Como Park is unquestionably one of the Twin Cities’ finest public attractions. Living less than two miles away, and with a bunch of new children in the family, I’ve come to appreciate it more over the past, pandemic-laden year.
This Boxing Day, I made another trip to the zoo and conservatory and relished showing off St. Paul to family visiting from Utah. Somewhere between the wolves and the room full of ferns, my brother-in-law paused and turned my way.
“Wait, this whole thing is free?” he asked, astonished.
“Yes, they ask for donations, but anyone can come,” I said, quickly putting $20 in the donation bin.
The fact that the zoo, conservatory and park is free reflects an amazing legacy for St. Paul, one where public infrastructure and philanthropy offers invaluable recreation and education to everyone, no matter their income.
But there’s a problem. Thinking about the role of the conservatory and zoo, locally and globally, I’ve long thought that the same principle should not apply to the parking lots. Especially in an era when anthropogenic climate change is triggering mass extinction, it’s time for the Como attractions to do more to incentivize low-carbon transportation. They could start by charging money for car storage.
History of the park
Como Park itself dates back to 1873, when land was set aside at the urging of legendary 19th century parks guru Horace Cleveland (whose architectural stamp is everywhere in Minneapolis and St. Paul). St. Paul bought 257 acres of land around Lake Como, and it quickly became the ambitious centerpiece of the city’s planned system of parks and parkways. (Prior to that, the lake had been known as Sandy Lake, and had served as a middling rural health resort.)
The park itself, and the neighborhood around it, didn’t take off until the railroads and streetcars came. The first area to develop was a small railroad suburb called Warrendale that was developed along an early railroad line running between the Twin Cities. In other words, the park and its attractions were predicated on transit and remained so throughout much of the 20th century, though early automobile drivers were certainly encouraged to motor recreationally along the newly paved roads.
The link between transit and Como Park was so strong that the first lakeside Como Pavillion was built by the St. Paul streetcar line. (The current building is a close re-creation of the original.) And thousands of people visited the park via the Como-Harriet streetcar, one of the city’s most-used lines, which stopped conveniently in the middle of the park grounds. The existing streetcar station and historic bridge still stand just on the other side of a hill and glade from the Zoo and Conservatory, northeast of Como and Lexington intersection.
Things changed in the latter half of the 20th century, and today the vast majority of people drive individually to the park’s attractions. This means that parking has consistently been a bugaboo at Como. The city has done dozens of transportation and traffic studies over the years, every decade or so going back a lifetime, and most recently in 2011. The latest expansion, in 2015, was when the city’s parks department expanded the surface parking lots around McMurray Fields and again did the same along the ball fields to the south, paving parkland and making more space for parking vehicles. Each year, to alleviate parking demand, the city runs a free shuttle to take visitors the half-mile or so from the park’s center to the vast asphalt lots along the edge of the state fairgrounds, a significant ongoing city expense.
Meanwhile, while there are around 2,000 spaces in the park, the number within very close distance of the pavilion, zoo and conservatory is much smaller. Those close spaces have always remained free of charge, meaning there’s little incentive for visitors to look for alternatives to driving. By contrast, similar popular regional parks like the large Minnehaha Falls park in South Minneapolis have long mixed free, paid and time-limited parking systems, which helps ensure turnover and incentivizes transit, bicycling, and carpooling.
It’s time to align the park planning transportation with the broader climate goals. In 2019, St. Paul city leaders adopted ambitious climate action goals, importantly including a reducing overall vehicle travel in the city by 2.5% per year. Rethinking transportation at Como would be a key step toward achieving that goal. With almost 2 million visitors per year, according to park sources, shifting even 10% of trips to the park onto transit would reduce carbon pollution by a significant amount.
There are certainly alternatives. The #3 bus, which runs right through the park itself, is slated for upgrade and improvement into a more reliable and accessible aBRT, deemed the H Line. Meanwhile, the 83 route also runs through the park, connecting the Como attractions to the north and south. One idea: parking fees could subsidize rides on transit to and from Como Park, and the city could run a program via its current reservation system, where bus passes are free with admission. It wouldn’t be unprecedented: the park previously offered free transit rides as an Earth Day promotion.
Sending a clear signal
I’ve long had a vague, queasy feeling when visiting a zoo. The ethics of zoos, or even conservatories, have evolved since their Victorian era heyday as wealthy countries like ours have more closely examined our relationship to the rest of the world. All of those concerns are multiplied during a climate crisis, at the beginning of what’s been called the Holocene Extinction. In other words, it can be hard to look a polar bear in the eye when it’s 40 degrees in Nunavut in December.
At the very least, shifting parking and transit subsidies at the zoo and conservatory would send a clear signal to visitors on their way to see, for free, the wide array of animals and plants from ecosystems all over the world endangered by the rapidly changing climate. Taking the bus to the zoo would offer a clear way to connect distant places with our present actions.
The St. Paul Parks Department, and the supporters of Como Park who have kept the zoo and conservatory viable all these years, should lead on introducing climate action into their transportation planning. Call them carbon offset fees instead of parking meters if you like, but shifting the balance between driving and transit at one of the city’s biggest and most environmentally-focused attractions would be a step in the right direction for climate action in St. Paul.