What makes public green space safe?

Greenway neighbors demand action, but short-term fixes like fencing can come at a cost

A south-facing view of the Midtown Greenway below the Bloomington Avenue bridge.
A south-facing view of the Midtown Greenway below the Bloomington Avenue bridge. The fencing was put up over the summer in response to residential safety complaints of drug sales and sex work. Meanwhile, unfenced bridges elsewhere on the greenway continue to be used for shelter by homeless Greenway occupants and other users. Photo by Mira Klein

The Midtown Greenway is host to a tangled collision of public uses, both sanctioned and illicit. At different points along the trail, the narrow corridor is home to long-distance runners, sex workers, bike commuters, opioid users, homeless communities and weary workers on lunch break.

This collision is especially contentious in the spaces underneath the bridges that cross over the Greenway. They are unsanctioned gathering points. Particularly for people without permanent shelter, the bridges provide a reprieve from summer heat and a dry place to sleep at night.

Over recent months these tensions rose to new heights. “This summer has reached an unprecedented level, at least in the perception of illegal activity,” said Jessica Galatz, principal planning analyst with the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority, which owns the corridor and manages its unpaved sections. The physical evidence includes debris and encampments, all of which have stirred up negative feelings in Greenway users and neighborhood residents, Galatz explained.

“I think the neighbors are feeling under siege,” said Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition. “They are frustrated. They don’t know what to do. They aren’t seeing action from the city or the county.”

Neighbors on and near the 2900 block of Bloomington Avenue are especially frustrated, as the Star Tribune reported earlier this year. And they have increasingly identified nearby access to the Greenway as a conduit for these activities, calling for better management of the nearby bridge underpass and adjoining staircase as a means of addressing street-level concerns.

After a series of early summer meetings involving Hennepin County, Ward 9 Council Member Alondra Cano’s office, the local Minneapolis police precinct and neighborhood groups including the Midtown Greenway Coalition and the South Minneapolis Community Safety Coalition, the decision was made to fence off one side underneath the Bloomington Avenue bridge. Ultimately, Cano said, it was neighborhood safety complaints that prompted the action.

In addition to calls received by her office, a coalition of East African residents of a nearby apartment building submitted a petition to the county asking for the closure of the Bloomington Avenue staircase. Building residents declined to speak to media.

“It took me a while to appreciate the seriousness of the issue here,” Cano said. Two years into her second term, Cano is focusing more energy on dispersing illicit activity alongside investments in long-term solutions.

“We’re throwing everything in the kitchen sink at this,” she said. “The fencing is just one step. We need to relieve the pressure here.”

From chain link to tree-lined

While there is consensus that sustainable, long-term solutions are necessary, short-term actions become frequent placeholders.

In addition to fencing like the chain link that went up under Bloomington, for example, the county also funds biohazard cleanups and encampment removals. Galatz estimated that encampment removals along the Greenway happened on a weekly basis this summer. Other tactics include vegetation removal and an increased police presence.

As the National Recreation and Park Association wrote in January 2019, short-term responses to homelessness in parks and other public spaces are not just neutral actions. They can come with a price for both housed and houseless users.

In one case study from Jordan River Parkway in Salt Lake City, vegetation removal in response to increased homeless usage disrupted the efficacy of local social service providers while degrading the park’s ecologic health.

Jensen said a fencing-based approach can have detrimental impacts on community safety. “The more people using the Greenway, the safer the Greenway is,” he said, adopting a popular urbanist stance.

The county is also investing in other infrastructural tactics. It is currently funding a study examining crime prevention through environmental design, with the final report due out in early 2020. “It won’t be earthshattering,” said Kyle Mianulli, a spokesperson for Hennepin County Community Works. But the county hopes the report can uplift locally specific priorities that can be applied to the Greenway.

Perhaps no organization is more squarely situated at the intersection of green infrastructure and safety than Tree Trust, a nonprofit that partners with the county on a variety of Greenway landscaping and vegetation projects. One recent project re-landscaped a patch of vegetation between the Bloomington Avenue stairs and the fenced-off bridge underpass.

Environmental design is not a new strategy for the Greenway. In 2015 Hennepin County Community Works and Minneapolis’ Community Planning and Economic Development department jointly published a report on East Lake Street/Midtown Greenway Placemaking and Urban Design. The report analyzes potential placemaking installations at four nodes along the Greenway to improve accessibility and neighborhood connectivity, including at Bloomington Avenue. Report recommendations included vegetation management, bike parking, better signage and recreational amenities.

“It’s great to do community safety through environmental design,” Jensen said. But alone, he insists that environmental design is not enough. “We need people on the ground,” Jensen continued. “If you miss that part, the human component, you miss a huge piece of the issue.”

‘A drop in the bucket’

Tabitha Montgomery, executive director of the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, is serious about the human issue.

Montgomery, along with the South Minneapolis Community Safety Coalition, has put together a $10 million investment proposal to address community needs that the intersection of 29th & Bloomington makes so visible.

Under the proposal, which was first pitched to a group of city council members and policy aides during an April “day for livability and safety,” the city would allocate this money across three pillars: a full-time community services team, an economic inclusion model for activating community spaces and a restroom-access fund.

Montgomery was clear that “these are not novel ideas.” Rather, the plan is about articulating the necessary resources “to advance more meaningfully towards achieving the communities that we say that we want,” she said.

“Even a $10 million call for investment is a drop in the bucket,” Montgomery said. “There are enough resources in our communities to ensure we are thriving.”

Public entities are already committing resources, although nowhere close to the $10 million Montgomery is calling for.

In late September, Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis allocated $75,000 to St. Stephen’s to grow their social service work with homeless people along the Greenway.

This investment, as Jessica Lee wrote in a recent MinnPost article, was motivated in part by the looming memory of last year’s encampment on Hiawatha Avenue. The fallout from the 300-person strong encampment “has changed how government agencies and nonprofits think about homelessness in the Twin Cities,” Lee wrote. Now, public officials worry that conditions on the Greenway will be perceived as a Hiawatha 2.0.

Unlike Hiawatha Avenue, however, the Greenway is meant to be occupied. “The Greenway is a public space and all members of our community are welcome to use it,” Mianulli said. “And homeless people are part of our community.”

But keeping public space both safe and accessible is tricky terrain. And as parties from the city, county and advocacy groups readily attest, fencing is just a temporary infrastructural response to what is undoubtedly a large, complex and structural social issue.

“Is the fence design the best thing? Absolutely not,” said Greg Leierwood, a longtime Powderhorn Park resident and an advocate for the Bloomington Avenue fence. “It was an afterthought. It wasn’t designed; it was put up because of misuse. It looks terrible.” Still, Leierwood has perceived a reduction in activity underneath the bridge since the fence went up. And to him, that means it’s worth it.

Yet, as Galatz contended, “We don’t want to fence off underneath every abutment. … If we keep fencing them, where do you stop?”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how long Ward 9 City Council Member Alondra Cano has been in office. She is currently two years into her second term.