River Talk

Recently in River Futures 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.

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.

It's a truism that our future is bound up in children, in young people, or, at a University, in our students.  Lots and lots of river folks, of course, engage young people, as our post of last week on the Story Boat project demonstrated.

But what if we could really get the "student power" of the University of Minnesota oriented toward the Mississippi River?  As the only comprehensive university located largely within the boundaries of a National Park Service unit, it would seem to be our mission to find out.

"River Futures" is the name we have given to our efforts to get the university in the DNA of the river and park and to get the river/park in the DNA of the university.  River Futures has two components:  Gopher Rangers, which is a way to improve access for students into the work of the Park Service at their Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) unit, and River Studies, which is an effort to systematically connect teaching, co-curricular research opportunities, and other programs to the park's work.   Let's look at these quickly.

Most of our students don't know that they go to school in a National Park.  Yet for many of them, the opportunity to engage in habitat restoration, a canoeing program for school children, or to lead an interpretive program would be a tremendously valuable adjunct to their major fields of study.  Student lives are busy, though, and they don't know how to get started, to connect up with the park, or what to do.  The Gopher Ranger program provides information and announces upcoming programs to interested students so they can have access to opportunities to extend their learning and contribute to the Park's work.

River Studies gets at the same goals but in a slightly different manner.  So far, we're working on a pilot basis with faculty in the College of Design and the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences to collect information on courses and student project opportunities that might mutually benefit the park and the students in the course.  Suppose that an urban design course has a service learning component requiring a community partner and is focused on urban natural systems.  If the faculty member gets in touch with park staff, there may be a potential collaboration that serves a park need as well as fulfilling the course goals.  The same could happen with a course on urban forestry, on tourism behavior, or literally dozens of other ideas.

The University of Minnesota is by no means the only college or university on the Mississippi.  We know, and work with, people at Augustana College in Rock Island, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Tulane University in New Orleans.  As the River Futures program and comparable efforts along the river mature, a cadre of educated, bright,  and idealistic young people should be organized for future Mississippi River sustainability efforts!  Some of them will work at colleges and universities, and so the cycle of benefits continues.

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