaving it malleable and open to change.
On the other hand, temporariness also breeds uncertainty. There are no obvious rules or road markings to tell users the proper way to use the space. With immense amounts of bike and pedestrian traffic right alongside vehicle traffic (as is the case with MRB), there are safety concerns that arise. Community members, responding via e-mail to the public opinion survey I conducted, cite such safety concerns as the main reason why they are opposed to the MRB open street becoming permanent. There is some merit to these concerns; I was almost trampled by a bike on a few occasions.
Uncertainty extends beyond these interactions, too, into questions of the future of this space. Residents have likely come to rely on the MRB open street, so what will happen if it ever does return to vehicle traffic? Will the trail become more crowded? Will bikers have to be even warier of cars? Yet, perhaps this open-endedness is of value, as the space can continue to change to accommodate the needs of the city.
Eyes On the Street
MRB and the adjacent trail are, first and foremost, spaces for movement. Their linear design prompts pedestrians and bikers to keep moving, in one direction, with little reason to stop. Benches and rocks apt for sitting are spaced out intermittently along the trail, but very rarely did I observe anyone stopping and sitting at one for longer than a few minutes. Everyone was constantly in a state of motion; if you weren’t moving, you were out of place.
As someone in an observational role in the space, I chose to sit and linger in one spot to watch people. I felt a sense of unease when people glanced at me while I was sitting at a bench or rock. I certainly was more wary of people who sat on nearby benches and paid closer attention to those who stopped, wondering why they had stopped. Stoppers and sitters truly did seem out of place. They seemed to be breaking the social contract of the space, infringing on the implicit rules that encourage constant movement.
This social contract is not only enforced by fellow users of MRB and the trail, but also by the surrounding homes. The section of MRB I studied covers the western edge of St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, one of the city’s wealthiest areas. The homes along MRB sell for upwards of a million dollars, according to Zillow.com. In a way, these homes act as a system of surveillance for the space, similar to renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” concept.
With these impressive homes nearby, people might have felt that they could not be too loud or act illicitly. My observations of the space support this— rarely did I see anyone be disruptive or do anything that would draw too much attention. The most “illicit” activity I saw was someone smoking a cigarette. MRB and the trail are like an extension of the homes’ space, almost as if the space is theirs, and users should respect that. Lingering for too long or talking a little too loud felt rude or flat-out wrong, reinforcing the social contract that seems to govern this space.
Fast Lane, Slow Lane
As previously stated, MRB and the trail are primarily spaces for movement. Bikers, joggers, dog walkers, skaters, and more are the most common users of the space. Signage encourages everyone to share both the street and paved path, returning to the freedom of movement discussed in earlier sections (see Figure 5). Despite this encouragement of free movement, there still seem to be specific patterns that users follow in the space.
In general, faster traffic (usually bikers and other wheeled users) will use the street while slower traffic (pedestrians and other foot traffic) will use the trail. This fast lane/slow lane division certainly mitigates any potential collisions or frustrated bikers, but it also alters the personality of these two sub-spaces. The street becomes a more intense movement space, with serious bikers and people with fancier equipment making the road less welcoming to the casual, more social traffic of dog walkers and recreational joggers.
Counting the types of activities using Jan Gehl’s framework allowed me to better understand the distribution of activities across the space (see Figures 6 and 7). Overall, the open street saw more usage, possibly due to its propensity toward faster traffic, amounting more people in shorter periods of time. Optional (or recreational) uses were the most common across both the street and trail. This was expected, however, given MRB and the trail’s design as spaces for exercise and recreation. Necessary uses were far less common, and I usually only observed them during rush hour times when people would be traveling to or from work. Segments 1, 2, and 3 followed the same distribution of usage between the street and trail, while Segment 4 saw far more use of the street. This may be due to an outlying day, however.
These numbers do support the fast lane/slow lane conclusion, specifically in regard to the amount of social activity each subspace saw. Social activities were more common on the trail, adding to the more casual personality of that space, compared to the lower proportion of social activities on the street. In addition to the types of activities, I also tracked the direction of travel, with southbound traffic being more common on both the trail and street. There is some psychology behind this tendency toward southbound movement; south is perceived as “down,” an easier walk than “uphill” north. It is interesting to note that even in a space that can be flexible and adaptable, people follow these inherent rules and patterns. Slower traffic sticks to one spot, people call out “on your left” when passing, joggers use desire paths to pass walkers. The social contract of this public space continues to persist.
In line with the other 2021 case studies, I used the OMAI model, developed by Langstraat and Van Melik, to assess the “publicness” of my space. I break down my reasoning behind each of the subcategory ratings below.
Ownership – 4
MRB and the trail are completely owned by the City of St. Paul, a public entity, easily placing this rating at a 4.
Management – 3
The National Park Service manages this space under a partnership with the City of St. Paul, as the space is part of the Mississippi River Gorge Regional Park. At the site, I did observe City of St. Paul work trucks on a few occasions, giving evidence to the site’s public management. However, I did dock a point because of the “eyes on the street” surveillance system from the private homes nearby.
Accessibility – 3
The space is quite visually accessible, and I have previously discussed its flexibility in terms of entering and moving about the space. Curb cuts ensure that there are easy access points between the street and trail, though they are only located at intersections. Additionally, MRB and the trail are difficult to get to— there are no public transportation options nearby and the designated access points are limited.
Inclusiveness – 3
I have at length explained MRB and the trail’s social contract and inherent rules. This is a space for movement, and movement only. Though these rules are more implicit, there are some instances of explicit signage encouraging people to participate in specific activities. Those who are not participating in the “normal” behaviors associated with this space are made to feel like outliers. I often caught people glancing hesitantly at me as I sat and watched, and even found myself doing the same to others. This generated a sense of discomfort, yet never resulted in explicit removals or confrontations, placing this rating at a 3.
Aside from these assessments of the public space itself, I also collected public opinion data on the MRB “open street.” I posted flyers containing a QR code linked to a survey throughout the site at potential stopping points. The survey contained questions about where participants live, how they were using the space, and their opinion on making the MRB “open street” permanent.
A majority of the 58 respondents resided in the area, demonstrating MRB’s value in the community it is meant to serve. Most respondents reported that they were using the space to walk, which was expected given that bikers are less likely to stop. Nearly 85% of respondents claimed to have used the MRB open street; however, only about two-thirds of respondents answered that they would be in favor of it becoming permanent (see Figure 9). A few respondents followed up with further comments, expressing their concerns about safety on the trail and street. Overall, though, it is safe to say that the community is generally in support of the MRB open street.
The debate on whether MRB’s open street should become permanent is certainly a passionate one. Multiple online forums have threads of community members expressing their opinions on the potential change (see Figure 10). Moreover, the fact that people eagerly responded to my survey, and even sent along additional information, goes to show that community members care about what their public spaces look like. People want their spaces to respond to their needs, adding to the importance of temporary, flexible public spaces.
Mississippi River Boulevard and the adjacent trail are governed by a social contract that binds each user to a commitment to moving. Even in a space that has been restructured into one that is flexible and adaptable with much left up in the air, people fall into their patterns and follow them almost to a T. The temporariness affords opportunities for change, for people to make their own rules and use the space as they see fit. Though this open-endedness can be a disadvantage, perhaps concretely redesigning the space would further satisfy the concerns of the community. MRB and the trail can be a testament to the new face of public space, one that is simply changing features and not losing them entirely.
It is clear that people want to be involved in how their public spaces look so that the built environment can truly respond to citizens’ needs, especially as we deal with such a crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic. The space itself— a space designed for recreation and leisure— does not encourage interactions between people that build an engaged community. Yet, perhaps the passionate discussion of MRB’s future serves as evidence to the space’s ability to promote democratic engagement on a larger scale. In a world where public space is changing and shifting, it is important to give the community a seat at the table when deciding the future of public space.
All photos by the author.