Snapshot: Highlights from “The Path to a Better Public Realm” event

On the heels of the 2023 CTS Transportation Research Conference, the Center for Transportation Studies, Metropolitan Council, and Metro Transit convened a conversation with dozens of elected and appointed officials, community members and advocates, and educators and experts to discuss the challenges and opportunities across the Twin Cities public realm. 

A key aim of the convening was soliciting diverse, candid viewpoints for a shared understanding of the breadth of challenges and how they're connected across transit, parks, libraries, and other public rights-of-way and shared spaces.

Following opening remarks by CTS Director Kyle Shelton and Metropolitan Council Chair Charlie Zelle, four panels addressed topics such as working in partnership across agencies; lessons learned from ongoing outreach to schools, businesses, and residents prior to and during construction of the METRO B Line; and identifying some of the thorniest issues showing up in the public realm (spoiler alert: lack of accessible restrooms). 

Attendees at the November 2023 Public Realm event
"State of Public Space” panel at the Public Realm event
“Investing in Partnerships” panel at the Public Realm event
"essons from Lake Street/B Line” panel at the Public Realm event

The event also featured a keynote address from SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards, who shared pandemic-era challenges and successes at the nation’s sixth-largest transit agency, in southeastern Pennsylvania. As just one example from the agency’s innovative SCOPE program, Richards described how new partnerships with Cabrini University and Drexel University’s College of Medicine led to students volunteering to provide connections and care to unsheltered individuals.

Five Key Takeaways

  • Social issues manifest themselves in the public realm, even as the roots of those issues develop elsewhere. 
  • There are multiple meanings for “public realm” and how people encounter these common spaces—and each space has multiple interpretations. As Hennepin County Board Chair Irene Fernando pointed out: “There are very few places where we can stay for free.”
  • The population that a public space was designed for in a previous era will change. Marginalized populations often contort themselves to fit in or use public spaces designed without them in mind. Over time, these spaces can and will change. 
  • Working on large projects across jurisdictional boundaries and even between an organization's own departments can be an underappreciated and time-consuming challenge. Ramsey County Public Works Director Brian Isaacson suggested that beginning collaborative work inside an organization is what might be required before successful external partnerships. With cross-jurisdictional efforts, parties need to reach a shared understanding of what it means to jointly maintain a public space prior to construction, anticipating the years of use it will experience well after the ribbon-cutting.
  • Communities benefit when agencies take a maximal view of their domain, work, and roles and actively engage beyond their boundaries. For instance, transportation projects can include a range of goals that provide benefits beyond the direct transportation need. 

Next Steps

In a concluding conversation, attendees offered to inventory existing efforts across the region to address public realm challenges and explore how these might be aligned or leveraged more effectively. They also discussed creating a taskforce or separate convening to further explore the connection between public health and transportation.  Finally, the group committed to expand the audience of partners for further convenings in 2024 and potentially beyond.

—John Siqveland, CTS communications director


Sign up to receive our Catalyst newsletter in your inbox twice every month.

Media Contact

Michael McCarthy