River Talk

February 2011 Archives

Lots of people know a thing or two about household practices to improve water quality: don't change your car's oil in the driveway; pick up after your pet and dispose of pet waste properly (not tossing down the storm drain), raking lawn clippings and storing for compost.

But what can be done at the neighborhood scale? What can urban designers (and the citizens who ultimately pay them) do to re-make our cities as if our urban rivers really do matter?

Fortunately, the palette of options is growing. Recently, the McKnight Foundation's Environment Program supported the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation in the development of a Water Quality Manual that addressed practices at the scale of site, block, neighborhood, or city. Clear illustrations and accessible descriptions make the possibilities come alive.

I don't know why, but the set of possibilities illustrating what's achievable at the neighborhood level appeal to me the most directly.

Getting the work done, of course, is more challenging, but if you don't know what to ask for, you won't ever achieve it, right?

For more information, download the neighborhoods section of the Water Quality Manual (PDF).

River Life in Four Slides

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Back in January we pulled together a mini-presentation that is becoming our digital elevator speech. It starts to address the question of what we do, why we do it, and how.  We've got some more slides in the works for a more robust exploration of River Life's intricacies, but we just couldn't wait to share this one with you!

Have a look and let us know what you think!

River Life: A Summary in Four Slides (PDF)

Some Stuff is Just Fun

Daniel P. Huffman has created a subway-style map of the Mississippi River system. Interesting concept and worth some playing around with!

On the Upper Mississippi, Prairie du Chien and New Boston are stops on the subway/Mississippi, while in the Delta travelers could transfer at Simmesport or Rosedale. Getting to these places by highway is a lot harder!

Flood Forecast: Likely

Even before we got another FOOT OF SNOW (sorry, but it's been a long winter!) yesterday in the Twin Cities, observers were predicting a bad spring for flooding.

A combination of still-frozen ground and a heavy snowpack widely distributed across the region has experts thinking that no major river system in Minnesota is immune from the liklihood of flooding, according to a story in last week's Minneapolis Star-Tribune.  This is particularly bad news, of course, for Red River communities such as Fargo and Grand Forks.

I was interested to see that some officials predict less actual damage from the anticipated floods, due to home buyouts in floodplains and other mitigation efforts.

There's more on all of this at the NOAA North Central River Forecast web site.  And also detailed information and a map here.

100 and Counting

This is the 100th post to the River Talk blog, a fact that, to a "20th century guy" like me, is kind of amazing.

So I don't want to take a lot of time with this, since there's so much more to do, but it's worth asking:  now what?

We'll keep writing of course, and I hope there's more "we" (meaning more voices, comments, interaction, than "me."

We'll try to get ourselves connected to other blogs in the "river sustainability" conversation, and map a better sense of what that conversation sounds like.

We'll strengthen connections between the blog and the River Atlas that our program produces in collaboration with the Global Landscapes Initiative at the Institute on the Environment.

Essentially, we'll use the blog to extend the multitude of very interesting discussions, conferences, meetings, classes, proposals, and general energy that is taking place on river sustainability.  We'll write about what's going on across practice areas and academic disciplines here in the Twin Cities, hoping to connect people to each other here and farther afield.  And we'll write about what's going on elsewhere, as a means, we hope, of expanding the range of considerations taking place in our own little piece of the Big River.

Now I'll ask you for advice:  what (else) should we be talking about?

The St. Paul Riverfront Corporation has been at the forefront of riverfront progress in the "capital city on the Mississippi" for the past 15 years or more.  The annual "town dinner" that they throw each May, now called the Great River Gathering, has long served as a touchstone for new ideas and celebration of community achievements.  Other nothttp://www.riverfrontcorporation.com/?page_id=529able substantial contributions (and I'm sure I'll miss some!) include:
  • Convening and executing the "Grand Excursion of 2004" as a regional urban Mississippi River showcase
  • Assistance with redevelopment of Harriet Island Regional Park that accelerated the project by perhaps as much as a decade
  • Most of the "heavy lifting" to bring the Upper Landing mixed use development to life
  • Convening community meetings to bring a vision of the "National Great River Park" into focus
All in all, enough pivotal work to make any organization proud.

Now, with community development in St. Paul at a turning point with the incipient development of light rail transit and potential redevelopment of dozens of blocks in the riverfront precincts, the Riverfront Corporation has announced a focus on "Stimulating economic and community development through urban design."

This move is to be celebrated, building as it does on the Riverfront Corporation's longstanding role as steward and champion of the St. Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework.  

The folks in St. Paul figured out the connections between good riverfront design and good urban design a long time ago--it's great to see that insight get more emphasis!

You've heard me say often that a healthy river is partly a function of a healthy city. In other words, cities that are struggling to meet the basic needs of their citizens may not always think of how their rivers are part of that solution. The rivers often are part of a broader solution to environmental health, community development, and related matters, but those are topics for another time.

I just wanted to alert everyone that in a couple of weeks, one of the truly outstanding people in recent community environmental activism is coming to Minnesota.  Majora Carter's work in her native South Bronx has been widely profiled as a leading example of innovations in green job development, community development and empowerment, and environmental equity. Go here to learn more, to read linked articles, and to buy tickets.  It should be an extraordinary evening!

On the Shoulders of Giants

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None of us works alone, and none of us is the first person ever to think and act to rejuvenate a riverfront. Those of us fortunate to work on the future of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis truly stand "on the shoulders of giants."

We lost one of those giants last month, when Betsy Doermann, former secretary of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board and staff at the Minnesota Historical Society, died at 79.

The Star Tribune notice that appeared yesterday is eloquent in its summation of Betsy's pivotal leadership role in working to turn the Central Riverfront in Minneapolis from an obsolete industrial and transportation landscape, blighted and neglected, to the center of the city, capturing over $2 billion in public and private investment over a 20 year period. It is vital that those of us working today and training the next generation of leaders recognize that about 25-30% of that funding was public money, a "priming the pump" investment that led to a 3:1 return.

Ann Calvert, a City of Minneapolis staff member who worked with Betsy during this transformative period, said it well: "She was smart enough to realize there was important stuff that happened beforehand, and some of the stuff we've done to change the riverfront is its own history," Calvert said. "She was wise enough to see that some of those connections are what make things magical and powerful."

Connections, magic, power: all concepts that speak to the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls. I would add one more: imagination. For me, the linchpin project in the revitalization of the riverfront was the opening of the Stone Arch Bridge as a bike-pedestrian route in 1994. This feat of adaptive re-use (to use the historic preservation phrase) allowed private sector investors in the riverfront to imagine how people would be attracted to the recreational amenities that had, until then, been latent possibilities. And it took a tremendous feat of imagination, along with dogged, persistent, political work, to bring the parties together to ensure the transformation of the Stone Arch Bridge was successful. That story is bigger than what can be told here, and when it does appear, Betsy Doermann's name will be central.

It is fitting, I think, that yesterday also marked the announcement that the TLS/KVA team has been chosen to help the city take the next step in its riverfront revitalization. More than any of the other design teams, TLS/KVA studied the Minneapolis riverfront, learned from what has been done in the past, and proposed the next generation of design, planning, and development as a continuation and expansion from those successes.

Many people will say "we don't have the money" or "this isn't the right time," or "let the private sector do it, we have too much government" Many others will, and have, carped about any number of other facets of the next generation of riverfront planning, "why are we planning parks when we need jobs," or "this is just for the rich," or "local guys could have done this." Betsy's example reminds us that an inclusive, shared, common vision, combined withperseverance,is fundamental for a city to grow and prosper.

I don't think anyone needs reminding of the controversial, and complicated, connections between agricultural production and water quality.

The University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences and the Freshwater Society, a nonprofit analysis and education group from the Twin Cities region, are co-sponsoring a lecture in two weeks, Thursday, Feb. 24, continuing the discussion of the land use/water quality nexus.http://www.freshwater.org

Full press release follows:

Feb. 8, 2011

Media Contact:
Patrick Sweeney
Freshwater Society

"Taking the Pollution out of Agricultural Production"

Soil and water conservation expert Craig A. Cox to speak on agricultural runoff and water quality

Fourth lecture in the Moos Family speaker series sponsored by Freshwater Society and University of Minnesota

Agricultural runoff - fertilizers and manure from cultivated fields and feedlots, and sediment washed away by erosion - pollutes many U.S. lakes and rivers.

Craig A. Cox of the Environmental Working Group will talk about the agricultural pollution problem and strategies for reducing it in a lecture on Thursday, Feb. 24, at the University of Minnesota.

"There are a number of simple and highly effective practices that farmers can use to dramatically cut pollution while sustaining high levels of production," Cox says. "Many farmers are already using these practices, but not nearly enough to clean up our lakes, rivers and streams. Poor public policy and institutional inertia stand in the way of getting the job done."

Cox's lecture will be at 7 p.m. in the theater of the St. Paul Student Center on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. The lecture, supported by an endowment honoring former university president Malcolm Moos, is free and open to the public.

But seating is limited, and registration is required. To register, go to www.freshwater.org

A panel of Minnesota experts on agriculture and water quality will appear with Cox.

Cox has worked on land and water conservation for nearly 30 years for agencies that include the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Soil and Water Conservation Society. As senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, he coordinates the organization's research and advocacy on agriculture, renewable energy and climate change.

The lecture will touch on conservation practices that can reduce agricultural runoff and current economic incentives that either encourage or discourage conservation. Cox will address a key public policy question: What anti-pollution costs should landowners and farm operators bear, and what land-use and management changes should be paid for by taxpayers?

The St. Paul Student Center is located at 2017 Buford St., near Cleveland Avenue, on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.

Previous lecturers in the series have been: Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor who has written two books on water sustainability; Hedrick Smith, an Emmy-winning film maker who produced "Poisoned Waters," a Public Broadcasting System "Frontline" documentary; and Louis J. Guillette Jr., an acclaimed wildlife biologist from the Medical University of South Carolina.

About the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences

The College of Biological Sciences provides education and conducts research in all areas of biology, from molecules to ecosystems, supporting applications in medicine, renewable energy, ecosystem management, agriculture and biotechnology. For more information about research and degree programs, go to www.cbs.umn.edu/

About the Freshwater Society

The Freshwater Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and inspiring people to value, conserve and protect all water resources. Located in Excelsior, Minn., adjacent to Lake Minnetonka, it has a long history of association with the University of Minnesota. For more information, go to www.freshwater.org.

I will simply forward the announcement as it appeared a short while ago on the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition web site:

TLS/KVA Named Winning Design Team!

With their selection as the winning team, TLS/KVA will be awarded a riverfront parks commission and become part of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's Minneapolis Riverfront Initiative, of which the design competition was the first phase. While the team's RiverFIRST proposal contained many specific design schemes, no particular location, project or feature has yet been identified for development. As the design competition concludes, the Park Board and its partners will engage in a four-month transition phase to identify next steps.

This is very good news, indeed!

Congratulations to TLS/KVA, to the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition team, and to the city.

A study reported yesterday by the U.S. Geological Survey indicates that the Great Lakes system, the largest system of freshwater in the world, could face local water shortages in coming decades, depending on local water use patterns and the impacts of a changing climate.

The study does not indicate that the whole system is in peril, but rather that local decisions, which are usually driven by social and economic factors, could have severe local impacts.

I thought a particularly interesting note was made at the end of the press release, "The methodology developed for the Great Lakes pilot study will be adapted to future study areas in the Colorado, the Delaware, and the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basins, as a precursor to the the Department of the Interior's WaterSMART initiative."  We know that the Colorado barely reaches the sea, even in the best of times, but the presence of the ACF system (Apalachicola, etc.--don't make me type that all out again!) is the interesting one.  Recent drought in the southeast, coupled with strong population and urban area growth in Atlanta, has led to severe water shortages in the region.  The water shortage caught everyone in the region by surprise, and local and state government bodies have been playing catch up as they try to find a sustainable approach to regional water problems.

We can do better than that, and we should start considering our future water budgets in Minnesota and the Upper Mississippi basin as potentially coming up short in the decades ahead.  Forewarned is forearmed!

Public participation in planning/design projects is a funny thing.  Everyone talks about it; lots of people do something that they think of as "public engagement"; few practitioners really take it seriously; fewer still make public participation central to the project itself.

This isn't the time or venue for a full-blown treatise on public engagement for riverfront projects, but let me say that the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition has employed three strategies in particular that are noteworthy:  youth involvement through a design imagination exercise, a "designer ask" survey, and collection of comments regarding the four finalists' proposals.

The last of these--collecting comments online--is perhaps the most common.  As of Monday night 2/7, there were 127 comments and, unlike the simply awful comments on most online news sources, these appear to be thoughtful, considered responses to the issues at hand.  For designers, planners, and people who want to participate more fully in those practices (are you listening, students?) these comments are worth study.  Find them here.

The "designer ask" survey was an interesting process, although I'm still a little fuzzy on the details.  As I understand it, the project managers worked with the four finalists to develop a list of questions the designers would ask the public, given the chance.  At a meeting in early December, about 80 people gathered, heard a briefing on the project, and then split into facilitated groups where the survey was administered in a series of focus group-type discussions.  Speaking from experience, I thought the questions were exactly what the public should have been asked, and that the process as a whole really ought to be a much larger ongoing set of reflections on the importance of the riverfront.  We all ought to be making our voices heard on issues such as:  What is your greatest impediment to getting to the river?  What legacy would you most like to see for your children (or grandchildren?)  This survey is harder to find on the Design Competition web site, but diligent searching will be rewarded.

Everyone always says that "children are our leaders of tomorrow," but then we too often are left with the same old boring youth engagement programs that seem to get a few young people involved and then just kind of peter out.  In the case of the Riverfront Design Competition, there is more hope that young people from the Minneapolis Green Team and Youth Line will be more substantively engaged.  They were invited to draw what the riverfront currently shows them:  why they feel drawn to it or not.  And they also imagined its future, as a place they would want to be a part of as part of "their" city.  Engaging young people, like any other group that is not "normally" part of the process, must be meaningful, substantial, and durable.  The process in this case, as illustrated in slide shows and other materials, is a good start; further involvement will be important as the process continues.

Speaking of which, the next big step in the process of remaking the Minneapolis riverfront with the "Next Generation of Parks" will be Thursday, February 10, when the winner of the four finalists will be announced.  Policy makers and competition managers will work with that team on the next steps of the program:  designing a specific project that will jump start the rejuvenation of the waterfront above St. Anthony Falls.

The Turenscape team, headed by a firm in Beijing, presented the "Resilient River" plan. I will remind you that I am addressing these plans alphabetically by lead team; no slight is intended by discussing this proposal last.

Resilience is a concept particularly apt in discussions of urban rivers. Most urban systems have a degree of resilience, although many could be more so, or could have their resilience in more diverse spheres. Resilience is an important concept in ecological and sustainability thinking; bringing those discussions to bear in planning and design of the urban river is an idea whose time has come.

The Resilient River plan starts from an understanding that the 21st Century is and will continue to be a time of far-reaching change: climate change, the global recession, coming energy shortages, all will challenge the ways we think, live, work, and play. To the Turenscape team, the Resilient River can and must be a focal point of Minneapolis' strategies to address these challenges.

Like the other plans, the Resilient River attends to the river's ecology, and to the designed interactions between the ecological potential of the river and the urbanist fabric of the city. Unlike the others, I think anyway, this plan calls out the concept of Social Equity as a value to be addressed and strengthened through river redevelopment.

This plan's reorientation plan to bring urbanism more strongly to the river consists in part of a scheme to make each crossing a linchpin in a thematic cross-cutting urban corridor: the "education" corridor, the "green tech" corridor, and the like.

"Curate the Vision Through Time" is an interesting principle, with "curate" speaking to the need to steward, protect, yet organize and manage the vision. The discussion of how to implement this plan is quite clear that this is the work of decades, not years.

This closes my summaries of distinctive concepts and approaches brought forth by these design/planning teams. All of them have remarkable visions, and all have specific concepts that are well worth further scrutiny, debate, and planning. Please do take the time to go to the competition web site and join in the community conversation about the future of this central part of the city.

Never before, perhaps, has so much effort and expense been devoted in such a concentrated period of time to such a large part of the city's space. This is a historic process and worth understanding in detail.

I plan to write again early next week on the public participation strategies developed in this competition, because I think they are remarkable and important.

And, of course, I will write about the resolution of this competition, when the results of the jury's deliberation are announced later this month.

Stay tuned!

The third Minneapolis Riverfront Design proposal, headed by TLS/KVA in Berkeley, opens "Riverfirst is inspired from the Dakota concept of B'dote, a sacred joining of waters."

Folks, I could stop right there and be mightily impressed.  Like the first sentence of Norman MacLean's A River Runs Through It, "In my family, there was no clear distinction between religion and fly-fishing," the expression is just about perfect.

It's about time, in my opinion, we took seriously the notion of respecting, and learning from, the people who have been here for millenia.  I must leave it to Dakota people to comment on how well the Riverfirst concept speaks to their understandings of the relations between water, people, land, and community.  But I think it's a great start.

Riverfirst's connection of the health of the river, the city, the neighborhoods, and the people is a breakthrough concept.  We can intuit that a healthy river requires and contributes to a healthy city, healthy neighborhoods, and healthy people, but measuring that concept of "health," and engaging it as an economic as well as physical principle, is very difficult.  But it is vitally important.

The plan connects the river with the Northside neighborhood through Farview Park and a linear space that bridges the freeway and establishes a River City Innovation District that can be the site of a market for locally grown food, cottage industry and more.  As with so many elements of this project, the concept connects river-oriented thinking with some of the most innovative, far-sighted transformations of urban space, particularly the growing interest in substantial urban agriculture and food production.

Many of the most important, and contentious, discussions about the river's future in Minneapolis focus on whether or not the Upper Harbor Terminal will close, and whether or not the locks at St. Anthony Falls will remain.  This plan transforms the Upper Harbor space into a Green Port, continuing important historical trends as they are modernized for new conditions.

As a "language guy" (former English teacher who still thinks in words rather than images) I love the play on words of the "Knot Bridge" concept.  I also love the "River Talk" smartphone app, but, guys, seriously, we have to talk.  "River Talk" is the name of this blog.  Let's combine forces!

Go to the competition web site and give yourself lots of time to study this one.  It is very impressive.

(Edited 2/9/2011 to correct the name of the TLS/KVA team)

The second team proposal that I'll describe comes from Stoss Landscape Urbanism, in Boston. Like all of the teams in the competition, this group consists of staff from a diverse array of firms and practitioners: landscape architects, public artists, ecological restoration specialists, urban economists. Rebuilding the core of a city is surely interdisciplinary work.

Titled "Streamlines," this proposal focuses on getting people to the river for direct encounters. Bringing the streams of the river into the streams of the city, this proposal employs highly dynamic metaphors and imagery.

I have to say that the recognition that the river is in fact many rivers, that the city is many cities, is welcome. Too often it seems that people plan and design for a monolithic hypothetical "city" that flattens out the rich, and growing, diversity of the biological and human systems that make up this place.

The team proposes a three part strategy: Claim the river by making it part of the civic space of the city; Seed the parks for their growth and emergence over time; Elaborate new ways to incorporate the river corridor into city life.

Light-sculpture, illuminated rowboats, glowing barges which can double as swimming platforms, all are envisioned as giving the river a distinctive identity.

The proposal brings together ecological and food systems, industry and recreation, an "energy forest" and stormwater corridors that extend back into existing neighborhoods and connect city to river corridor.

Bridges are no longer simply engineered structures to get across the river; they have themes, and anchor distinctive neighborhoods and destinations.

As is the case with all of the proposals, steps toward implementation, and preliminary cost estimates are included, giving an understanding that all of this doesn't just "happen."

Learn more about the Stoss proposal by going to Minneapolis Riverfront Design and clicking on the panel for their work. The full proposal and presentation movie are both contained there.

With this post, I'm beginning a quick survey of the four teams' proposals for redevelopment of the Minneapolis Riverfront between St. Anthony Falls and the north city limits.

Each of the proposals, which can be found in their entirely at the web site of the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, has many extraordinary features. Each is far too complex to be analyzed completely in a short blog post (and I am reminded that blog posts should be short!)

So I'll take them up in alphabetical order: Ken Smith Studio, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, Tom Leader Studio, and Turenscape. Again, I strongly urge you to go to the competition web site, download the proposals, watch the presentation films, and make your comments.

The winning design firm will be announced on February 10.

The Ken Smith Studio team, originating primarily from New York City, titled its proposal "City of the River." The team argues that the past decades of activity and investment have made Minneapolis, long known as the "City of Lakes," the "City of the River.

Many particular strategies are proposed to enact the City of the River scheme. The Mississippi Greenway would complete the park system's famed Grand Rounds.They focus on energizing transportation connections, particularly by adding bike lanes to existing railroad bridges and strengthening transportation links to new amenities and destinations along the river.

Community development through a proposed North Town Center and Broadway Crossing bring long-overdue attention to reconnecting the city's Northside neighborhoods to the River. Currently, of course, I-94 forms a visual, transportation, and conceptual barrier between the community and the river.

The team's description of sustainable infrastructure, which should be Regenerative, Inclusive, Adaptable, and Accountable, brings a welcome level of analysis to emerging discussions of how the riverfront should be truly sustainable.

The team recognizes that the river corridor can be the "great green heart of the city" (my term, not theirs) and that there is potential to re-weave diverse habitats into the fabric of the city.

Parks and public open spaces are envisioned as layers, and incorporate both water-based features such as a water taxi and land-based spaces (mussel/muscle beach).

The discussion of typologies and structures is perhaps a little "design-y," but they are designers, after all. As one of their graphics illustrates, the area under consideration is orders of magnitude larger than Central Park; a strong visual vocabulary seems necessary to hold it all together.

The proposal progresses through nine "scenarios," more site-specific treatments that highlight ways in which specific areas might fit into the broader patterns and framework. These are richly illustrated, and reward careful study.

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