A Public Park Designed to Feel Private
By Anna Turner
In 1873 at a Saint Paul City Council meeting, Horace W.S. Cleveland, the landscape architect responsible for much of the design of the Twin Cities’ original park system, declared his intention to designate a lot on Summit Avenue for the public. The sprawling views of downtown Saint Paul and the Mississippi River, Cleveland complained, had been all but hidden from public view by private homes. Born out of this promise was Summit Overlook Park, a .43 acre lot that sits at the corner of Summit Avenue and Ramsey Street, fitting perfectly into the triangle formed by the intersection. Acquired by the Saint Paul Board of Park Commissioners in 1887, Summit Overlook Park is one of the city’s oldest public spaces.
Today, Summit Overlook Park remains a small ode to Summit Avenue’s museum-like nature. The New York Life Eagle, an imposing bronze sculpture originally built in 1889 for the New York Life Insurance building in downtown Saint Paul, now serves as a focal point in the park. Several plaques detail the site’s history in great depth and the wrought iron railing running the length of the park’s south side was refurbished from the old Selby/Ayd Mill Road bridge in Saint Paul. What was once nothing more than a wide open lawn for the public has since been redesigned into a thoughtful landscape with a variety of plantings, seating options, pathways, and vantage points.
The redesign of the park in 2004 marks a significant moment in the space’s history. After over a century of minimal city management, the nonprofit organization Public Art Saint Paul and the Ramsey Hill Neighborhood Association worked in conjunction to produce a new park design that accommodated the relocation of the New York Life Eagle. The park’s current form took shape during this collaboration, and the City of Saint Paul worked jointly with the organizations to develop a public-private partnership for future management of the space. The renovated park was formally dedicated in August of 2008.
While the park remains city-owned, it is now maintained primarily by the Ramsey Hill Association (see figure 2) and its cadre of volunteer gardeners. This dynamic—of neighborhood residents maintaining their neighborhood park—contributes, in part, to the discernibly private feeling in the space. In many regards, the park rivals the extensive landscaping of its private, residential neighbors; due to its size, you often feel as though you are sitting in someone’s private backyard.
The park’s layout is such that you can sit in almost complete privacy—in the park’s eastern corner under the shade of and partially concealed by a massive willow tree—or in the more communal, open lawn in the center of the park. The park’s distinct lack of commercial activity combined with its proximity to Summit Avenue’s abundance of private residential homes certainly act to highlight the park’s intimate, yet sometimes pseudo-exclusionary, feel. Notable, too, is the park’s position in the shadow of the University Club of St. Paul, a conspicuous, members-only club that boasts a private tennis court, swimming pool, fitness center, and restaurants.
The club also frequently uses Summit Overlook Park for exclusive member events like concerts, croquet tournaments, and private yoga classes.
Summit Overlook still contains the central lawn reminiscent of its original nineteenth century form, although its footprint was reduced in 2004 to accommodate several landscaping additions to the park. Surrounding the lawn on two sides is a gravel path that sits level with the sidewalks of Ramsey Street and Summit Avenue for easier access for a diversity of users. The New York Life Eagle Sculpture sits on a small brick patio in the southeast corner of the lawn, and a two-tiered retaining wall wraps around the sculpture and extends along the lawn to the Ramsey Street entrance. Although this wall provides versatile seating options, it is lined with dozens of small metal bars, also known as skate stoppers, to prevent skateboarders from using the space.
On the southeast end of the lawn there are three backless benches, allowing visitors to sit facing either direction. Along the north and east perimeters of the lawn are nine more benches; behind the benches on the east side is a dense row of trees concealing the adjacent private residence. A single bench sits under the willow tree in the park’s eastern corner. I most frequently saw people using this single isolated bench or the benches along the north perimeter of the park. At both the Ramsey Street and Summit Avenue entrances, there are trash and recycling receptacles; at the Summit Avenue entrance there is, additionally, a nonfunctioning water fountain. It is unclear if the water fountain was shut off as a COVID precaution or if it is simply broken.
Summary of Observations
Summit Overlook Park is an interesting example of a space that attempts to balance a public-private partnership in a neighborhood rooted in wealth, opulence, and preservation. The pocket-sized nature of the park makes it difficult for the space to accommodate a variety and/or abundance of users or activities. Public transit is a little over half a mile away in either direction and the primary demographics within walking-distance of the park are affluent, white, college-educated adults. That being said, the park feels communal and safe, with no visible surveillance, no park hours or gates restricting entrance, and design cognizant of diverse mobility requirements. The partnership between the City of Saint Paul and the Ramsey Hill Association proves a testament to community members’ willingness to show up and care for the park as if it were their own backyard.
For several weeks in June 2021, I had the opportunity to more closely observe usage patterns in and around Summit Overlook to better inform my analysis of the park’s publicness. On most occasions, I spent between 45 minutes and 2 hours observing in the park and the surrounding neighborhood. Due to it being June at the time of this project, the weather was mostly pleasant during my visits. I visited the park three times at night, twice in the morning, and twice in the afternoon. Two of these visits were on weekends and the rest were on weekdays.
Over the course of my visits, I began to gauge that the park is consistently busiest in the evenings; I credit this to the limited shade options available within the park’s small footprint, as well as the incredible vantage points the park offers for watching the sunset. I rarely, if ever, saw children in the park and observed that it was used almost exclusively by adults. Because Summit Overlook offers no child-friendly amenities or public restrooms, and because there is a popular children’s playground a few blocks away, I would surmise that Summit Overlook is a needless public space for most families with young children. The youngest users (estimated 18-24) often used the park alone, be it to lay on a blanket and read or to use the gravel path as a way of extending their run or walk.
Most older users visited the park with friends, partners, family members, or dogs and often sat on the benches for extended periods. During several evening visits, musicians played informally by the eagle sculpture. I discovered later that there is a stand for sheet music located behind the sculpture (see figure 11).
On more than one occasion, several dog owners met up in one corner (one of three that provides shade) and chatted with each other for over an hour. It was typical for me to share the space with the same people for the entirety of a two-hour visit, while dozens of other people moved through the park in under 5 minutes. Users were almost exclusively utilizing the space for necessary or social activities.
In mid-afternoon, the park was often completely empty, even if the sidewalks surrounding the park on Summit and Ramsey were bustling with mid-day runners, cyclists and walkers. This speaks, again, to the lack of shade in the park as well as to the park’s tourist appeal. For many who live in the Ramsey and Summit Hill neighborhoods, the park proves significantly less interesting or functional than perhaps their own yards.
A weekend morning brought the most diverse group of visitors to the park than I had previously observed. This included young children with their parents, people reading on benches, several tourists, lots of joggers and cyclists stopping to check out the view, and a Ramsey Hill Association volunteer watering plants and weeding the paths. During that same period, I ran into fellow Macalester students having coffee from a local restaurant.
After consulting the City of Saint Paul website for a parks program schedule, I was also able to observe one of the free fitness classes offered in Summit Overlook on weeknights. Much to my surprise, the class only occupied a small corner of the park and other visitors were able to use the space despite the music and shouting that accompanied the class (see figure 10).
Assessment of Publicness
Using the OMAI Model and its scale of 1 (fully private) – 4 (fully public), I measured the park on four different dimensions of publicness (see figure 12).
Ownership – Summit Overlook measures as a 4 because the park is owned by the City of Saint Paul.
Management – The park ranks as a 3, meaning the space is public with some private characteristics. I concluded this based on the fact that the space is maintained by a neighborhood association, but the local government exercises ultimate authority. Additionally, the space contains no daily security or control presence.
Accessibility – Summit Overlook measures as a 2 because while there are limitations to access including distance from public transportation, a variety of potentially irregular surfaces in the park, and one identified hostile design element (skate stoppers), there are no gates, no park hours, no regular security presence, and there is free parking adjacent to the park.
Inclusiveness – The space measures as a 3 because “seating and lighting are available, but no other attempts are made to welcome visitors; no explicit restrictive policy on activities allowed is in place.” I drew this conclusion based on the fact that Summit Overlook is designed to accommodate public users, but the park proved during my observations to serve a very homogenous population. There are no public restrooms, no kid-friendly amenities, and the park is difficult to reach by public transportation. Summit Overlook does not attempt to do much more than preserve a patch of public green space in an overtly private neighborhood. The park does not go beyond minimal design choices like lighting and seating options to create an environment that feels inclusive for a diverse population of users.
In my study of Summit Overlook Park I was particularly interested in the degree to which the park reflected the wealth of its surrounding neighborhoods. Specifically, I wanted to determine if the park’s location was a deterrent for a diversity of users.
In my observations and in my engagement with park-goers, the park proved to serve a function primarily to those in the Summit and Ramsey Hill neighborhoods. The visitors I observed using the space appeared to fit the socioeconomic demographics of the surrounding neighborhood. I also recognize that I fit the socioeconomic demographics of the neighborhood and that my identity inevitably created biases in my perception of the park and its publicness. While I felt comfortable and safe in the park during each of my visits, Summit Overlook possesses several factors that limit accessibility to and inclusiveness of the space for diverse groups of people.
That being said, Summit Overlook Park fulfills the goal set forth by Horace W.S. Cleveland nearly 150 years ago. It makes public a view of downtown Saint Paul and the river valley that has been privatized and obscured by the avenue’s many private residences. In line with its meticulously preserved neighbors, Summit Overlook puts numerous city artifacts on display, including the New York Life Eagle and the old Selby bridge railing (see figures 13 and 14).
And in many ways, the park does not intend to do much more than that. It is a space created primarily for recreation and leisure, rather than for any kind of political engagement. Summit Overlook Park was not built to accommodate any kind of political and social activity or discourse; it is and always has been, by design, an open space for leisure. While the urban pocket park model that it employs may be more appreciated or better utilized in a more diverse or denser neighborhood, Summit Overlook was not created for any real purpose other than to increase public access to the view. And that it does, and it does it well.
All photos by the author.