River Talk

Student Visions, Future Realities?

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.