Is it a Space for Community Gathering?
By Christine Justiniano
Newell Park is a space of around 10 acres located in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, just off the busy Pierce-Butler Route. Founded in 1901, it is one of Saint Paul’s oldest parks and is known for its hilly landscape and oak trees. It is a couple blocks from Hamline University and, according to historical records, was a popular place for students to enjoy. Newell Park was created through a process of community engagement, and continues to foster this environment today. The people of the surrounding neighborhood banded together, creating the Newell Park Improvement Association to develop a space to fit their needs. Their main need was a space perfect for large public gatherings, something that persists through the landscape today.
Given Newell Park’s size, during my observations I have focused more closely on the north end of the park which includes the outdoor picnic area (see map below). However, observations from other areas of the park still provide a necessary view of how the space is used. There were two main questions I had on my mind as I began my observations of the park:
- How does the presence of a restroom at the park affect its overall use?
- How are different age demographics interacting with the space?
I suspected the presence of a public restroom would make the space more welcoming, especially for people to stay for extended periods of time. The size of Newell Park allows it to have a variety of amenities that could appeal across various demographics. Thus, I was curious to see if there was any apparent division in the use of space. I’ve identified the key amenities of Newell Park to be as follows:
- Parking lot
- Walking paths
- Picnic tables
- Fire pit
- Covered outdoor picnic area
- Rentable building space
- Restrooms (multiple stalls, sink, handicap accessible)
- Softball field
- Basketball court
- Swinging bench and swings area
All of the above amenities make the park an enjoyable space for various age groups, but there is a notable difference in who uses which areas.
My first impressions of the park were built on analyzing the physical design of the space. The majority of Newell Park’s development occurred in the 1920’s, with the most notable additions being pathways, picnic tables, a building which includes restrooms and an event area, as well as the outdoor picnic area. All these amenities have since been updated and remain to be the core features of the park. The pathways act as spaces of movement. They invite those in the neighborhood to take a stroll through the park without any pressure to stay for long. Some of the most common activities that can be seen on the path are dog walking, leisurely phone calls, and mothers pushing strollers. However, the pathways do not provide access to all parts of the park. They allow visitors to access the parking lot, building, playground and to travel the park’s width. If a visitor wants to enjoy the less structured areas of the park, which are hilly and full of trees, they will need to stray from the path. The presence of pathways in only certain parts of the park is a way that the space divides certain demographics. Adults with younger children and elderly folk are much more likely to be seen hanging out at the north end of the park where they don’t need to stray far from the path. The south side of Newell Park is more likely to have teenagers and young adults, many picnicking or reading a book.
Picnic tables serve as Newell Park’s main tool for seating. They are scattered all over the park, many very far from its pathways. While I believe the park has enough potential places to sit, it lacks variety. The only other options for seating are a swinging bench and the benches next to the softball field, both of which are not ideal for certain uses or all ages. These picnic tables can at times be hard for those with limited mobility to reach and/or use. In response to this, people often bring their own seating, whether that be a picnic blanket or foldable chairs. I have seen foldable chairs being used by an older demographic in particular, presumably as a way to enjoy a greater level of comfort while at the park.
The most noticeable structure of the park is its building– the bathrooms intrigued me the most. It is common to see portable toilets in or near parks, if there is any restroom presence at all. Newell Park stands out since the full service its restroom provides better serves park goers. I think this is one of the key features that makes Newell Park a great space for the large gathering of any demographic. The indoor event space also provides a way for gathering, but not to all. It is typically reservable at a cost for anyone to host an event. While this is a barrier to access, I don’t deem it as detrimental to the space, especially since people more often than not enjoy Newell Park as a place for outdoor recreation.
On the other hand, Newell Park’s outdoor picnic shelter area is interesting when it comes to barriers within the space. This area is easiest to access from the parking lot and building, and I observed an event taking place almost every time I visited the space. The space is available to rent or to use on a first come first serve basis. The cost of reserving the space for a minimum of three hours is $160, which includes access to both umbrellas and accommodates 60 people. This barrier to utilize the space does not at all stop people from gathering at Newell Park, but provides a visible distinction in who is gathering where. On one of my visits there were two large groups gathered to enjoy a day grilling at the park. One was at this designated picnic area and the other was in an area with significantly less seating. While the park does have grills scattered throughout, it would be more convenient to hold an event in the outdoor picnic space where there is shade and easy restroom access. Does this make Newell Park an unwelcoming space? I don’t believe so, yet it is an interesting thing to consider when assessing how ‘public’ a space may be.
Who Uses the Space?
I initially believed that Newell Park felt welcoming to all. While I think this still holds true, one way it could best be assessed is by examining who uses the space versus who is not present. In order to assess how welcoming the park is it is helpful to understand the makeup of the surrounding community, who appear to be key users of the space. The Metropolitan Council’s regional parks and equity tool shows that the immediate surrounding of Newell Park is majority white, and is 64% individuals from the 25 to 64 age group. A couple blocks in each direction (but still walkable) is a significantly younger population and is less white (but still majority).
Overall, it can be hard to understand who is and isn’t using a space and why that may be, especially as we all move through spaces with our own identities, some which could blind us from seeing the experiences of others. Comparing demographics from the surrounding community to who does and doesn’t use the park is only one small way to assess how welcome certain individuals may feel in the space. All in all, Newell Park has a diverse demographic of users. Throughout my visits I saw white, Black, Latino, as well as groups of women with hijabs using the space. Given the close distance to Hamline University there was a lack of young adults, however this is probably due to it being summer.
Another factor that influences who uses the space is means of getting to the park. From my observations the two main ways were walking or driving, with driving being more common at peak park hours (weekends and after work). Newell Park does provide free parking and a path that runs the width of the park connecting it to the surrounding sidewalks. However, the nearest bus route is roughly a 15 minute walk. While during Newell Park’s development it was shaped for those in the neighborhood, there has been a change and, today, the park is enjoyed by much more than those within walking distance. However, it is very deep in a residential neighborhood, away from public transportation which makes it harder for all residents of Saint Paul to access.
To conceptualize my observations of Newell Park below are my ratings of the ‘publicness’ of the space using the OMAI model.
Ownership: Since Newell Park is publicly owned and managed by the city of Saint Paul I rated it as a 4 for fully public.
Management: The park is open from 7:00 am until 10:00 pm, with no gate barring visitors from the parking lot. The public restrooms close during off hours. There is often a presence of the city of Saint Paul parks workers in bright yellow vests replacing trash bags and setting up events. Therefore, I rate the space as a 4 for fully public.
Accessibility: The park is overall accessible from a design point of view, however it is far from any public transportation and situated in a fairly private residential area. Therefore, I have rated it a 3 for public with some private characteristics.
Inclusiveness: The park feels relatively inclusive. My observations have seen a diverse array of users, yet at times the way large groups use the space may deter certain people from interacting with certain areas of the park. I have rated it as a 3 for public with some private characteristics.
There is one last thing on my mind as I revisit the history of Newell Park in comparison to its current state: the park has undergone little to no change, and was evidently developed in a much different era. To that point, a picture which includes members of the Newell Park Improvement Association has no visible people of color. This makes me reflect on the physical design of the space and how, even if it was developed long ago, the original design will continue to define the space for years to come. Given this, it’s important to at least consider updating a space, even ones that are as welcoming as Newell Park. Although no space is perfect, and this park could benefit from some improvements, such as benches for a better variety of seating.
It’s clear Newell Park is a space made intentionally for gatherings and for this it serves its goal. I believe it’s undoubtedly a space for social gathering yet, at first, I was hesitant to say it is an inherently community space. The gatherings that I witnessed were private in a way that a park visitor would need to avoid certain sections so as to not feel if they are intruding on the event. However, I soon began to witness other smaller scale gatherings, some of which included a children’s summer camp, a yoga class and a painting workshop. With a quick Google search one can find the variety of events taking place in the park during the summer of 2021. Old news articles reveal that this has always been the case, with events like a family camping night in 2015. Due to this, I believe the park is a very important community space. As far as public spaces go, Newell Park provides an example of how a truly public space lends itself toward being more inclusive and welcoming to all.
All photos by the author, except where noted.
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