Public space is different during the pandemic

Public health protocols and activities stemming from the social uprising for racial justice have prompted new ways of using public space, yet these occur against a general decrease in the use of public spaces in our study areas. Based on the most current cell-phone mobility data available through StreetLight, we note that the total volume of pedestrian traffic in our study areas is markedly down in May 2020 compared to May 2018 and May 2019 . This drop is most apparent at the State Capitol and the University of Minnesota. Given their closure during that time, this is not surprising. Pedestrian traffic levels remained steady at the University and Dale Street intersection. The moderate housing density and mix of retail establishments, including restaurants and grocery stores, in close relation to a light rail station and bus stops, help explain this trend. 

Two locations experienced an increase in pedestrian traffic. Tower Park saw the lowest total amount of pedestrian traffic each of the three years. However, there was a more than 100% increase in pedestrian traffic there in May 2020 compared to May 2018 and 2019. This uptick can be attributed to the location’s attractiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tower Park features picnic benches, tennis courts, open areas, and scenic views which offer welcome invitation to people aiming to be outside, but may otherwise have few options because of business closures and restrictions. Hamline Avenue also experienced a 20% increase in pedestrian traffic compared to the previous year and a nearly 100% increase compared to 2018. This is surprising, though two points may help explain why we see this change. The site is directly proximate to Cub Foods and Target stores. Both have remained open during Minnesota’s shutdown. Hamline Avenue was also a hotspot of activity for protests and rioting following the murder of George Floyd, which occurred during the final week of May.

Our activity mapping snapshots yield three additional insights about how people use public space. First, most people are moving through the public spaces of the study areas. Most – 43% – were walking. Another 17% were waiting for transit. Another 9% were on bicycles or engaged in physical activity, like jogging. Thus, about two-thirds of people were passing through the movement and interface spaces of the study areas. Second, people who gather are, on the whole, observing distancing policies in their use of public space. Overall, we documented that about 23% of people wore a mask or face covering, though this tended to be more prevalent with different locations and activities.

The public transit organization in the Twin Cities has required the use of masks for all riders during June 2020. In our experience, people generally sought to maintain distance between groups, though this was less common in park settings and demonstrations. We observed a recurring phenomenon where customers would form a line, with a buffer between them, outside of a retail store as they queued up for a turn to enter the building. A few establishments even set up tents in their parking lot to create an outdoor waiting room. Finally, specific political expressions were rare and located in the symbolic environment of the State Capitol. There, we witnessed group demonstrations laboring to make racial injustice a matter of public concern and demand collective action. They were using public space for political ends. This serves in contrast to the installation of art pieces on the sides of buildings as well as graffiti and vandalism, which represent a struggle over space itself.