By Eva Birkholz
Imagine you are strolling down the sidewalk on the busy, urban road of University Avenue in St. Paul, MN. The Green Line train dings to announce its arrival at the Fairview Station as cars fly by and construction vehicles clunk and hum across the street. City life is abuzz all around you. You spot a section of trees on the south side of University Avenue and upon venturing further on the paved footpath you are met with more trees and a pond with a fountain. Welcome to Iris Park.
Iris Park is almost exactly halfway between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, tucked into the Union Park neighborhood between University Avenue and Interstate 94. This park has been under the management of the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department since the late 1800’s and is the only remaining part of the historic Iris Lake Park amusement park in the Union Park neighborhood. Its immediate surroundings include residential areas to the south, small-scale industry to the west, University Ave. and the Metro Transit station to the north, and a large senior living center and daycare facility to the east. Within the park boundaries, there are three main sections: the northern section along University consists of an expanse of sunny grass and a small paved seating area with a fountain (not functional); the central section includes an ovular human-made pond surrounded by footpaths and a concrete overlook; the southern section includes an expanse of grass surrounded by tree cover and spotted with benches and picnic tables. There is a footpath that borders the entire park. Today, the modest-sized pocket of public space provides a peaceful atmosphere for local life. This Field Guide entry will take us through how park goers interact with the space, the park’s role today, and how this site’s design and maintenance encourages or excludes certain activities and people.
The People and the Park
Over the period of my observations, the vast majority of the park’s visitors were part of these three groups: senior center residents and their friends/family, casual walkers (often with dogs), and people passing through to get to University. There were remarkably few people doing physical activity, visiting with children, or participating in an organized event.
People interacted with the physical environment in several notable ways. Firstly, the most popular activities by far were sitting on a bench or strolling around the park’s paths. This shows us that, for the most part, people use the park’s physical features—benches, paths, and picnic tables—as they were intended to be used. I was one of the only people who cut across the lawn, which I found surprising. Furthermore, the paths within Iris Park were clearly designed to be wheelchair friendly—there are ramps in addition to stairs to get to the pond overlook pavilion, and every single entrance to the park has textured curb cuts. My observations prove that these efforts paid off because I counted at least one person using a wheelchair for over half of my observation periods, a measure which, in my opinion, is unusually high. Whether the wheelchair-accessible design was put in place because of the adjacent senior homes, or whether more wheelchair users are drawn to the park because of the accessible design—I cannot say.
Almost all of the people who chose to sit selected a space in the shade facing the pond. Thanks to the substantial amount of tree cover and orientation of the benches, this was possible. This also points to the role of Iris Park as a place to feel surrounded by nature in an otherwise concrete landscape. The term “pocket-park” refers to an area of greenery “embedded in, but not separate from, an urban landscape that offer[s] small spaces of solace amidst the busy city streets with profound impact.” During my time making observations, I appreciated the lull of the fountain’s splashes and the sound of wind passing through the leaves above me. It’s no wonder so many people could simply sit and watch the fountain for hours.
I think it is important to briefly note how my presence as an observer in the park might have influenced my observations because it is impossible to separate my own experience and identity from my experiences in the field. For the most part, I attempted to be discrete with my note-taking and observation gathering. I was, however, the only one who had a laptop out for all of my visits. My presence may have also been felt because of my seating choice: I tried to position myself at the single bench with the view of the entire park (every other bench/picnic table had an obstructed view), which I wouldn’t be surprised if it was another’s favorite seat. I also did not actively engage in conversation with any of the park goers. Overall, I think my presence had minimal impact on the participants’ actions.
The Park’s Role
The role of public space in urban society is complex. A park might be an area of democratic gatherings and political expression, a place centered on fitness and wellbeing, a community gathering spot, or a haven for homeless individuals. Whatever the use, a truly “public” park will encourage a wide variety of uses and users to feel welcome. Let’s consider the park from a design perspective. How do certain design choices facilitate some of these uses and discourage others?
The main focus of the park is clearly meant to be the fountain: it is large and centrally located, most of the benches face towards it, the paths guide people close to it, and the spray of the fountain can be seen and heard from anywhere in the park. The fountain’s prominence was a design choice that prioritized the “natural” focal point over a social focal point or a cultural focal point. The fountain separates the two patches of grass that might have been used for organized events such as political rallies or social clubs, thus discouraging any mass gatherings. Instead, the pond encourages small and peaceful gatherings to focus their attention on nature. It also attracts ducks.
The inclusion and absence of other facilities can draw attention to the design’s priorities. The presence of lampposts stamped across the space invites nighttime users, while the absence of public restrooms discourages long-term visits. The open lawn encourages a variety of uses, but the lack of a playground dissuades children from choosing the park. Additionally, there are signs posted in three locations in the park that forbid certain activities, as you can see in the following picture. By prohibiting these actions, the signs exclude potential users and force all behavior to be “civil” (to the city’s standards) within the park.
Especially relevant to this discussion is the topic of homeless people. I have seen a small homeless encampment set up on the southern edge of Iris Park during the winter months (it has since been cleared). It is important to consider how policies that forbid actions that a homeless person would do, such as occupy the park after 11 PM, can be selectively enforced to rid the city of the “undesirables” in the name of “safety.” That being said, I think the City of St. Paul is no different than other municipal entities that respond to the existence of homeless people with criminalization, and while this may seem like an entirely separate issue, conversation about public space cannot happen without it.
One facet of inclusion and exclusion that might be less tangible yet is critical to consider is safety. What feels safe to some might feel dangerous to others. A study on perceptions of safety in public parks concluded that older people, people with health issues, and women are more likely to rate a park as unsafe, while men and African American people were more likely to rate a park as safe. Conversely, with overwhelming evidence of racist police encounters, African American people might feel more in danger with the presence of security personnel while Caucasian seniors might feel the safest with their presence. This is especially relevant to Iris Park because it has a high concentration of older people due to the adjacent senior homes, as well as a racially diverse population because of its situation in an urban area between Minneapolis and St. Paul. “Safety” has often been the excuse when policy is enacted by governing powers to exclude certain members of the population; usually those policies protect the city’s exclusive definition of “the public” and restrict anyone who does not fit that narrow definition.
Ownership, Management, Accessibility, and Inclusivity (OMAI Model)
In order to evaluate the “publicness” of this public space in a comparative and quantifiable way, this Field Guide uses the OMAI model. If you would like to read more about the OMAI model, please refer to this link. Here are my evaluations of Iris Park using this model.
Ownership. This dimension is the clearest and refers to the legal status of a place (privately owned, city-owned, etc.).
I give Iris Park 4 out of 4 on Ownership. It is fully owned by the city with no private investors.
Management. This includes daily care of the space as well as any presence of control such as CCTV and security guards.
I give it 4 out of 4 on Management as well. Maintenance and security are solely in the hands of the local government and police.
Accessibility. The two main parts of this dimension are how a space is connected to its surroundings and its physical design. Accessibility accounts for any physical and legal barriers to access.
I give Iris Park a 3 out of 4 on Accessibility. There are attempts to make this park available for a variety of members of the public (close proximity to public transportation, wheelchair-accessible park facilities). However, the park has a “stealthy design” that somewhat hides it from view from University Avenue, where the members of the non-local public would be passing.
Inclusiveness. This dimension refers to how well the space meets the demands of the population. This can be indicated by the diversity of its users and how welcoming the space feels.
I give Iris Park a 2 out of 4 in Inclusiveness. Seating and lighting are available throughout the park, and presence of the fountain and trees create a refreshing ambiance. However, there are several signs posted throughout the park that explicitly restrict behavior.
This Field Guide’s central question stresses the importance of considering diverse identities in design: “Are we making inclusive choices in the design and management of public spaces in St. Paul that help promote a democratic and inclusive society?” In summary, the design of Iris Park is especially welcoming to older people, wheelchair riders, and people who value peace and quiet in a public space. Meanwhile, the park is hostile to individuals who might gather in large groups or make noise, individuals with children, and people who might be looking for a long-term visit.
All photos by the author.