River Talk

Recently in Mississippi River - Twin Cities Category

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.

T.S. Eliot, a son of St. Louis, once posed the question "At what point does the Mississippi River become what the Mississippi River means?"


His question, coming as part of the Introduction to a 1944 edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, resonates many ways.  But one of the most important points Eliot raises is that the Mississippi does mean something.  But what does it mean?  Or, to put the question the way it would be raised in a graduate seminar:  How is the meaning of e the Mississippi River created, through which texts and contexts, and by which agencies, (that is "agency" in the terms of an "agent" of change, not a bureaucracy).  Who speaks?  Who listens?  Who is heard?  Who is unheard?


Thankfully--for you readers more so than for me as the writer of these musings--this is not a graduate seminar.  But the point remains:  what does the Mississippi River mean, and how is that meaning carried forth?


We know a lot about the science of the river and the policy frameworks that help define it administratively.  Perhaps no river in the world has been studied more and has a more complex set of legislative, policy, and agency (in the more common meaning) mandates.


But I think we still don't know much about what the river means, to whom, and what, if anything, the meanings of the river have to do with the science that describes it so well and the policies that inform our relationship to it.


Last night, in a mixed media performance at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, we learned more about the river's meaning, its past, and some hopes for its future.  Dakota (Sisseton-Wahpeton) media artist Mona Smith  directed and produced "Presence," a video, spoken word art, and poetry presentation on the presence of the Mississippi River to Dakota people and the presence of Dakota people along the Mississippi River today.  Too many people still think of America's indigenous people as "past," and now removed and living on reservations.  In fact, indigenous people live all over the land that was once theirs, and their presence is an important part of understanding the meanings of places and of rivers.


Images of the river and shore in the Twin Cities flickered over the limestone walls of the Mill City Museum, formerly the Washburn-Crosby A Mill, as recorded voices spoke, in English and Dakota, of the healing and the pain associated with the river, the site of their genesis story but also of genocide after the Dakota War of 1862.  Clouds wisped overhead in the open courtyard as twilight deepened and the images became stronger throughout the 25 minute performance.  Spoken word artist Bobby Wilson closed by reminding us all that the river has been here with us always, and will be with us always.


We would do well to hear these voices and heed their visions.


"Presence" was supported by a grant from the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board.




Even though it is summer and the University has quieted down a lot, activity connected to rivers continues apace.


Look for entries in the next few weeks on:

  • "Experiments on Rivers:  the Consequences of Dams" a conference to be held in November 2010
  • continued research and outreach at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, located on Hennepin Island in the middle of the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis
  • further development in the "Gopher Ranger" program that connects University students with the Mississippi through recreational and volunteer activities, academic efforts, and career-development programs.  There will be a reception for an extremely successful Gopher Ranger program "Imagining the Mississippi," held in Mill City Museum on July 7.

More to follow--stay tuned!

Greening the Urban Riverfront

Even casual scans of the web show that there is a lot of "greening" on urban riverfronts.  Across the developed world, obsolete industrial and transportation facilities along urban rivers are being redeveloped, whether primarily as a park or in developments that maintain some highlighted open spaces.  More recently, with "sustainability" gaining traction as a buzz-word, there appear to be stronger efforts to incorporate "green design" elements such as green roofs, permeable surfaces, and rain gardens, along with the more traditional parks and trails.


In Minneapolis, the Minnesota Historical Society's Mill City Museum is in some regards doing all of these efforts one better.  The Museum's Greening the Riverfront series offers programs that explore the nexus of history and nature.  Many of these programs explore new developments in food production and distribution, as befits a museum located in the heart of what was once the world's largest flour-producing complex.  But there are also important links to artistic expression and to indigenous perspectives here as well.


And this is where I think "Greening the Riverfront" really stands out.  Programmers know that events should have more than one dimension to really attract a crowd:  a family-oriented event that lets adults and kids work together to prepare their own food, for example, offers quality "family time" as well as "learning where food comes from" time.  But the incorporation of artworks, and the ways in which local indigenous people are involved in several of the events, highlight the idea that we all have to learn from each other, and to express ourselves in whatever way best suits, in order to bring about long term sustainability.  Dakota people have been spiritually connected to St. Anthony Falls since time immemorial; of course the rest of us should learn from them about how to live well with this place.  And artistic work can convey insights without argument, without smugness, without hectoring (and yes, I know that there is a lot of art that argues and is smug). 


All riverfronts can be green, and all have stories and histories.  Highlighting the "green history" of the riverfront, and using that perspective as a light for the future is a distinctive, and welcome, development.

Blog post offered from our guest editor Anna Metcalfe:

Wishes for the Sky, an event begun three years ago by Marcus Young, the City of St. Paul's Public Artist Resident, will be held this coming Sunday, April 25 on Harriet Island.Wishes for the Sky is a public art event in celebration of Earth Day Inspired by Asian traditions of flying wishes on kites, the public is encouraged to re-contextualize this gesture in the spirit of spring and environmental sustainability. This year will feature an Open Drum Circle Finale by Marc Anderson, a yurt design for a sculpture called House to Touch the Wind by Peter Kramer, and two new calligraphy scrolls by Shen Pei. The event is held from 11 am - 5 pm. Volunteers have been requested on April 24 and 25

For more information about the event visit: www.wishesforthesky.org

May there be good kite-flying breezes to host a myriad of wishes and lovely artistic delights this weekend!


The annual spring river watch has largely passed, here in Minnesota, with the Red River scheduled to go below flood stage in Fargo in the next day or so, and the Mississippi predicted to drop below flood stage in St. Paul by Friday. The floods didn't turn out to be as large as predicted/feared, but still, there were impressive water levels running in Minneapolis and St. Paul last week--I'll write more on that in a day or so.

For now, the question has come up: what do we mean by "flood stage," and the related term "floodplain"? "Flood stage" basically refers to that elevation at which lives or property are threatened. If a city is built right up to the banks of a river, flood stage is reached any time the river rises even a little bit. Here in the Twin Cities, much of the riverfront is in park land, so parks and trails are closed regularly for annual spring rises.

In times of flooding, the term "floodplain" usually is mentioned as part of a phrase such as "the 100 year floodplain." The 100 year floodplain is that area which has a 1% chance of flooding every year. In St. Paul, recent development along the Upper Landing was placed on thousands of truckloads of fill dirt to get the construction out of the historic 100 year floodplain.

Here's where things get interesting, though. As a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune story reports FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recently recalculated the 100 year floodplain in St. Paul, and established the new line as significantly elevated over the old one. This change could be due to any number of factors, but the most obvious one might be the increased development and river channeling upstream throughout the watershed. More roads, streets, and houses means rain and snowmelt run off into streams and rivers rather than soak into the ground. When that water hits the river, if the river is constrained by levees and floodwalls--such as the new floodwall at Holman Field airport in downtown St. Paul--then the water can't spread out, but is forced higher, raising the level at which it may rise on any given year.

The article goes into more detail on the consequences of altered floodplain levels, in terms of insurance costs and the like, and I encourage you to take a look at it. The fact remains, though: as long as we build as much as we do in the watershed, and pay as little attention as we do to how water is managed, then more, and higher, floods are inevitable.

On the Necessity of Art

Well, I'm back, after 6 weeks or so off the blog task. One of the items that had my attention during this time was a proposal that was jointly developed with the Christine Baeumler at the University of Minnesota's Department of Art and collaborators at the University of the West of England. To quote the proposal's abstract: 
It has become a truism that the major conflicts of the 21st century are likely to be over water. What is much less certain is how to best facilitate exchanges between scientists, policy makers, expressive artists and the public, to shape future debates over water. These debates will be vital to finding the ways to "re-imagine" water in our cities (and the regions from which their water comes) to making wise decisions about our water future. This project, will explore, through a series of focused workshops, collaborations, and installations, ways in which we might learn to restore a broad understanding of water to our urban public and sense of place and to understand acts of artistic representation as bridging between differing public discourses, realms of practice, issues, concerns, and groups of people.
Project teams from the University of Minnesota, led by co-PIs Christine Baeumler and Patrick Nunnally, and the University of the West of England, led by co-PI Iain Biggs, will convene local collaborations of artists, scientists, and community leaders to explore the key issues facing the water environments of their respective cities (Twin Cities, Minnesota, and Bristol, UK). Anticipated results include both digital and physical artistic representations of water and water environments in the city, new programs, classes, and ongoing collaborations.

I guess I shouldn't assume that the abstract speaks for itself, so here are some of the links and related projects that we referenced: 

Lorna Jordan. Jordan's Waterworks Gardens is located at a water reclamation plant in Renton, Washington. 

Betsy Damon. Damon's Living Water Garden is along the edge of the Fu and Nan River in Chengdu, China. Both Jordan's and Damon's public art projects are an aesthetic, educational, and natural approach to treating storm water. 

Herbert Dreiseitl's Atelier Dreiseitl brings together art, urban hydrology and open space planning to create projects that are both beautiful and sustainable. 

These combinations--art, science, and community--are at the heart of our program, so look for more on these issues and projects in the future.
St Anthony Falls and Downtown Minneapolis
When you stand on the banks of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities, particularly in the spring with snowmelt swelling the stream, it looks like a big river.  At St. Anthony Falls, the river flow averages 12,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), or almost 90,000 gallons per second.  In New Orleans, by contrast, the river is 50 times as big, averaging some 600,000 cfs.  According to Wikipedia's article on the Mississippi River (forgive me, all of my research methods teachers!!) the outflow of the Mississippi is only around 9% that of the Amazon.
Now THAT's a lot of water!
But according to the most recent edition of the World Savvy Monitor rivers only make up 2% of the globe's fresh surface water, with lakes comprising the vast bulk of the rest.
So that means that Mississippi River cities such as Minneapolis, New Orleans, and all points in between have an adequate water supply, right?  Well, yes and no.
According to panelists at the community panel "Perspectives on Water in Our Changing World," the question of "adequate" water supply is complicated, and will only grow more complex over time.
The panel was put on by World Savvy, a national nonprofit that specializes in programs that encourage school-age children to "think beyond your borders" and become aware of their connection to global issues.  Water is their most recent focus; hence the community panel, co sponsored with the University of Minnesota's Water Resources CenterBreck School, the Freshwater Society, and Minnesota Public Radio.
So what are some lessons for the Mississippi that can be learned from an understanding of global water issues?  Space does not permit a full discussion of the very interesting and informative panel, but important points included these:

  • Mark Seeley, Minnesota's State Climatologist, expects that trends in climate change will continue to concentrate rainfall in heavier storms, which occur at seasons that are historically unusual.  That is, a thunderstorm that brings over 2 inches of rain to a town in the Mississippi valley will wash unusually heavy sediment loads into the river and its tributaries if the storm happens in the fall, when the ground has been cleared of crops.
  • According to Deb Swackhamer, connections are the key, between what happens to the land in terms of urbanization and changes in land use and their impact on streams and in terms of the connections, poorly understood in detail, between ground water and surface water.
  • Joan Nephew suggested that a primary need is a cultural shift, analogous to the growth of recycling.  Just as it has become second nature to separate bottles, cans, and paper from trash, and there are substantial industries devoted to recycling used materials into new uses, so we will need to begin thinking and practicing wide scale recycling of water, and reusing, for example, dishwater.
Rivers connect us to each other; we all live downstream of some people and upstream of others.  On the Mississippi, the fifth largest river in the world, our water is connected to all the other water on the planet.

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.
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.

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