Voices: A new Gateway Park should have inviting design

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June 20, 2012 by Sarah M

// By Sam Rockwell & Molly Sullivan //

The Trust for Public Land recently hosted a roundtable titled “What’s Up With Downtown Parks?” The panel discussed the planned Gateway Park that will replace several parking lots and ramps adjacent to the Minneapolis Central Library.

When asked to describe Gateway Park’s intended users and uses, Sarah Harris of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District did not suggest any users or uses other than “contemplative use.” Accenture’s David Wilson stated that existing downtown residents and businesses would weigh in on possible park uses.

Gateway Park should be designed to accommodate all users, even those who do not currently live or own a business downtown. It should be used at all hours of the day and should be designed to encourage lively park use.

Near-by Gold Medal Park and Cancer Survivors Park are empty because they are uninviting. For example, Gold Medal Park’s carefully manicured condo-ringed lawns appear private or exclusive. There is nowhere comfortable to sit with a newspaper, nor does the park encourage games or family activities with signs, courts or shade.

A park can be much more. Brooklyn’s McCarren Park fits a wide range of activities into an area about the size of Gateway Park: a skate park, a community garden, a playground, several basketball courts, a dog park, space and poles for several volleyball courts, and ample benches and lawn space under a tree canopy for lazy weekenders or work-day lunch breaks. In addition, the park hosts a weekly farmers’ market, movies in the park, and concerts in the park. The park is used by people from all age groups, ethnicities, and income levels and invites further use simply by being in constant use.

These diverse park users live in Minneapolis, too. Bike to Broadway, just east of Central Ave in Northeast, and watch families playing volleyball. Walk through Loring Park and observe tennis and basketball games in progress. Or hop on the #9 bus from downtown to Brackett Park and watch teens at the skate park or take the LRT to Minnehaha Park to watch people of all ethnicities, ages, and income levels use picnic tables. These parks share a common element: they are designed for use. The presence of a volleyball pit or basketball court signals to a person “This park is for YOU.  Bring a game, a picnic, or a book and use this space.”

Minneapolis sits in “flyover county” and, as one panelist pointed out, many non-residents do not know that the Mississippi, one of the world’s great rivers, embraces our city center. Minneapolis has potential to become a great nationally-known city, even a globally known city. But Minneapolis also holds power to squander that potential, a power used in the 1950s and ‘60s when the city razed the old Gateway Park and surrounding classic stone architecture and outdoor cafés and created surface parking lots.

If downtown Minneapolis is to become the thriving urban hub of culture and activity that the Downtown Improvement District envisions, its public spaces must cater to all city residents, workers, and visitors. We must make a usable Gateway Park designed for all users.

Sam Rockwell is a Minneapolis native and former Policy Director for the New York City Council. Molly Sullivan holds a Master of Public Policy and works for the University of Minnesota. Both worked for Transportation Alternatives in New York and get around by bicycle.

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