River Talk

December 2009 Archives

Interpretation and Place-Making

Bridge at Father Hennepin Bluffs Park near St. Anthony FallsToo often, "interpretation" boils down to questions solely of what stories to tell and how. Should there be a podcast? Where should markers be placed? Do we talk about nature as well as social history?

Like a decision between ketchup or mustard on a sandwich, these questions affect the flavor of a place but do not really get to the heart of the matter. The "meat" of the issue, if you'll excuse the pun, in place-based interpretation is what are the visitor experiences of this place and how can informal learning enhance that experience?

Last Monday, in a bold move that may mark a turning point in its history, the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board (SAFHB) approved the concepts and principles for a new interpretive plan. Several things mark this plan as a new direction: 

It is based on research into the audience in the historic district, both the present audience and who agency planners hope will visit. 

There is a clear and reiterated acknowledgement of the importance of native people to the place. 

The plan remains open on particularities of theme, story, method, and other technical particulars of interpretation, but is very clear that the power of the place--nature, spiritual connectivity, history, urban vitality--is the base upon which any future programming should be built. 

The plan looks out to and engages the potential of new partners to the district's planning. The Heritage Board, established by Minnesota state law in 1988 as a collaboration of the Minnesota Historical Society, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, City of Minneapolis, and Hennepin County, has done heroic work in moving the district from a place that is neglected to one that is desirable. In addition to renewed commitment from traditional partners, other groups are needed to help it become memorable. 

St. Anthony Falls is a place of world significance in human and natural history. The new plan is a call to action for the Board to live up to that significance. 

The Plan can be found in pdf format on the SAFHB website. Scroll down to "2009 Interpretive Plan" to find the download links.
Readers of this blog know that it just started a month ago, even though the program and issues we work with are of much longer standing. As I've learned more about digital communications and blogging, I've been trying to read some more blogs by other people. As I've been learning more about riverfronts, I've been discovering places where broader waterfront planning and design are and are not comparable.

A convergence of these threads had led me to Cristina Bump's AIA Scholarship Blog  I met Cristina last fall at the Waterfront Center's annual conference in Seattle. She told me about her AIA scholarship trip to Australia, examining the Sydney waterfront as well as waterfronts in Brisbane and Melbourne. Her blog contains detailed and vivid information about the state of the art in these various places.

There are of course important differences between riverfronts per se and the more general topic of waterfronts. That said, there's a lot to learn for riverfront sustainability from what people like Cristina Bump and her interview subjects are discovering, whether in the Pacific Northwest in the United States or across Australia. Digital communications, such as Cristina's work, and, as it builds, this forum, provide ways to stay current on emerging discoveries, research, and practices for riverfront sustainability. It may be comfortable to wait for publication of key case studies, analyses, and research reports, but 21st century problems and solutions are requiring 21st century communication technologies to spread the word.

Telling River Stories

The Story Boats in the RiverThere's an affinity between rivers and stories. The best stories flow like rivers; some of our best stories are about rivers; something about being on a river elicits stories. One of the best known stories in American literature is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and since Twain's time hundreds of people have tried their hand at telling their river story. 

Our web site Telling River Stories may not be as ambitious as Twain's account, but it does "aim high," if you will. Our stories show actual people, doing river-shaping work in actual places. The "actual" is important to us: this is not a "grand march of time" history site where users aren't really sure who did all that stuff. A good rule of thumb to think about what are "river stories" would be "the things you should know to understand the river in that spot." 

For example, "Navigating Our River Communities" tells of the work done by art student Anna Metcalfe in her work with the Minneapolis Green Team. The Green team is a group of disadvantaged Minneapolis youth who have been brought together in the summer to conduct habitat restoration work along the Mississippi. The young people, all high school students, undertake projects under the guidance of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the National Park Service, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization. The collaboration is modeled on work pioneered by the Community Design Center of Minnesota. All in all, this is amazing work that is a prime example of what's happening on our riverfronts today that will lead us into a more sustainable future.

So what do we hope for from the Telling River Stories (TRS) web site? The primary audience for the site is the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are working every day to make a more sustainable future for our riverfronts. We hope that you will come to the site, explore stories that interest you, and then continue to pursue information about the partners and projects that are described there. The TRS site is companion to the home site of the River Life program, which contains descriptions and links for the most innovative, far-reaching, and substantial projects, programs, and people engaged in all facets of river restoration. The map-based TRS site tells "where" the great work is happening; the River Life database shows who and what is involved in doing this great work. 

We hope to get your work included in our databases, so we can tell the world all about your successes. Get in touch with me at pdn@umn.edu and let's see what we can do!
A week ago, over 90 people gathered on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota to participate in a presentation and panel discussion that invited them to "re-imagine" the Mississippi River Gorge, that stretch of the Mississippi passing through the campus. The Gorge is the only true, geological, gorge on the entire Mississippi; it has long excited particular interest of landscape architects, painters, photographers, and the thousands of pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers who use the parkways on both sides. 

Lately, the Gorge has been the source of much public debate about its future. Locks and dams at both ends have changed the character of the water from the rushing rapids that 19th century explorers found to today's rather placid pool. "What if the dams were removed?" people have wondered. "Are there any ways to recapture some of the ecological functions of the past?"

There may be, but the actual ecological restoration is a number of years away, even in the most active scenarios. In the meantime, the combination of scientific description and analysis, community will and passion, and aesthetic imagination will point us in a direction where the future of the Gorge is more truly a broad-based community asset.

For video of much of the event, you can view them at the bottom of this post or go to the Web site of the Institute for Advanced Study, co-sponsor of the event as part of its "Thursdays at Four" series The Institute on the Environment also co-sponsored the event.


Introductory remarks by moderator, Pat Nunnally.


Presentation by biologist, Chris Lenhart.


Presentation by artist, Christine Baeumler.


Presentation by Park Board Member, Scott Vreeland.


Mona Smith, Chris Lenhart, Christine Baeumler, Scott Vreeland, and moderator Pat Nunnally answer questions about their presentations.
Arcola Bridge on the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and MinnesotaEarlier we posted on climate change and rivers and mentioned the Statewide Water Management Plan being coordinated by the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center. Serendipitously, a message from that study, reproduced below, came out earlier this week. We urge everyone with an interest in the future of Minnesota's water to click on the link and complete the survey

Minnesota lies at the head of the Mississippi River main stem and is home to some of the defining watersheds in the entire 31 state Mississippi River watershed. The Minnesota River contributes a very high percentage of the nutrients that create the "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are the first major metropolitan area along the full length of the great river.

Clearly, what happens here is important to the much broader watershed. The study being undertaken is not only important in its own right, but could serve as a model for other studies, at varying scales, the will contribute enormously to wise decisions that will allow a 200 year sustainability vision for the watershed.

We'll continue to track and report on this study and urge you to participate in the survey.

Make Sure Your Voice Is Heard!

The University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center (WRC) is developing a Water Sustainability Framework for the next 25 years to protect and improve Minnesota's precious water resources. Because the state's surface and ground waters belong to the people, we are gathering public opinion via surveys and listening sessions on a range of water issues.

Use this link and complete an online survey to make sure your opinions are heard. It's anonymous, quick, and easy. Responses will be incorporated into the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework that will be presented to the State Legislature January 2011.

While you're on the WRC web site, you can sign up for regular email updates on the progress of the Framework and find out more about when and where Listening Sessions will be held around the state.

If you're unable to access the survey online, call 612-624-9282 and we'll send you a written copy.

Image of Arcola High Bridge on the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota, used courtesy of the Metropolitan Design Center, College of Design, University of Minnesota.  Image accession number in the collection is dc003229, and can be found in the Metropolitan Design Center collection in the Digital Content Library.
Gaumuk Glacier, The Source of the Ganges RiverBy now, most readers of this blog probably know that world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen to try to develop international accords on what to do regarding climate change. Certainly important work, but what's it got to do with those of us who spend our time working toward a sustainable Mississippi River and its watershed? 

Well, a lot, actually, but I'll only focus on three of the many threads of this discussion today. In the Time magazine dated December 7,  there is a report about glaciers melting in the Himalayas, a region sometimes referred to as the world's "third pole." These glaciers feed some of the most significant rivers of the world, including the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Yellow, the Yangtze. All in all, the glaciers of the Himilayas and the Tibetan Plateau serve the water needs of billions of people: "the water tower of Asia."

But the water tower is not refilling as it once did. precise measurements are difficult to obtain owing to the difficult and contested terrain, but anecdotal and observational evidence indicates that the glaciers are shrinking. If they recede to the point where the water supply of these great river systems becomes unreliable, present stresses on water supply and distribution may grow to the point of catastrophe.

But we may not be able to look to the Copenhagen discussions for help on this particular concern. Writing in the op-ed section of the Los Angeles Times James G. Workman argues that Copenhagen delegates have essentially "dehydrated" the discussions by removing water from a central point in the negotiations. Quite honestly, I don't know enough detail about the Copenhagen agenda to support or question Workman's argument (and welcome comment from people more versed than I) but the issue bears further consideration.

Fortunately, that consideration is happening in Minnesota. Working with a grant from the Legislative-Citizens' Commission on Minnesota Resources, the University's Water Resources Center and its co-director Professor Deborah Swackhamer are coordinating the development of a 25 year plan to manage Minnesota's water resources. We usually think of Minnesota, the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" and the intersection of three continental watersheds (the Mississippi, the Great lakes, and the Red River/Hudson's Bay system) as having plenty of water. Maybe we do, maybe we don't; no one really knows for sure. Nor do we know precisely where state policies are in conflict or leave gaps in directing the management of state surface and groundwater.

In 2008, voters passed the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment, which raises millions of dollars every year for water conservation, habitat and natural area preservation, and programs that protect the state's historic and cultural resources. The kind of detailed inventory and analysis that Swackhamer and her team are undertaking will go a long way in directing lawmakers how to use those funds wisely so that, we hope, we aren't facing the drying up of our own "water tower of North America," the Mississippi River.

Image is of Gaumuk Glacier, the source of the Ganges River in the Himalayas.
Image Courtesy of Hug Cirici, used under a Creative Commons License
Kayaks on the Mississippi River
One of the threads that's beginning to run through a lot of the river advocacy and riverfront community development work that is taking place is the need to get people on the water in order to know a river well.  Sure your can look at it from a bike path, walking trail, or parkway, but, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, the difference between looking at a river and canoeing or kayaking on it is like the difference between kissing someone and marrying them!

These notes have already mentioned the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure, a subject that we will undoubtedly return to.  This time, I want to post a brief note indicating how broadly the notion of canoe trails has reached.  A friend in Washington just sent me a note highlighting the interview with the new director of Paddle Canada. Seems he's interested in developing paddle routes that involve international partnerships.  One possibility might be the Detroit American Heritage River (AHR), which forms part of the border between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.  The American Heritage River Initiative (also previously mentioned in these notes; for further information, look here) also has an international "blue trail" possibility on the Rio Grande.  Not surprisingly, many of the AHR rivers have active Blue Trail programs already up and running.  See, for example, the New River Blueway, and the Willamette River Water Trail.

On the Mississippi, we like to think that we're second to none, but in this case, some smaller rivers may have gotten the jump on us.  Of course, our work is pretty complex, but the problems are getting sorted out and the goal of getting 10,000 paddlers on the Mississippi in the Twin Cities in 2010 looks reachable.

Been on the river up here?  Let us know your thoughts, or, better yet, send us some photos of your experience!

Image courtesy of Jim Brekke, used under a Creative Commons License

It's a truism that our future is bound up in children, in young people, or, at a University, in our students.  Lots and lots of river folks, of course, engage young people, as our post of last week on the Story Boat project demonstrated.

But what if we could really get the "student power" of the University of Minnesota oriented toward the Mississippi River?  As the only comprehensive university located largely within the boundaries of a National Park Service unit, it would seem to be our mission to find out.

"River Futures" is the name we have given to our efforts to get the university in the DNA of the river and park and to get the river/park in the DNA of the university.  River Futures has two components:  Gopher Rangers, which is a way to improve access for students into the work of the Park Service at their Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) unit, and River Studies, which is an effort to systematically connect teaching, co-curricular research opportunities, and other programs to the park's work.   Let's look at these quickly.

Most of our students don't know that they go to school in a National Park.  Yet for many of them, the opportunity to engage in habitat restoration, a canoeing program for school children, or to lead an interpretive program would be a tremendously valuable adjunct to their major fields of study.  Student lives are busy, though, and they don't know how to get started, to connect up with the park, or what to do.  The Gopher Ranger program provides information and announces upcoming programs to interested students so they can have access to opportunities to extend their learning and contribute to the Park's work.

River Studies gets at the same goals but in a slightly different manner.  So far, we're working on a pilot basis with faculty in the College of Design and the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences to collect information on courses and student project opportunities that might mutually benefit the park and the students in the course.  Suppose that an urban design course has a service learning component requiring a community partner and is focused on urban natural systems.  If the faculty member gets in touch with park staff, there may be a potential collaboration that serves a park need as well as fulfilling the course goals.  The same could happen with a course on urban forestry, on tourism behavior, or literally dozens of other ideas.

The University of Minnesota is by no means the only college or university on the Mississippi.  We know, and work with, people at Augustana College in Rock Island, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Tulane University in New Orleans.  As the River Futures program and comparable efforts along the river mature, a cadre of educated, bright,  and idealistic young people should be organized for future Mississippi River sustainability efforts!  Some of them will work at colleges and universities, and so the cycle of benefits continues.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.