Want to build more vibrant cities? Just look to the State Fair’s design, geographers say

With its grid street structure, tree-lined sidewalks and ‘districts’ like the animal barns or the old Machinery Hill, the Minnesota State Fair has the look of a real city. It even has its own branded water tower and police chief.

If the State Fair were in fact its own city, it would be the world’s most bustling metropolis, by a significant margin. By average daily attendance, its population density trounces St. Paul’s by over 50 times.

That kind of vibrancy is the stuff of city planners’ dreams — and clearly Minnesotans’, too, given the hundreds of thousands of us who flock to the fairgrounds during each of the Fair’s 12 precious days.

However, in ways that notably differ from some actual American cities — including Minneapolis, as Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea humorously pointed out when he was in town — the Great Minnesota Get-Together offers plenty of public amenities to support people actually getting together. Benches are widely available, water fountains and restrooms are free and relatively clean, and public transit-esque options like the red trolley and SkyRide and SkyGlider run constantly.

What I want to know is this: Is the State Fair’s urban design part of why Minnesotans love it so much? And if so, can we learn from the Fair to build better cities the rest of the year, too?

The answers? Yes, and yes.

Indeed, the State Fair does contain some of the quintessential features of city life, said Macalester College professor and urban geographer Dan Trudeau.

Nerd out with us for a moment: Urban spaces are defined by their high density of completely diverse people and experiences, Trudeau said, citing the 20th-century sociologist Louis Wirth and political philosopher Iris Marion Young. This is certainly the case at the State Fair, he said, which offers a certain degree of enjoyable “cultural whiplash.”

“(Young) describes city life as ‘the being-together of strangers,’” Trudeau said. “There’s this unspoken community with people that you don’t know and might never know.”

Because the State Fair provides so many public amenities, he said, most people can enjoy the surroundings without worrying as much about simple biological needs that might arise like resting, drinking water and using the bathroom.

“We have this space where there’s just a sensory overload, and it’s kind of enriching in that way,” Trudeau said. “We get in touch with different aspects of who we are as human beings in a space like that. And we are at a place where we’re not looking over our shoulder like, ‘Am I gonna get hit by a car?’”

The catch, though, is that the State Fair is not an actual, functional city. Fairgoers are a self-selecting group of people who pay an admission fee and enter through gates, through which they also must exit at a certain time each night when the Fair closes.

Really, the State Fair is a theme park, Trudeau said. A giant, uber-Minnesotan, city-themed theme park.

And this quality of the Fair has the effect of obscuring societal inequalities that are impossible to ignore in everyday urban planning. At the Fair, he said, “there are certain things that will be sanitized out of our existence.”

You probably won’t see panhandlers, for example; either they would not purchase a ticket or they’d be removed from the fairgrounds. Fairgoers don’t have to live at the fair, either, which means both homelessness and property ownership — along with the idea of “defending one’s turf” — are not part of the equation. Because the fairgrounds are not truly a public space, organizers can enact rules like a gun ban, prohibitions on bikes and skateboards, and mandatory bag checks that might not fly in contemporary American politics.

But still: It’s very possible — and actively worthwhile — to use the lessons from the State Fair to make our cities more vibrant during the remaining 353 days of the year, said Bill Lindeke, a lecturer in urban studies at the University of Minnesota, author of “St. Paul: An Urban Biography” and former member of the St. Paul Planning Commission.

Enjoy the State Fair? You might be a New Urbanist.

From an urban planning perspective, the State Fair is an almost cartoonishly magnified case study of a movement called New Urbanism.

Rather than creating strict commercial, residential and industrial zones, Trudeau said, New Urbanism calls for planners to envision a “form” of how a particular place should be organized. Residents can then decide how the spaces should be used.

Proponents of New Urbanism typically prioritize walkable communities with plenty of public transportation and mixed-use developments that make it quick and easy for residents to get from their homes to stores, schools, parks and services like doctors.

“I think we have, in the State Fair, an urban form,” Trudeau said. “The buildings are there, and now what goes into the Education Building? It changes year to year, but we have the building. We have the street; we have a sidewalk; the trees are there. We’re not making the street any bigger, but we’re closing it to traffic in certain times of the year that allows for a different kind of engagement with the outdoor spaces.”

New Urbanism has faced its fair share of criticism and legislative opposition. Some in St. Paul challenge so-called “yes in my backyard” proponents, remaining committed to single-family housing and expressing concerns about traffic and parking. In St. Paul this summer, business opposition helped kill a proposal to expand a downtown service district that helps fund street cleanup and community initiatives. The popular Minneapolis street festival Open Streets was recently abruptly defunded by the city.

But what we can understand from the ever-increasing success of the State Fair, Lindeke said, are two things: One, that these approaches are actually successful when implemented in practice. And two, that they’re quite popular.

Seeing the fairgrounds outside the 12 days of the State Fair is particularly instructive, Lindeke said, in that it’s pretty mundane. The streets are, well, just streets. There’s no secret ingredient mixed into the pavement.

What matters, he said, is what we choose to do with the streets — and the spaces between them.

During the Fair, streets are closed to cars, so there’s space to walk. The permanent structures are built with “porous boundaries,” Lindeke said: You can walk straight through the Agriculture Horticulture Building, or buy brownies or root beer from stands built into the exterior of the Food Building. There aren’t massive swaths of the fairgrounds that are parking lots; proof positive, Lindeke said, that people will still come to compelling, exciting places even if they aren’t car-centric.

And so people walk. And shop. And sit and talk and eat and take in the world. A lot.

Yes, the Fair has an entry fee. And while Lindeke said it’s not exactly analogous to a tax, those dollars are largely reinvested back into fairgoers’ experiences at the Fair. Every day, an army of workers are paid to keep the fairgrounds tidy. This year, Fair organizers made significant expansions to the fairgrounds’ accessibility. Even if the lines get long, park-and-ride bus access to the Fair is fully subsidized. Cultural activities, from concerts to fine art, are abundant and mostly free. The entire Fair economy, practically, is small business.

“The more people that are walking around on the street, the more it makes sense to create street activity and turn walls into windows, and take blank spaces and put shops there,” Lindeke said. “There’s sort of a chicken and egg situation. The more you make compelling, active street fronts, the more people want to walk in the areas, and vice versa.”

The unsung hallmark of good urban spaces? People-watching

How do we know if we’ve been successful in building better cities?

It’s simple, Lindeke said: The existence of people-watching.

It means there are enough benches for people to rest; enough public amenities for them to spend idle time without too much worry. And, too, that there are enough activities to do, in a walkable and safe public space, for folks to simply mill around.

“The State Fair is the greatest place for people-watching you’re going to find in the state of Minnesota,” Lindeke said. “If we can take just a slice of that and help our downtowns achieve that same fascinating and rich life and street vitality, that would be great.”

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