River Talk

August 2010 Archives

The sustainability of water is a dauntingly complex challenge.  Biological and physical systems intersect human systems in multiple, complex ways that almost serve as the definition of a "wicked" problem.  (For a good quick summary of the term "wicked problems" see the Wikipedia entry).  And now I am going to have to explain to my students why Wikipedia is not a sufficient source for their term papers; but that's another story.

In 2009, the Minnesota Legislature asked for a broad-reaching, comprehensive report on the future of Minnesota's water supply and what long term issues the state faces.  It's important to note that Minnesota, the "land of 10,000 lakes," home to over 90,000 miles of rivers and streams, and located at the junction of three of the continent's most significant water systems--the Red River, the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes, is a "water rich" state.  We should never have to worry about the quality and quantity of our water supplies, right?


Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are locked in a regional policy and legal battle that will have a substantial impact on future growth, development, and sustainability in the southeastern sections of the country.  Everyone has known that the American West has long had water problems, but the South is a new "front" in this conflict.  We in the Midwest would be wise to start understanding our water situation very clearly now, against the day when any of a number of plausible scenarios dramatically affect our region's water.

In an op-ed column published last Saturday, University of Minnesota researcher Deborah Swackhamer offers a summary overview of work to date on the development of the new Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework.  She makes a number of important points, asking us to think about groundwater as a bank account, where we really should understand the balance and how it is replenished before we just make willy-nilly withdrawals.

But it is one of her final points that has struck me most forcibly:  She argues that "there'll be a dramatic cultural shift in the way we think about our water supply and our personal water use."  This notion of a cultural shift, with its parallel understanding that the stories we tell each other (and ourselves) and the images we hold of ourselves will have to shift, is often overlooked in our thinking about water.  Water sustainability is not just a matter of science and policy; it also requires new stories, new senses of community, and new visions.

Since the mid 1990s, the City of St. Paul has worked very actively to connect its urban fabric to the Mississippi River corridor through the city.  The 1997 publication of the St. Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework, and its subsequent use by the City and by the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation as a tool to shape urban design and planning in "river precincts" have made St. Paul a leader among Mississippi River cities that are undertaking a systematic approach to reengaging with the river. 


Just to cover my bases with some of my program collaborators, let the record show that Minneapolis is doing great things with its riverfront also.  But this post is about St. Paul.


Last week, the City of St. Paul kicked off a year-long master planning process for the "Great River Park."  The City has 17 miles of Mississippi riverfront, more than any other city, and a number of parks on that corridor.  But the parks aren't well connected, either in the physical landscape or in the public's mind as an integrated system.  In 2009 the City received state funding for a process to integrate city and park into a "Park within the city/city within the park."


There's a lot to like about this effort, about which you can learn more at an impressive Great River Park web site.  The focus on including diverse systems into a place that is "More Natural, More Urban, and More Connected" has to be seen as central to establishing a fully sustainable urban riverfront.  And the early development of a "Cultural Audit" that reaches out to include more people in the community than the usual riverfront stewardship suspects is very welcome.  See a video of the audit from a link at the bottom of main section pages of the web site.


We'll be tracking this project closely, and participating to the extent we are able.  The consulting team, led by Wenk Associates from Denver and the Hoisington Koegler Group in Minneapolis (part of the team that developed the exciting "Power of the Falls" plan for the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board) is very qualified to bring a visionary plan to St. Paul.  Stay tuned!

For more than a decade, the McKnight Foundation's Environment Program has been one of the most important sources of support for many organizations working to protect and sustain the Mississippi River and the life it contains and enriches, both human and nonhuman.


Five years ago, in 2005, the Foundation convened some three dozen of its grantee organizations to consider how they might fruitfully collaborate to make "the whole as greater than the sum of the parts."  What could be done, the Foundation asked, to expand the message and the reach of their groups' work beyond the people already being reached?


The result was the development of the Mississippi River Network (MRN), a consortium of 31 organizations from throughout the length of the Mississippi River valley and in other locations across the country, who have agreed on shared goals and a vision for the future of the Mississippi.  The goals, as listed on the MRN web site are:

Land Goal:  We will restore, protect and reconnect environmentally sensitive lands and will use working lands sustainably on a continental scale.

Water Goal:  We will reduce water pollution, restore the river as habitat, and improve natural processes and features that can reduce flood damage.

People Goal:  We will urge the people of the Mississippi River Watershed and the nation to treat the Mississippi as a national treasure to be protected, restored, enjoyed and sustainably developed, and as a resource that enriches both the economy and the quality of life.

An immediate point to make about these goals is their integration:  only by thinking about how people, land, and water work together will we be able to reverse the decades of degradation that the Mississippi has suffered.  And only by thinking of people, land, and water as integrated systems will we be able to achieve work at the scale that is needed to affect the third largest watershed in the world, the Mississippi River watershed.


A caveat is in order:  The Mississippi River Network consists only of private sector nonprofit organizations, and does not include every one of those groups that is working on Mississippi River sustainability.  There are lots of reasons, of course, why some groups are not included, and it is not my place to make an argument for more inclusion or anything of that nature.  Plus the public agencies at the federal, state, and local level are not represented, although every one of the MRN organizations engages extensively with public agencies.  Those agencies in turn are working together to address issues such as hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico.


What is most significant, I think, is that this is a concerted effort to coordinate some of the messages and activities of many of the most dedicated environmental stewards working on Mississippi River issues.  Coordination is very difficult, as anyone who has tried it knows.  The efforts of the Biodiversity Project staff who are working to staff the MRN and to provide assistance through tool kits of media materials and guidance about the diverse audiences that can be reached to influence the future of the Mississippi are to be commended.


One example of the public engagement that the MRN is developing on behalf of its members is the 1 Mississippi Photo Contest.  Everyone has their favorite place on the Mississippi River and all of us have taken photographs to capture the essence of that place.  Go to the contest web site and cast your vote--voting ends next week!



I'm off to a conference all of this next week, and by the time I get back and dug out from the amassed things to do and caught up, it's likely to be the week of August 23 before entries come back to River Talk.

So stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy the river!
Isn't this always how it goes?  Just after I posted my blog entry Monday about our student work on the Minneapolis riverfront, I open up the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and there's a story about the students and their project.  Jenna Ross wrote a nice piece that captures the heart of the matter:  students developing idealistic, hopeful visions of "design moves" that make the riverfront more accessible to the community.

But in some ways, the comments that the story attracted were as interesting as the story itself.  The 40 (at last count) comments were generally, "positive" in that they recognized the value of having people set for new visions of what's possible.  Some went so far as to say that the park Board should all see these ideas, which is a very gratifying affirmation of the work. 

A couple of "nay-sayers" spoke up, and questioned why the city would be interested in spending public money on such stuff.  And those comments, in turn elicited reflections that we have access to the rivers and lake fronts that define the city largely because of the vision and courage of previous generations; it's time for us to do our part.

It is indeed time to do our part, and the visions of the waterfront that our students put forth can be vary valuable conversation starters.  I already know some people will find them too "hard scaped" and "urban" with not enough of the "green heart of the city" vision.  Others will feel quite differently, that the city riverfront needs to be much more "people-oriented," and that the future of the riverfront is as a broadly-accessible social space.

To me, the truth is "both/and," not "either/or" and our challenge as public agency staff, education/program specialists, or advocates, is to engage in a robust, respectful, public debate that has our shared goals in mind.

I am hopeful that our discussions will be able to go beyond the polarizing, name-calling that passes so often for public debate these days.  The river deserves the best thinking we can give it.  
Many of us engaged in river work get stuck in the details of "getting the next thing done."  This is understandable, given how much there is that can be done, how many people and organizations are involved, and how complex truly interesting and transformative projects are.

But we don't give ourselves an awful lot of room to dream.  And when we do dream, locked into our organizational boxes as we are, the future tends to look a lot like the present but more (more ecological, more popular, etc.)

Here's where working with students can be so much fun.

About a year ago, University of Minnesota architecture student Daniel Carlson came to see me and renew a bit of discussion that we'd had a year or two before.  Dan had just come back from a study trip to Europe, where he had examined the diverse ways that European cities connected with their rivers.  He was particularly interested in how people got actually down to the water, and could use it as a recreational resource for activities more than looking at the river or walking along it.

Where, he wondered in the Twin Cities Mississippi riverfront, could people do the same things as he saw in Europe, making close contact with the water part of their recreational experience.

The answer:  practically nowhere.

So Dan set to work, pulling together a team of other students, another adviser (four really bright energetic students in a team is a lot for just one adviser to handle! Plus we needed multiple kinds of expertise.), and rounding up some financial support from the University's Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.

Meetings with community leaders followed, and then the team photographed, walked the site, visited at all hours of the day, and designed, designed, and designed some more.

We encouraged them to be visionary but not to engage in science fiction or fantasy.  By that, we meant that they should imagine what the future might hold, not be constrained by existing knowledge of budgets, administrative or agency constraints, or existing political boundaries.  But they should not think that the cities would go away, that Minnesota's climate would become southern California, and that other basic laws of physics would not apply. 

We also strongly suggested that they stick to a basic framework that regarded the river as an asset that served the city and region in multiple ways, as a social, ecological, and economic asset.

The result: a collection of 30 remarkable visions of what the Minneapolis Central Riverfront might become.  The visions, depicted in a series of clear, beautiful drawings in an online book, have also been the subject of an exhibition at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.

We can depend on young people to imagine broader futures than we veterans of the trade can foresee.  It's their future, and we need for them to be as engaged and passionate and knowledgeable about creating it as they can be.

The exhibit is up for at least another couple of weeks at Mill City Museum, until mid-August.  It may run later, but hurry and see it as soon as you can.  There's a comment book; let them know what you think!

For more detail on the Imagine the Mississippi project, and the University's innovative Gopher Ranger program, which connects students to the National Park Service Mississippi National River and Recreation Area,see articles from the University News Service, the College of Design blog, and the Minneapolis Downtown Journal.

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