River Talk

January 2011 Archives

I have written before about the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition and the "Next Generation of Parks" that the competition is seeking for the upper riverfront, above St. Anthony Falls. The four teams unveiled their proposals last Thursday evening at the Walker Art Center, and they are simply spectacular.

The competition web site has links to the proposals, videos that each team created, and a place to collect comments. Unlike the comments that accrue to online newspaper stories (don't those people have anything else to do other than vent bad-tempered ignorance?) the comments on the design proposals appear to be quite good. I've just glanced at them, but there appears to be considerable reflection and analysis taking place, which is always good.

I intend to write about each of the proposals in the next few days, and to take up some other particularly interesting questions about the process. But in the meantime, by all means I encourage you to go to the site, study the proposals and make your comments.

After all, it's only the next century or so on the river front that we're talking about!

Four Minutes of Fame

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I had my four minutes of fame yesterday, which means, if Andy Warhol is correct, that I have another 11 minutes coming to me. Maybe so.

The four minutes I had yesterday was a segmenton KARE 11 News Saturday, a show that airs early Saturday morning (instead of cartoons, I suppose) that offers weather, news headlines, and brief chats with people who have somehow found a way to come to their attention. In my case, I was there because the University of Minnesota Press is promoting the newly-released book The City, the River, the Bridge, about the collapse of the I-35W bridge in 2007, which I had the pleasure and honor of editing.

It will surprise none of you that I overprepared for yesterday's appearance. The four minutes went by extremely quickly, as Eric Perkins and I had a nice chat about the book, the bridge collapse, and what might be learned from the disaster and its aftermath.

Just so all that preparation doesn't go to waste, here's what I would have said if there had been time on the television show. I tried to anticipate what I would be asked and to think of what I would say, so I wouldn't have that "deer in the headlights" thing going on during live TV. Not that anyone would be watching at 8:20 on Saturday morning in January.

How did the book come about in the first place? The bridge collapse happened at the "front door" of the University, just off the East Bank campus. Some of our students and staff who live in the area were among the first on the scene. Many of us feel that part of the public role of the University is to think "beyond the headlines," taking a broader approach to public issues than the news, business, and political cycles allow. And we have a responsibility to communicate those ideas to the public. So, during the semester after the collapse, I helped organize a series of public lectures on subjects related to the bridge, the river, and the city, and that series was followed up a year later by a day-long symposium. The symposium talks were then edited for publication in this book.

Who was involved in this effort? The River Life Partnership is a collaborative effort to connect the teaching, research, and programs of the University to people working on river sustainability. We're a world-class university on one of the great rivers of the world, located in a National Park, and it is the job of our program to take strategic, long term advantage of that fact. The lectures, symposium and book were likewise collaborative, bringing together expertise and resources from across the University, but led by the Institute for Advanced Study, the Institute on the Environment, the Provost's Office, the Urban Studies Program, and the University of Minnesota Press.

What have we learned from the bridge collapse and the aftermath? I think there are four lessons.

First, we solved the short term crisis well, building a new, elegant, strong bridge in record time. But we still haven't addressed, really, long term issues of how we treat the river itself, including the uncomfortable fact that what we put in the water upstream, whether from farms or cities, poisons the river and the Gulf of Mexico downstream.

Second, the term "fracture critical," which refers to a construction and engineering approach on the old bridge whereby the failure of one key component caused the whole structure to collapse, may help us understand our vulnerabilities in other areas. Systems that are built without redundancy, or backup capacity, are especially vulnerable to catastrophic failure. Tom Fisher, the Dean at the College of Design, made this point during the 2008 symposium, which took place during a week that the economy was in free fall. A "fracture critical" economy, with illusions of wealth built on subprime mortgages, or a fracture critical climate, with much of what we depend on to live being held up by unsustainable use of energy and carbon, should get our attention.

Third, planning decisions have long term consequences. The old I-35W bridge carried 140,000 vehicles a day on a transportation system oriented to easing the carrying of goods and people from the farthest reaches of a regional metropolis. But that spread-out system, with the inefficiencies of time, land use, energy, and the like, was not accidental, or an "unintended consequence" of early decisions. Likewise (and this is an insight from one of the lectures, not the book) we enjoy an unsurpassed park system in the Twin Cities because of decisions and investments made generations ago.

Generations from now, what will our children and grandchildren have to say about the investments we make or fail to make now?

Finally, I would suggest that "if we take care of the river, it will be able to take care of us." We still don't reallyact as if the Mississippi River is central to our cities, although we're doing better now than we ever have. If we can somehow devise a "river-centric" pattern of design, planning, policy, engineering, education, and economics, the river will pay us back manifold. In addition to providing clean water, urban cooling effects, and pleasant places to live, all of which are "ecosystem services" that we really don't know how to value, the river can become the green engine of the Twin Cities' 21st century economy. Lots of people are working on this, and they should be encouraged.

I guess I was idealistic to think I would get to say all of this on a short TV spot on a Saturday morning. But I invite your comments now, as part of our ongoing discussion.

And please buy, and read, the book--it contributes to these debates as well.

You won't find many who are nostalgic for the 1970s--that hair! Those clothes!

But one thing I miss from the 1970s is a sense of things that we shared as a community, and our common responsibilities to protect and steward the things that made all of our lives richer. I saw this a lot in planning for public spaces, in resource management planning and design projects. There was a sense that there was an "us" and that, together, we could protect and enhance places that we shared in common.

Like the Mississippi River, for example.

Of course, the Mississippi was there for a long time before the 1970s, and many, dating back millennia to the first people who knew the river, understood that it was a "commons," shared by many for the benefit of many.

But the 1970s saw the passage of substantial protections for the Mississippi River, here in the Twin Cities at least, that have been the foundation of most if not all of the river enhancements that have happened subsequently.

The Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) was established first by Executive Order of the Governor and then made a law in 1979 Act (MN Statute Chap. 116G). The act required local governments (including the University of Minnesota) to create plans to protect the scenic, natural, historic, scientific, recreational, and cultural values of the Mississippi River corridor through the Twin Cities.

See, in the United States land use is held at the local level, by cities and counties. There is no national land use plan, and only a few states have attempted to impose guidelines beyond the local level.

So what can be done when a national, even globally significant resource such as the Mississippi is potentially threatened by local land use decisions? The Critical Area stipulates that cities make special planning considerations for the river corridor, design guidelines for instance, and that they work with state agencies and others to do so, balancing their local needs with broader public needs.

Subsequent developments such as the revitalization of Harriet island or the Upper Landing in St. Paul, the building of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, or the creation of Mill City Museum and Mill Ruins Park from the ruins of the old milling district in Minneapolis, have all taken place against the backdrop of the Critical Area Act. Not everyone has agreed with individual projects and design decisions, but everyone has agreed that the Mississippi River is important, that it is a valuable part of our common heritage here and across the globe, and that it's worthy of special treatment.

And the river is, of course, still worthy of special treatment, even though times and the Twin Cities have changed markedly. In 2009, the legislature required the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to undertake a process called "rulemaking," which would examine the Critical Area and update provisions of the act to reflect changing realities on the ground. For instance, should areas away from the central cities that were rural in the 1970s still be thought of and managed as rural parts of the corridor, even though community growth pressures have pushed the suburbs out in that direction?

Some communities, and particular interest groups cloaking themselves in the "property rights" mantle want the reevaluation stopped and the Critical Area Act to remain relatively powerless. They argue that state level rulemaking needlessly interferes with local government prerogatives and individual property rights.

As the rhetoric has heated up--not surprisingly--many important subtleties have been lost. The Mississippi River remains a nationally significant resource, important to many and vulnerable to threats imposed by a heedless few.

What's missing is an understanding of "commons," those parts of our lives and world that we all need, that we all share, and that we all must steward.

Fortunately writers more eloquent than I are working this subject well, and I will direct you to a recent Minnpost.com interview with Jay Walljasper, a Minneapolis-based journalist and editor. Here Walljasper lays out very well a centrally important notion: that we all depend on places, services, and knowledge that is held in common, not in private to be bought or sold. This concept does not of course erase the sense of private property or knowledge, but establishes "commons" as also essential.

For more on the concept of commons, including examples, further reading, and how you can get involved with commons in your community click here

Not many people, even in these overheated political days, would seriously argue against the importance of public education, public open space, public knowledge, and other components of the "commons" that enrich our lives. In fact, with regard to the Mississippi River, analyses by the City of Minneapolis show that some $400 million of public investment in the Central Riverfront between 1975 and 2007 have generated $1.3 BILLION in private investment.

The Mississippi River can continue to be the center of our 21st century urban region, but only if we take adequate care of it as the rich commons that it is.

To learn more about the Critical Area see the DNR Waters web site.

I've really tried to resist what I think of as a stereotypical bloggers' habit of seeing a news release and just forwarding it along with little or no comment, but I think I have to follow that pattern in this case.

The Army Corps of Engineers announced today a public meeting to be held this Thursday (January 20) on the campus of the University of Minnesota, as detailed in this press release.

Even if you can't attend--and it is short notice, certainly--please do note the web site and stay tuned to this blog; we're not done talking about carp, by a long shot!

For immediate release

Lynne Whelan, 312-846-5330

Corps solicits public comment on Great Lakes study

CHICAGO -The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is holding a public scoping meeting
at the University of Minnesota to get public input for the Great Lakes and
Mississippi River Interbasin study, or GLMRIS, Jan. 20.

The meeting is scheduled from 2 - 8 p.m. at the McNamara Alumni Center, Room
35, on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus, 200 Oak Street S.E.,
Minneapolis. Identical presentations about the study will be given at 2 p.m.
and 5:30 p.m., each followed by a comment period.

The purpose of GLMRIS is to evaluate a range of options and technologies to
prevent the transfer of aquatic nuisance species, or ANS, between the Great
Lakes and Mississippi River through aquatic pathways. Asian carp and zebra
mussels are some of the better known ANS.

Using input obtained during the scoping period, the Corps will refine the
scope of GLMRIS to focus on significant issues, as well as eliminate issues
that are not significant from further detailed study.

Issues associated with GLMRIS are likely to include, but will not be limited
to: significant natural resources, such as ecosystems and threatened and
endangered species; commercial and recreational fisheries; recreational uses
of the lakes and waterways; effects of potential ANS controls on waterways
uses such as: flood risk management, commercial and recreational navigation;
and statutory and legal responsibilities relative to the effected waterways.

If you plan to make an oral comment, please register on the GLMRIS website:
www.glmris.anl.gov. Oral comments will be limited to three minutes per
speaker. Comments can also be submitted electronically through the website.

 An ANS is a nonindigenous species that threatens the diversity or abundance
of native species; the ecological stability of infested waters; or the
commercial, agricultural, aquacultural or recreational activities dependent
on such water. As a result of international commerce, travel and local
practices, ANS have been introduced and spread throughout the Great Lakes and
Mississippi River basins.

Connected primarily by man-made channels, ANS transfer was impeded
historically by the poor water quality of those waterways. Recent water
quality improvements have lessened that impediment making it more likely for
ANS transfer between the two basins to occur.

For more information regarding GLMRIS, the meeting agenda and scoping
requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, visit the GLMRIS
website at www.glmris.anl.gov or call Dave Wethington, GLMRIS project
manager, at 312-846-5522 or e-mail at David.M.Wethington@usace.army.mil.


Anatomy of a River--Rivers 101

We all work on or around rivers, right?  But I have to tell you I don't know all that much about rivers as rivers.  My background is in practices and academic disciplines other that hydrology, aquatic ecology, and the like.

So I was very glad to find this short discussion of some of the parts of a river.  I don't think it has everything, but it's a start.

What do you think--should we start a glossary?  A wiki?  We could put it on the River Life Partnership web site www.environment.umn.edu/riverlife.
OK class--it's time for the Monday Morning Quiz!

Don't worry, this won't be an official part of the course.  But you may be interested to go to this Circle of Blue interactive and test your knowledge of the water and energy connections.

I won't tell you how I did, except to suggest that all of you can probably beat me!

Circle of Blue Waternews is an amazing resource:  multi-media, policy analysis, global perspective as well as local impacts and stories.  If you're serious about the future of our rivers, urban locations and otherwise, you really ought to be conversant with this site!

Ancient Towns Along the Big River

According to a recent news report, archaeologists in Illinois, working in East St. Louis along a route slated for a new Interstate 70 bridge, have discovered the remains of a town that appears to have been abandoned some 800 years ago.

Also unclear is the relationship between this community and the much larger, better known, Cahokia Mounds site, a site included on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites.

All well and good, and really interesting of course.

But here's a bit of friendly advice for these archaeologists, which they may already be aware of and working on:

Ask living Native people, who very likely, if you can establish relationships of trust and reciprocity, know a lot about the site, the people who inhabited it, and maybe why they left.

At the end of the article, the coordinator of the field station crew working on the site is quoted, "We're still in the beginning of the way to understanding,"

This is true, I think, of our relations with indigenous people everywhere on the continent. 

Art and the Big River

Our friends at Friends of the Mississippi River announce an exhibition opening next week:

'Seeing the Big River' -- FMR artist-in-residence at Mill City

Thursday, January 13, 6:00-8:00 p.m.
Mill City Museum, downtown Minneapolis riverfront

Please join FMR artist-in-residence Peter L. Johnson at the opening of his exhibit "Seeing the Big River" at Mill City Museum, Thursday, January 13, 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Peter's work dares you to see the devastating beauty in our relationship with the Mississippi River. While the exhibit will be on display through mid-May, "Hazardous Alchemy," the paintings Peter created with the Big River in Father Hennepin Park this fall and featured in this Star Tribune video, will only be on display opening night. Peter will also offer remarks or "perform" in front of his work at 7:00 p.m.

We're always interested in hearing about and promoting artistic expression that engages our communities with our rivers.  Send us more to publicize!
It's always fun to read the work of "against the grain" thinkers, but only when they are thoughtful and reflective, gently challenging some of our most closely-held assumptions. (I'm not talking about what passes for political commentary these days, which is just "against," not "against the grain!")

So I pulled this blog on St. Louis' architecture and sense of place because the title and subject appealed to me.  The "sense of place" the writer picks up on is an often-neglected aspect of our river discussions.

But when you read the piece closely, you'll see that he's saying that Rome turned out just fine, despite walling itself off from the floods of the Tiber centuries ago.  Now, he reports, the riverbank is a "no man's land" populated only by "vagrants," in other words, the kind of "marginal" place that has such double-edged richness in urban life.

Yes...but cities across the developed world are reconnecting to their rivers, making these "marginalized" corridors central to the city image and future again.  If we can grant that the revitalization of an urban riverfront is not necessary to a city's thriving future, are there times and places where it is more (or less) important?

Urbanists, what do you think?  Are there cases where "reconnecting to the river" doesn't really matter that much?

And note, please:  that the author in question didn't say that St. Louis' reconnection to the Mississippi is unimportant, only that it is not sufficient to restore health to the city.  Exactly right:  the connection between a healthy city and a healthy urban riverfront is poorly understood and under-studied.

I may have mentioned that I have a "Google Alert" set for "Mississippi River."  So I get all kinds of stuff:  bass fishing tournaments and sightings of carp, drownings and vacation photos.  The whole gamut of human experience here on the Mississippi.

But I saw something the other day that was at once both intriguing and bothersome.

A blog site Science Latest News got picked up by the Google crawl with a story on island formation and cutting in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi.  "Cool," I thought, and a good way to remind us all of the close connections between the Mississippi and the Gulf. (Note from Joanne: We have removed the original link listed in this article that points to the Science Latest News feed aggregator due to concerns that the site may be vulnerable to a malware attack. The article mentioned, Troubled Islands: Hurricanes, Oil Spill and Sea Level Rise, is also available at Science Daily. We have removed the original link because of our doubts regarding its safety. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please let us know by commenting below, or by e-mailing Pat or Joanne.)

But I chased a little to the original source of the piece, which came from something called "Physorg.com" which aggregates information from a variety of scientific disciplines and puts them out for "educated non-specialists."

My question, given the controversies about scientific investigations and reporting that have erupted recently (we all remember the "Troubled Waters" controversy, right?) is:  is this site legit?  How can we nonscientists tell?  There has to be some way other than just to read a lot of web sites and see what commonalities there are.

Can anyone provide a lead here? "Intelligent Non-specialists Guide to Science on the Web?" Please let me know so I can forward the info and use it to make better reports on this site!

It has become as regular as birds returning in the spring:  disastrous floods along the Red River as melting snow pushes over the banks and floods spread across the flat lands of the watershed.

A conference later this month hosted by the Red River Basin Commission looks like it is taking up some very timely and far-sighted topics, considering the interactions of land use and water quality/quantity, structural and non-structural approaches to floodplain mitigation, and the whole complex topic of resilience in land, communities, and rivers.

(Full disclosure:  Thomas Fisher, who will be delivering the keynote talk on "Designing Resilient Communities" is Dean of the College of Design here at the University of Minnesota and, thus, technically my boss for part of my job.  I still think resilience is an important topic, though!)

Information on this conference and the link came to us indirectly through the web site of Minnesota Waters, a statewide nonprofit working to protect the state's rivers and lakes.

As I read the conference material on the Red River, I thought, "We probably need to have a similar discussion on the Mississippi, at least on some stretches of the River."

What do you think?  Is it time to convene these discussions on land, water and community along the Mississippi, before we have multiple disasters?  Who should speak?  Who should attend?

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