A field guide lets us be curious about the world. The form allows readers to be explorers in their own backyards. It is a medium built around direct inspection and inquiry. It presumes that how we know is just as important as the knowledge itself. More than that, the knowledge is only possible through collaboration—through reaching out of our own experience with others. For that reason, we worked together to create The Field Guide to Public Space in St. Paul.
Why public space? In the May 2018 “State of Our City” address, Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, Minnesota called for citywide community engagement to “build a city that works for all.” Mayor Carter seeks to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods through investment in schools, libraries, and public safety personnel. We maintain that public spaces should be included in this campaign because everyone should have a say in the creation of their city. We, the authors, are responding to the mayor’s call as students and faculty in a geography class at Macalester College. During the Fall of 2018, we assembled a set of resources for evaluating the publicness of public space.
Our field guide examines the state of public space in St. Paul by engaging an overarching question while studying specific instances of public space: Are we making inclusive decisions in the design and maintenance of public space that promote a democratic society in St. Paul? This question matters because public spaces demarcate who is included and who is excluded from the public. That boundary determines whose civic identity is seen as belonging within society and who is made invisible.
Inspired by field guides that ask users to consider their environment, we evaluate everyday spaces in the city and connect the specific to the general. From neighborhood parks to light rail stations to St. Paul’s skyways, each of us examined a public space over the past few months. Distilling ideas from geographical field methods, urban design and city planning, our strategy endeavors to interrogate the tension between civic representation and privatization in public spaces.
We invite you, reader, to consider this question too. We welcome feedback and discussion. Each essay in the guide investigates the complex ways a public space promotes social inclusion or not—often at the same time. We do not declare places as good or bad. Rather we focus on how aspects of design and management define who is included in the public. Through this, our field guide parses out how public and private decisions shape the building of a city that works for everyone.