Many of the public spaces we examine are managed as city parks. This section provides a brief discussion of the operation and management of parks in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The Saint Paul Parks & Recreation Department is an organization within the Saint Paul City Government that manages the 179 parks within the city, ranked as the second-best city park system in the United States. Under the umbrella of “management,” the Parks & Recreation department is responsible for the upkeep of park facilities like public restrooms and water fountains, as well as park programming, designing and implementing new parks, managing rentals of park facilities, budgeting, staffing, and operating all of the city’s public recreation facilities. On their website, the department identifies the core mission of their work as being “…to help make Saint Paul the most livable city in America [by] facilitating the creation of active lifestyles, vibrant places, and a vital environment.”
According to the most recent annual report available online, the Parks & Rec department’s annual budget totaled $60,807,671 in 2018. They also reported a little over 17 million visitors to the 179 parks within the city system over the course of that same year. The department’s adopted spending budget for the 2021 operating year is $66,693,645. As noted in the budget documents, the city’s parks budget has been adjusted primarily in response to the COVID pandemic, as well in a concerted effort to drop park admission fees and increase park employee pay. The department is helmed by Michael Hahm, who was appointed Director by former Mayor Chris Coleman in 2008. In addition to the director, the board of commissioners consists of nine at-large members appointed by the Mayor of Saint Paul.
Minneapolis’ 180 public parks, considered to be the third-best urban parks system in the nation, are under the jurisdiction of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB). MPRB differs from Saint Paul Parks and Rec in that rather than being a department within the city government, it is a semi-autonomous body run by independently elected commissioners. MPRB oversees the entire Minneapolis parks system and seeks to “provide places and recreation opportunities for all people to gather, celebrate, contemplate, and engage in activities that promote health, well-being, community, and the environment.” Nine commissioners are elected every four years by city residents to serve as the highest governing body of the parks system. The commissioners appoint a superintendent (as of 2019, Alfred Bangoura) who oversees the three divisions of the MPRB: Environmental Stewardship, Planning Services, and Recreational Services. Under these divisions fall everything from maintenance, to education, to the Minneapolis Parks Police. The MPRB 2021 operating budget is $128.7 million, an increase from the 2018 budget of $111 million.
Twin Cities Parks In the Time of COVID
As with all things in a city, public spaces are constantly changing and shifting to adapt to current events. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly warranted some unique changes to how we use and engage with public spaces as restrictions amounted between 2020 and 2021. Now, though, we are moving out of those times and cities are opening up again to “return to normal.” We feel it is important to include a testament to the times these case studies were conducted, to provide context to our work and record this point in history.
As of June 2021, over one million people 16 years and older have been fully vaccinated in Ramsey (St. Paul) and Hennepin (Minneapolis) Counties. This is just over half of the total population of both counties. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis have lifted their mask mandates by June 2021, following the state-wide lift in mid-May. Restaurants are filling up, stores are seeing more patrons, and city streets are populating with people again.
Though some outdoor public spaces saw increased use as people sought safe options to exercise and socialize, programming and other uses of public space changed drastically during the pandemic. Signage encouraged social distancing, large gatherings were not permitted, and playgrounds were blocked off. “Open streets” were implemented to provide more space. Recreation centers were closed and summer camps didn’t offer their usual programming. Fitness classes moved online and public pools never opened.
However, as vaccination rates continue to rise, this type of public space usage is swinging back. Recreation programming is returning to Twin Cities parks, with St. Paul launching their “Rec Reimagined” campaign and some Minneapolis recreation centers reopening. There are certainly still some lingering COVID restrictions– staff must be masked, indoor gathering capacity is limited– but parks and public spaces are moving forward.
By all accounts, “normalcy” is on the horizon.