Why does public space matter? In the May 2018 “State of Our City” address, Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minnesota called for citywide community engagement to “build a city that works for all.” Mayor Carter seeks to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods through investment in schools, libraries, and public safety personnel. We think that public spaces should be included in this campaign because public space is vital to the democracy and health of a city. We, students and faculty in the Geography Department at Macalester College, are responding to this call. We offer this Field Guide to Public Space as a resource for evaluating the “publicness” of public space and show how it applies to the Twin Cities. 

Our Field Guide examines 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.” Whose civic identity is seen as belonging within society and who is made invisible? 

In this guide, we evaluate everyday spaces in the city and connect them to a larger conversation about public space. We chose to do a field guide because the form allows readers to be explorers in their own backyards. From neighborhood parks to light rail stations to skyways, we examine a variety of public spaces. Although we cannot feature every public space in the Twin Cities, this guide showcases a unique array of sites each with its own character and context, as you can see in the photos below. Additionally, because many of our sites are under the management of the local parks departments, we offer some background information on those programs. Distilling ideas from geographical field methods, urban design, and city planning, we examine the tension between civic representation and privatization in public spaces. 

We invite you, reader, to consider this question too. The essays in this guide investigate the complex ways public space promotes and hinders social inclusion and democratic ideals. We do not intend to declare places as good or bad. Rather, we focus on how aspects of design, management, and use define who is included in the public. Through this, our field guide analyzes how public and private decisions shape the building of a city that works for everyone.