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On the Commons: the Mississippi River as a Public Good

January 25, 2011Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on On the Commons: the Mississippi River as a Public Good

You won’t find many who are nostalgic for the 1970s–that hair! Those clothes!

But one thing I miss from the 1970s is a sense of things that we shared as a community, and our common responsibilities to protect and steward the things that made all of our lives richer. I saw this a lot in planning for public spaces, in resource management planning and design projects. There was a sense that there was an “us” and that, together, we could protect and enhance places that we shared in common.

Like the Mississippi River, for example.

Of course, the Mississippi was there for a long time before the 1970s, and many, dating back millennia to the first people who knew the river, understood that it was a “commons,” shared by many for the benefit of many.

But the 1970s saw the passage of substantial protections for the Mississippi River, here in the Twin Cities at least, that have been the foundation of most if not all of the river enhancements that have happened subsequently.

The Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) was established first by Executive Order of the Governor and then made a law in 1979 Act (MN Statute Chap. 116G). The act required local governments (including the University of Minnesota) to create plans to protect the scenic, natural, historic, scientific, recreational, and cultural values of the Mississippi River corridor through the Twin Cities.

See, in the United States land use is held at the local level, by cities and counties. There is no national land use plan, and only a few states have attempted to impose guidelines beyond the local level.

So what can be done when a national, even globally significant resource such as the Mississippi is potentially threatened by local land use decisions? The Critical Area stipulates that cities make special planning considerations for the river corridor, design guidelines for instance, and that they work with state agencies and others to do so, balancing their local needs with broader public needs.

Subsequent developments such as the revitalization of Harriet island or the Upper Landing in St. Paul, the building of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, or the creation of Mill City Museum and Mill Ruins Park from the ruins of the old milling district in Minneapolis, have all taken place against the backdrop of the Critical Area Act. Not everyone has agreed with individual projects and design decisions, but everyone has agreed that the Mississippi River is important, that it is a valuable part of our common heritage here and across the globe, and that it’s worthy of special treatment.

And the river is, of course, still worthy of special treatment, even though times and the Twin Cities have changed markedly. In 2009, the legislature required the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to undertake a process called “rulemaking,” which would examine the Critical Area and update provisions of the act to reflect changing realities on the ground. For instance, should areas away from the central cities that were rural in the 1970s still be thought of and managed as rural parts of the corridor, even though community growth pressures have pushed the suburbs out in that direction?

Some communities, and particular interest groups cloaking themselves in the “property rights” mantle want the reevaluation stopped and the Critical Area Act to remain relatively powerless. They argue that state level rulemaking needlessly interferes with local government prerogatives and individual property rights.

As the rhetoric has heated up–not surprisingly–many important subtleties have been lost. The Mississippi River remains a nationally significant resource, important to many and vulnerable to threats imposed by a heedless few.

What’s missing is an understanding of “commons,” those parts of our lives and world that we all need, that we all share, and that we all must steward.

Fortunately writers more eloquent than I are working this subject well, and I will direct you to a recent Minnpost.com interview with Jay Walljasper, a Minneapolis-based journalist and editor. Here Walljasper lays out very well a centrally important notion: that we all depend on places, services, and knowledge that is held in common, not in private to be bought or sold. This concept does not of course erase the sense of private property or knowledge, but establishes “commons” as also essential.

For more on the concept of commons, including examples, further reading, and how you can get involved with commons in your community click here

Not many people, even in these overheated political days, would seriously argue against the importance of public education, public open space, public knowledge, and other components of the “commons” that enrich our lives. In fact, with regard to the Mississippi River, analyses by the City of Minneapolis show that some $400 million of public investment in the Central Riverfront between 1975 and 2007 have generated $1.3 BILLION in private investment.

The Mississippi River can continue to be the center of our 21st century urban region, but only if we take adequate care of it as the rich commons that it is.

To learn more about the Critical Area see the DNR Waters web site.

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Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.