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Who Determines the Future of Urban Riverfronts?

September 15, 2010Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on Who Determines the Future of Urban Riverfronts?

Governing urban riverfronts is hard.  There are always conflicting interests and uses, and segments of the community who have different visions.  Add to that the cases where a riverfront is shared by different communities, and local land use authorities, and there’s a real recipe for chaos.

in the 1970s, the state of Minnesota faced this situation with the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities region.  Local land use authority–and in the US, land use authority starts at the local level–was threatening to “chip away” at the scenic, scientific, cultural and natural resources that made the Mississippi a regional (or national) asset.  The state’s response was to establish a Critical Area Act, which required local units of government to enact a special zoning district within a boundary along the river.  In 1988, these boundaries became the boundaries for a new unit of the National Park Service, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA).

Over the past few years, sentiment has grown to take a new look at Critical Area planning and the rules that govern the urban river corridor.  Part of the sentiment has been that the area has changed, in some ways dramatically, over the past three decades; regulations should be adjusted to reflect the new reality on the ground.  And there has also been concern that communities enforce Critical Area standards with varying degrees of intensity; a project that might be granted permission in one town is stopped in another.  The state Department of Natural Resources, which has overall implementation authority of the Critical Area Act, undertook an extensive public “rule-making process” beginning in 2009.  The DNR maintains an extensive web site with background and updates on Critical Area planning, as well as pertinent boundaries and legal history

As might be expected, a number of positions have emerged during this process.

Friends of the Mississippi River is one of the most prominent advocacy groups addressing Mississippi River issues in the Twin Cities.  It has been a regular participant in the rule-making process, and has recently been urging river advocates to attend public meetings and speak out for strong protection rules governing land use along the corridor. 

Some local officials and residents, however, see more stringent rules as usurping local land use authority.  As reported in a local newspaper this summer, some local citizens have begun organizing to stay on top of the issue and to make sure their voices are heard.

Our interest is bringing good urban design to the river, and having flexibility to build well, as if the river matters.  Finding the right mix of local oversight and awareness that the Mississippi River is an asset to a much broader community is a tricky business and will, quite frankly, be very difficult to pull off in this hyper-politicized climate.  Yet it is the necessary work that we face, and all sources of expertise and honest perspectives need to be heard.

The existing arrangement is by no means perfect–DNR hydrologists are not always particularly expert on urban design–but it’s a sufficient framework for starting to make good decisions.

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