Temporary Park, Permanent Impact: An Experiment of Public Space in Downtown St. Paul
by Ellie Hohulin
In fact, not a park, but a public art project, Urban Flower Field, located on the site of Pedro Park, exists temporarily in downtown St. Paul, or at least as temporary as the past five years has been. Simple materials dot this tiny park, with movable chairs, flowers, seasonally community-painted rocks, and a gravel pathway corresponding with the Fibonacci Sequence inspired mural on the wall. This park typifies what it means to create urban spaces that are not permanent in today’s society, as a means for civic engagement and community building for a developing urban center, critical to reimagining public spaces and building more inclusive cities.
Inspired by the desire to turn something unused into a pocket park, Amanda Lovelee, the artist for the park, designed this space as a temporary solution to an empty lot that was moving slowly towards a park, accelerating this process through temporary engagement. The lot, located at the Southwest corner of 10th and Robert Street in downtown St. Paul, was previously the Pedro Luggage and Briefcase Center. After being demolished, it was left to the city, under the condition that it would become a public green space.
The area surrounding Pedro Park has rapidly changed in the past few years, becoming a vibrant and fairly busy area, unique within the rest of a rather quiet downtown, corresponding with the shift of this park from vacant lot to colorful greenspace. The only grocery store in downtown is directly adjacent to Pedro, with residential developments and street-level restaurants filling the rest of the block, many of them with windows facing the park. Three park visitors I talked to, were spending time in the park as they waited to eat at one of the restaurants on the block. This unique placement downtown has enabled success, with businesses and residential buildings neighboring, and few skyways nearby, forcing people to walk on the street level and therefore utilize this public space.
According to the Public Art St. Paul website, 6,000 people live within three blocks of the park, 4,000 people work within walking distance, and 9,900 cars use the adjacent Robert Street daily. The park is linked up to a variety of transit modes, providing the option for people to engage with this space, beyond the parking lots that form Pedro’s border. A Nice Ride station is on the edge of the park, the Metro Transit Green Line is only two blocks away, and the mural is visible from the highway. With visibility from quite far, the red dotted mural, from the conversations I had with those visiting the park, was one of the main elements drawing people into this space, especially when they are not local to the neighborhood. There is great appeal in the aesthetics and pop-y mural as a place for frequent photos, with hundreds of location tags of the park on Instagram, and the site even being used as a popular place for senior or professional photos. Those coming from within the neighborhood, on the other hand, were more drawn to the park strictly for its addition to the neighborhood as a public green space, compared to the vacant lot it used to be.
In many ways, this park is an experiment and one that has been quite successful, even receiving a Great Places award. First, this space is temporary, an urban laboratory, giving the public the chance to interact with a space that was created with a budget of only $40,000. Creating a temporary park on a small budget, created a low-risk way to think about how people use space, what the public wants out of a park, and how temporary ideas can be the solution to seemingly permanent problems. Rather than walking past a gravel lot every day, this space was created to beautify the area and provide a place for gathering and civic engagement, testing ideas and visions of public space.
The second part of the experiment is the flowers. Although the program changed this past summer, there was previously a partnership with the University of St. Thomas to understand soil remediation in public spaces. The flower plots of the Urban Flower Field gave St. Thomas students the opportunity to do research on how this space would respond to and could be transformed through flowers. But this partnership has changed, with local residents and community members of the buildings nearby now in charge of planting and maintaining the garden space, giving locals a sense of ownership and commitment to the park, exemplified through the majority of people I talked to being from the area. Beyond the flowers, the space is configured in a spiral, mirroring the mural on the wall, and constructed in a way that is, in fact, ADA accessible.
And so this experimental site leads us to our main question, Is this public space helping to create a more inclusive city? And the answer is yes. But what does the future of this space look like? And how can a temporary space even have an impact? Examining the star model helps to shed light on these questions.
Animation ranks highest, receiving five stars. The very nature of this space as temporary gives the potential for multiple options of engagement. Most notably, and central to the park, is the movable furniture. Each of my visits to the park, as is evident in the photos, the chairs were distributed and grouped in different ways. Photos 6 and 7 illustrate the difference between the chair configuration of my first visit and my last, all clustered and arranged in different ways, to meet the needs of anyone who might step foot in the park. While on my visits, a young man walked in, grabbed a chair, and dragged it to the back of the park, to be in the shade. Two friends walked in and pulled up chairs next to each other. In theory, a large circle could be formed with all the chairs in the park, creating a space for community conversation or a larger meeting. Due to the flexibility of the space, it can be utilized in many ways, creating an inclusive environment, and one that transformed with each visit. Although these movable chairs are a critical asset to this park, they also are routinely blown over due to the wind, with most tipped upside down upon entry to the park on each of my visits. Especially after a rainstorm, these chairs are generally flipped and pooling with water, not desirable for sitting or appearing appealing from far away.
Physical configuration and civility, both ranked at the lowest, still with three stars, combine in the lack of privacy available in this park. The space, as I felt in my own use of it, is a fishbowl, sloping downward in a way that allows for everyone walking past the park to look down and watch. People generally prefer to hide in public spaces, tending to exist near trees or by larger structures in order to feel a sense of security, and that they are not being watched. But Pedro does not have shade or privacy giving amenities in the park, due to its temporary state. Although in past years of flower programming, sunflowers filled most of the garden plots, with many of them towering over five feet, making it so even in this tree-less park, visitors could find small pockets of shade or a spot to gather near. With St. Thomas no longer being involved in this planting process, the programming has changed to mostly smaller plants, making the only spots of hiding along the outskirts of the park, near the wall. The park is not elevated, making it easy to miss from the road, but extremely visible and highlighted when walking on the block adjacent. This visibility also differs with the changing of seasons, as grasses and flowers bloom or die out.
Throughout my eight hours at Pedro, 37 people visited, 22 of those with dogs. As expected, as the weather got colder, rainnier, and even snowier, visitors to the park decreased, with many saying that the park is packed in the summer, but few are seen in the colder months. Most visitors are from the area, specifically using this park for a necessary activity: walking a dog. Some said they only visit the park with their dogs in tow.
But even so, other visitors use the space for lunches, catching up with friends, or just exploring a new urban space, specifically one with bright colors. Many visitors fixated on the primary color composition evident in the park as their favorite component of the space, with the flowers, rocks, chairs, and mural all bringing necessary vibrancy to an otherwise monochromatic landscape. Yellow dots even line the sidewalk outside the park, leading the viewer, and hopefully general passersby into the park, bringing the visual program of Pedro to the much-used sidewalk. Due to the park being small, many people feel comfortable being in it alone, rather than going in with a large group. Only five times did I see people enter the parks not on their own or with a dog.
Many of the desire lines within the park, point back to this use of the space by humans with dogs. Lots of people choose to circumambulate the space, using the small grassy areas that exist on the outskirts for their dogs to walk through and utilize. Even the trash can, which many things do not get put into, exists on this route bordering the park, with all but one of my recorded visitors to the park passing by this amenity. The spatial patterns of movement through the park highlighted on the desire lines of this mapped visit, show the use of space beyond its intended path and construction, with no one actually entering and exiting the park through the prescribed route. This navigation of space was consistent throughout my visits.
Cities have extensive amounts of vacant land, both public and private. St. Paul itself has 5,000 acres. Temporary spaces and engaging with a space in transition can be the solution to many of our current issues, those needing to be addressed by cities aiming for more inclusive communities. Temporary spaces can solve permanent problems, giving cities a laboratory to explore what could become permanent features of parks, just as the lack of chairs being stolen from Pedro Park led to the acceptance of the city to put light and movable features in other parks. Regardless of what its future may hold, Pedro has served as a laboratory for successfully exploring ideas of what public space is and could be. Temporary public spaces, engaging with art, like Pedro, can continue to assist in the quest to make cities more inclusive and livable.