By Rose Giblin-Vance
Rice Park is located in downtown Saint Paul, near an urban luxury hotel. Despite this, it felt fairly public and inclusive to most people. My main reasoning for this is the fact that it seemed fairly open to the public. It is located near public transit and although formal in appearance, it is a public park, although it is owned by the city of Saint Paul. It also is home to people doing a variety of activities. For example, the space is largely social, people are able to do everyday essential activities such as walking their pets or meet for more optional activities such as school-related activities including graduation ceremonies. Located right along a bus stop, it is a great choice for people that don’t live near green spaces but want to take in some nature to break up the concrete roads that make up the city of Saint Paul.
It is a largely formal space, and its overall aura makes it ideal for civic events related to the preservation of the cultural heritage of Saint Paul. I noticed the multiple art and cultural centers nearby this public park. It was interesting to see that several older buildings matched the grandeur of the park and its simple elegance and solemnitude. Even Peanuts has a statue at Rice Park, a nod to the famous Charles Schulz and has made a significant impact on American culture, especially among children even to this day. F. Scott Fitzgerald is memorialized in statues. Because of this, I believe that it is an important model for other public spaces, despite its drawbacks. It still serves an important purpose as a cultural hub for the downtown Saint Paul area.
In addition, a noticeable feature of Rice Park is its fountain. It is supposed to represent the many rivers of Minnesota (the land of 10,000 lakes is a nickname), but also adds to its formalness. One thing I noticed about this park is that it also felt very European. What I mean by this is that it is inspired by Victorian Europe and is surrounded by European architecture such as the Landmark Center which also borders Rice Park. The building is an arts and cultural center and is Romanesque in style, referencing ancient Germany or other European countries where people migrated from in Saint Paul.
The space itself is home to many benches although surprisingly it does not contain as much hostile architecture as I expected. People have grass and other areas to relax and even lie down and doze off. The simple fountain is centrally located and surrounded by several benches and chairs.
It is surrounded by European architecture and big old buildings such as the Saint Paul Hotel and it made me wonder how public the space really is. For example, homeless people are less visible in Rice Park, in contrast to California where I am from, where homeless communities are highly visible. Additionally, there was no public restroom at the park, although there is a public toilet nearby the library across from the park, which may have allowed people to stay longer than a few hours. However, when I tried using the restroom at a more fancy location such as the Saint Paul Downtown Hotel, I was refused entry.
Covid-19’s Impact on the Space and Analysis
I see Rice Park as a very positive public space, in that it adds to the community and is welcoming to most onlookers. Known for its public civicness or its use by the city of Saint Paul for cultural and social celebrations, Rice Park holds many public events for the benefit of the citizens of downtown Saint Paul, particularly related to arts and culture, even during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, a typically spaced and scattered park in terms of people became engulfed by a huge crowd of high school students from Central High School in downtown Saint Paul. The senior class and their families were there for post-graduation festivities including photos, music, and dancing. At first I was surprised and put off, mainly because of my pandemic sensibilities. However, after taking a second look to examine the scene I realized that most of the students were probably enjoying the first high school event in over a year.
With the pandemic of Covid-19 our relationship with outdoor space has changed drastically. People needed to be socially distanced and often outdoors. Oftentimes, people have to be six feet apart to remove masks for over a year to interact safely with friends and family outside their household. I never had a normal graduation for high school and had an irregular start to college. Still, my relationship to this park and what I have seen take place in it reflects Saint Paul and the wider US’ growing acceptance of the slow, slow decrease of Covid-19 as a factor in our everyday lives. In this park for example, the gathering of students was a significant feat. Graduation with guests would have been unimaginable even a few months earlier.
In visiting the space many times, one thing that stuck out to me was the fact that this was still a meet-up place even during the global Covid-19 pandemic. When I started the observations was in late May when the pandemic was still here but looked better. By then a majority of the population in Minnesota was fully vaccinated (58.8%) but not enough to have reached herd immunity. At the time of this writing, in July of 2021, it is nearly 67 percent in Minnesota, an increase from where we were in May but not quite at the goal of 70 percent recommended by the White House and other health authorities. Still, even throughout this time, things opened up. By June, the mask mandate was lifted in Saint Paul by Mayor Carter and the city began opening up citing the city of Saint Paul’s high vaccination rate of 78.6% among residents 15 and older.
For example, I regularly saw people gathering for lunch, picnics, and other things such as painting and photography at the park. I also saw a few dog walkers regularly along with people who saw friends for the first time in ages, or at least in over a year for many. I wonder if even after the vaccine, some covid-19 sensibilities will remain the same. Will people continue to want to meet outside in public parks such as Rice Park instead of indoor dining permanently. Will large festivals have hybrid options from now on, with limited capacity or at least some virtual options?
Analysis of the Publicness of Rice Park
This is not to say that our relationship with space will forever not be affected by Covid-19. I believe that Covid-19 has forever changed our world. It has brought out the problems in our societies that we chose to ignore about equity for example and who counts as a part of the public. For example, during Covid-19 the inequities of racism in particular were emphasized. For instance, with the uprising in the Twin Cities due to the police murder of George Floyd many Americans critically examined white privilege and how white supremacy is upheld by the systems in place around us.
Who is included in the public is incredibly important to today. I acknowledge that the simplicity of Rice Park is modeled after a Victorian style era is there a word missing here? Park perhaps?. For example, as I previously mentioned I did not feel that the space included unhoused people due to the fact that I never saw any unhoused people in the space when I visited it. Still, the proximity to a public library allows it some inclusiveness due to the fact that libraries often provide internet access to people without internet in their homes if they even have permanent housing.
Another thing especially noticeable about Rice Park is that it is in fact a civic space. According to Matthew Carmona, this is a traditional form of urban space, open, and available to all and catering to a wide variety of functions. Parks and public spaces are supposed to be a cornerstone of American society and democracy so it is important to have access to spaces where people can gather and express their beliefs and values whether they be cultural, social, or political. For example, in the past ice skating and a winter carnival took place at Rice Park. Another example in the summer includes blues and other music festivals for outdoor entertainment.
One thing I also felt in Rice Park was how luxurious it was. It does not seem like a park that is inclusive of people of lower classes, due to the fact that most of the surrounding businesses are fairly high end and exclusive. It is also very well-maintained and managed and owned by the city of Saint Paul but it feels like a place where people in the area are fairly wealthy and it appeals to many high end tourists due to its proximity to the Saint Paul Hotel. As much as I want to believe that this is false, its European feel along with this seems a little exclusionary. Especially in light of the racial injustices going on in the United States right now I feel like this should be addressed. For example, this space reflects the desires of European immigrants and their descendants in the Saint Paul area. I wonder if for example a non-European immigrant could model a park or section of town after their culture without it being labeled as cheap or an ethnic neighborhood instead of just a beautiful park surrounded by businesses.
OMAI model evaluation
However, I still affirm this as a largely public space. To analyze this as a class, we chose the OMAI model to assess the publicness of our space using a scale of 1 to 4. I would personally argue that it is overall more public, labeling it a 4 for its ownership according to the OMAI model due to the fact that it is government-owned and managed. Throughout the park, there were signs stating how the space could be rented out for different events and that the city manages it but allows permits for private businesses to control it for their private use. Still, it is also very accessible to the public due to the curb cuts in the road and closeness to a bus stop and public restroom. On the other hand, I would definitely give it a 3 due to the fact that it feels very European centered in the sense that it is visually reminiscent of Europe and also has targeted programming that may be more targeted towards people of European descent. On the other hand, there wasn’t a large security presence unlike in other spaces, although it did have a security force that you could call in case of emergencies. It felt very accessible, especially for folks with disabilities and limited incomes due to it having concrete paths, curb cuts, and close proximity to a bus stop so I would rate it a 4 for accessibility.
This makes me wonder whether the space is appealing or appropriate for children. For example, it seems very formal at times and doesn’t seem like a space to jump or play in. Although I have seen a few exceptions to this, I’ve never seen an unattended child at Rice Park. It doesn’t have the same feel as your local neighborhood park with swing sets and playgrounds where people can just drop off their kids and let them run and play. This space seems more targeted to older teens and adults instead. I note from my research that this park has evolved to include trees and other plants to provide a canopy for large events. This space is more of a community space than a neighborhood space. This is possibly because of the fact that green spaces in urban areas are often designed with different intentions than more residential areas such as suburbs.
On another note, one thing I will note is that the people in the park, although largely upper class and older, were not always standoffish or not welcoming. In fact, many people still feel welcomed by the space, enough to take tours of it throughout the day and engage with strangers in the space. Still, it is somewhat formal and quiet. I rarely heard loud noises from people, although I did hear cars driving by. Still, Rice Park is to me a great study spot or even great meeting place for friends and family during Covid-19 but it still doesn’t have a more casual appearance.
Finally, I wonder what Rice Park will look like in the future. After Covid-19 will more people and events be present? Will a redesign change the way it looks and also who it appeals to? Overall, will changes across politics such as greater social acceptance of diversity allow for the redesign of public spaces in a new way that is more inclusive? Hopefully, the answers will be clear in the future.
Overall, I would say that this space is worth emulating overall. Despite its drawbacks of lack of accessibility perhaps to marginalized communities it is a helpful model overall for public spaces. If adapted to reflect the wider public in Saint Paul through its design, then I believe that it would be able to further its goals of being a cultural and civic space in downtown Saint Paul. It currently is to some extent, holding events and programs for local citizens. This could be emulated on a wider and more inclusive scale in other areas to promote community engagement and help develop/broaden civil society.
All photos by the author.