River Talk

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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.

Many Voices at Bdote

Wherever you go, along any river on earth, the chances are great that people indigenous to that landscape knew that place, valued it, named it, depended on it.


In some places the past tense of the verb is appropriate, the indigenous people being so long gone, and their relations to that place obscured under such a thick palimpsest of subsequent cultures that their presence is barely discernible, if at all.


But for most places in the world, indigenous people remain connected, through stories, voices, presence.  Oh sure, it may be possible to be on a river such as the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Columbia, or the Mississippi, and to know something about those rivers, without knowing their indigenous histories and meanings.


It may be possible, but such knowledge, truncated without connection to old, enduring ways, is lacking.  It lacks a certain richness, depth, and connection. 


Knowledge of a river that begins when the most recent occupants came is necessarily foreshortened, both with regard to the past, but also with regard to the future.  For those of us Euro-Americans living along the Upper Mississippi River, if we only understand "history" as beginning with the fur trade in the late 17th century, and as only including dominant voices of those who wrote things down, we limit ourselves to only imagining a future of a couple hundred years, and with ourselves as the center of that future.


We must do better, if we are to sustain a relationship with our rivers.


Fortunately, web sites like the Bdote Memory Map can begin to show us some ways into understanding these old ways, and their continuations into the present.


Bdote is a Dakota term that means, roughly, "where two waters meet."  The bdote at the juncture of what are now called the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, in the heart of the present Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, is the spiritual and historical home to Dakota people.  It is also a place where 1700 women, children, and elders were imprisoned after the Dakota War of 1862, making it a place, as I have heard people say, "of our genesis and our genocide."


The Memory Map site, a collaboration between the Minnesota Humanities Center  and Allies: media/art  conveys a richly nuanced sense of this place.  The site contains audio and video clips from Dakota people explaining elements of their connections to this place; it contains photographs and text that show it in its many dimensions; it contains a mechanism for visitors to tell their stories.


This capacity, for people to listen to multiple and diverse stories, to learn through visual, aural, and text-based documents, and to speak back to the site, to engage in a conversation, is essential if our future with this place is to be sustained.  Explore the Bdote Memory Map, listen to the voices, and imagine how those voices and voices like them can be--must be--part of our future understandings of our rivers.


At the River Life Partnership, we work closely with Allies and with people and organizations that Allies connects us with in the indigenous community.  Quite honestly, we can't imagine doing our work without these partnerships, voices, and insights.

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.
There is a (too) common trope in many discussions of restoration ecology that posits some kind of desired "pre-contact" ecological system that would serve, then, as a desirable future condition. "If only we could get back to the North American landscape before Columbus," these arguments seem to imply, "we'd be able to live happily and sustainably on the planet."

There are many problems with this supposition, of course, among the most obvious being that it completely disregards the indigenous people as agents of change both before and after the appearance of Europeans. 

More recent and sophisticated understandings have suggested that instead of some kind of "turning back the clock" people interested in restoration might want to consider what the critical landscape functions and processes are, and work toward restoration of some of those key connections and dynamics.

I'm certainly no expert on the science of restoration ecology, but a recent project that has garnered a lot of press attention appears to have developed a subtle approach to the subject, as well as a dynamic interaction and communication/education program. The Mannahatta Project takes as its starting point the question of what Manhattan Island was like before the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609. The interactive map is really a cool way to show that Times Square formerly was an area where streams crossed (Crossroads of the World, on a different scale!) and the like.

But Eric Sanderson and the other scientists and staff at the Wildlife Conservation Society who have developed this project have a bigger goal in mind than just a cool web site and education materials. In a TED talk last summer, Sanderson posed the question of how Manhattan can still be habitat for 12 million people 400 years from now. What can be learned from the earlier biological and physical systems that will let the same number of people, say, live there, using a much smaller amount of space, and leaving the rest for growing food and managing clean water supplies.

I wish the project had more evidently talked to descendents of the Lenape people who inhabited the island when Hudson showed up, but that may still be in the works. In the meantime, the innovative use of technology to convey new scientific insights is only the most obvious reason to spend some time exploring this impressive effort to build a smarter future based on detailed knowledge of the past.
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.

Telling River Stories

The Story Boats in the RiverThere's an affinity between rivers and stories. The best stories flow like rivers; some of our best stories are about rivers; something about being on a river elicits stories. One of the best known stories in American literature is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and since Twain's time hundreds of people have tried their hand at telling their river story. 

Our web site Telling River Stories may not be as ambitious as Twain's account, but it does "aim high," if you will. Our stories show actual people, doing river-shaping work in actual places. The "actual" is important to us: this is not a "grand march of time" history site where users aren't really sure who did all that stuff. A good rule of thumb to think about what are "river stories" would be "the things you should know to understand the river in that spot." 

For example, "Navigating Our River Communities" tells of the work done by art student Anna Metcalfe in her work with the Minneapolis Green Team. The Green team is a group of disadvantaged Minneapolis youth who have been brought together in the summer to conduct habitat restoration work along the Mississippi. The young people, all high school students, undertake projects under the guidance of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the National Park Service, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization. The collaboration is modeled on work pioneered by the Community Design Center of Minnesota. All in all, this is amazing work that is a prime example of what's happening on our riverfronts today that will lead us into a more sustainable future.

So what do we hope for from the Telling River Stories (TRS) web site? The primary audience for the site is the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are working every day to make a more sustainable future for our riverfronts. We hope that you will come to the site, explore stories that interest you, and then continue to pursue information about the partners and projects that are described there. The TRS site is companion to the home site of the River Life program, which contains descriptions and links for the most innovative, far-reaching, and substantial projects, programs, and people engaged in all facets of river restoration. The map-based TRS site tells "where" the great work is happening; the River Life database shows who and what is involved in doing this great work. 

We hope to get your work included in our databases, so we can tell the world all about your successes. Get in touch with me at pdn@umn.edu and let's see what we can do!
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.
Arcola Bridge on the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and MinnesotaEarlier we posted on climate change and rivers and mentioned the Statewide Water Management Plan being coordinated by the University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center. Serendipitously, a message from that study, reproduced below, came out earlier this week. We urge everyone with an interest in the future of Minnesota's water to click on the link and complete the survey

Minnesota lies at the head of the Mississippi River main stem and is home to some of the defining watersheds in the entire 31 state Mississippi River watershed. The Minnesota River contributes a very high percentage of the nutrients that create the "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are the first major metropolitan area along the full length of the great river.

Clearly, what happens here is important to the much broader watershed. The study being undertaken is not only important in its own right, but could serve as a model for other studies, at varying scales, the will contribute enormously to wise decisions that will allow a 200 year sustainability vision for the watershed.

We'll continue to track and report on this study and urge you to participate in the survey.

Make Sure Your Voice Is Heard!

The University of Minnesota's Water Resources Center (WRC) is developing a Water Sustainability Framework for the next 25 years to protect and improve Minnesota's precious water resources. Because the state's surface and ground waters belong to the people, we are gathering public opinion via surveys and listening sessions on a range of water issues.

Use this link and complete an online survey to make sure your opinions are heard. It's anonymous, quick, and easy. Responses will be incorporated into the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework that will be presented to the State Legislature January 2011.

While you're on the WRC web site, you can sign up for regular email updates on the progress of the Framework and find out more about when and where Listening Sessions will be held around the state.

If you're unable to access the survey online, call 612-624-9282 and we'll send you a written copy.

Image of Arcola High Bridge on the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota, used courtesy of the Metropolitan Design Center, College of Design, University of Minnesota.  Image accession number in the collection is dc003229, and can be found in the Metropolitan Design Center collection in the Digital Content Library.
Kayaks on the Mississippi River
One of the threads that's beginning to run through a lot of the river advocacy and riverfront community development work that is taking place is the need to get people on the water in order to know a river well.  Sure your can look at it from a bike path, walking trail, or parkway, but, to paraphrase Annie Dillard, the difference between looking at a river and canoeing or kayaking on it is like the difference between kissing someone and marrying them!

These notes have already mentioned the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventure, a subject that we will undoubtedly return to.  This time, I want to post a brief note indicating how broadly the notion of canoe trails has reached.  A friend in Washington just sent me a note highlighting the interview with the new director of Paddle Canada. Seems he's interested in developing paddle routes that involve international partnerships.  One possibility might be the Detroit American Heritage River (AHR), which forms part of the border between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.  The American Heritage River Initiative (also previously mentioned in these notes; for further information, look here) also has an international "blue trail" possibility on the Rio Grande.  Not surprisingly, many of the AHR rivers have active Blue Trail programs already up and running.  See, for example, the New River Blueway, and the Willamette River Water Trail.

On the Mississippi, we like to think that we're second to none, but in this case, some smaller rivers may have gotten the jump on us.  Of course, our work is pretty complex, but the problems are getting sorted out and the goal of getting 10,000 paddlers on the Mississippi in the Twin Cities in 2010 looks reachable.

Been on the river up here?  Let us know your thoughts, or, better yet, send us some photos of your experience!

Image courtesy of Jim Brekke, used under a Creative Commons License

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