The Yard must be an active urban space, regardless of design. During the Park Committee meeting last week, co-chairs David Wilson and Tom Fisher went around the room asking people about their favorite park. Examples given included Hyde Park in London, the High Line in New York and Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. The most common attribute given, and a common denominator, was because these parks were “active.” That said, as the Park Committee moves at lightning speed to come up with a vision and begin fundraising for The Yard, it seems reasonable that the vision be more rooted in how it is used more than what it looks like.
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We need not overthink and overdesign The Yard. That’s not to say design isn’t important, just that design alone won’t guarantee an active place. And frankly, there isn’t time to overthink design if the ribbon cutting is to occur in August 2016 when the Vikings stadium opens. What an active urban park needs is a place to gather like a fountain, arch or statue, plenty of places to sit, some shade, and programming to attract people at all times (like Washington Square Park in New York, above). An elegant, timeless design can allow flexibility for a wide range of events and gatherings while providing opportunity for elements to be added later.
Washington Square Park in New York City bears this out. At the Park Committee meeting, when Mayor Rybak’s turn came to give his favorite park, he cited Washington Square Park (right), which fits the mold of an elegant timeless design. Wide, tree-lined pedestrian paths converge at an arch and fountain (gathering place). Seating abounds. The park is flexible and accommodates formal and informal gatherings and events.
The Park Committee emphasized flexible space to accommodate a variety of events, and Rybak in particular was adamant that activity occur year-round. This is very important. Just take a look at the ice ice rinks at Discovery Green in Houston (above). The most popular places at the Lakes Loppet this past winter? The Surly beer garden and all the informal gathering places on Lake of the Isles. Minnesotans love to come out for winter activities if they are provided.
In the discussion of what is envisioned at The Yard there are passing references to a playing field. I think this notion should be reconsidered. First, grass is very hard to maintain, even as playing fields. Crowds trample grass. Heavily used urban parks often tastefully rope off grassy areas to prevent cut throughs and any use other than tossing a Frisbee and sunbathing. Second, a presentation of other downtown parks given to the Park Committee didn’t show a single large playing field. Third, playing fields are really only active when an organized sport is being played – they risk being vast expanses of underutilized land at other times. Lastly, organized sports have a hard enough time generating income in other locations – they should not be on valuable downtown land. The Vikings will pay $13 million annually for their field two blocks away – this is more in line with the underlying land value. The city and metro area are filled with playing fields. Besides, if people want genuine space to play, they can go to Gold Medal Park.
Speaking of Gold Medal Park, I’ve never heard anyone describe it as “active.” Yet discussion of The Yard continues to reference Gold Medal Park as setting the minimum standard for design and use. This is a mistake. Want proof? As of last week, Gold Medal Park’s sidewalks hadn’t even been shoveled! Yes, Gold Medal Park is award winning for its design, but it is clear that design alone does not attract people and perhaps Gold Medal Park is the most compelling argument that the key to success at The Yard is a robust programming budget. A simple tree-lined sidewalk programmed with a market (see Discovery Green below) does far more to activate a park than design.
Just look at what the Vikings envision for events in The Yard (below). Tailgating, fireworks, major gatherings. A large playing field or a grove of northwoods trees, for example, aren’t the right setting – a large, flexible, elegant, timeless urban park design is.
Given the general agreement on the Park Committee that The Yard be “active,” I strongly encourage them to engage Project for Public Spaces. PPS has a long track record of helping activate and maximize the use of public spaces, including downtown parks. Let PPS help us arrive at a vision for this park as an active gathering place for all of Minneapolis, then engage HR&A Advisors to help come up with a fundraising strategy for The Yard. HR&A has extensive experience helping public entities prioritize funding streams. I also recommend that the Park Committee and CPED staff to read the new book “How to Study Public Life” by acclaimed urbanist Jan Gehl (I’ve ordered my copy).
During this visioning process, look no further than the Piazza on the Mall (above) for how to generate activity. The Piazza is an example of tactical urbanism, which populates underutilized urban spaces with activity and generates enthusiasm and political support for permanent changes. Before any dirt is turned, use an existing Star Tribune surface parking lot to host an event. Bring in temporary trees and benches. Have a temporary beer garden and live music in the summer or ice rink in the winter. This can only help potential funders envision what The Yard will one day be like, and maybe they will pay for that fountain or arch, and be more willing to support that all-important long-term revenue stream for events and programming.
The Yard is going to be a different kind of park, like nothing we’ve seen in the Twin Cities. As they envision what The Yard will be, tell the Park Committee to engage PPS to help ensure an emphasis on “active.” We need a place to do yoga in the morning. We need that place to celebrate a World Series victory. We need a place to eat and drink. We need a place to meet friends downtown. We need a place to gather and light a candle when a leader like Nelson Mandela passes. We need a place to sit and watch the world go by. We need an everyday active public space at The Yard. We need a place to host events year-round. We need a place to kiss.