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Can We Design Cities as if Rivers Matter?

August 14, 2013Patrick NunnallyRiver Meaning, RiversComments Off on Can We Design Cities as if Rivers Matter?

You would think this would not be a problem, that is, designing our landscapes as if the rivers that we profess to love really are central to our lives.  Experience of course shows otherwise:  We dedicate all kinds of time and money to advocacy for our rivers, and then live in houses with great green lawns requiring fertilizer and pesticides which wash into and pollute those very same rivers.

But of course we’re contradictory; we’re humans.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has once again taken up the question of how cities can live with rivers.  A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune describes the renewed effort to set up land use rules for the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities metro region. The state designated a “critical area” along the Mississippi corridor in the 1970s and hasn’t really made any revisions to the policy since then.

Of course, in this day and age there is lots of pushback from local governments against state “takeover” of local land use planning authority.  And in the United States land use regulation is a local concern.  Still, the 1970s designation recognized that the Mississippi River in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region is a regional and national asset, an asset which could be threatened by local decisions that were not made with the “river in mind.”

Quick background on the 1970s plan:

  • it works as an “overlay district” appended to local land use plans.  Municipalities (there are some 25 in the corridor) are required to update their corridor plan every few years, and to include the corridor as a special designation in their city planning efforts;
  • it defines categories of resources that are of particular interest: scientific, natural, scenic, historic, cultural, economic, and recreational;
  • it establishes “districts” (urban developed, urban undeveloped, rural undeveloped, etc.) as a way of sorting out where development would be encouraged or discouraged;
  • the boundaries established in the 1970s became the boundaries of a new unit of the National Park Service in 1988 when the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area was established.

So what the Minnesota DNR is doing now is taking a look at how things have changed since the 1970s and what parts of the Critical Area Act might need to be changed also.  Most of the pushback comes from the idea that the original districts should be modified to reflect the region’s growth over the past 35+ years.  Mississippi River advocates, on the other hand, have typically been most fearful of encroachments on the river corridor’s scenic values, contesting the proposed heights of buildings near the river and pushing for more setback requirements and other planning/design regulations to protect the corridor.

Here’s another idea, which probably won’t make anyone very happy:  How can we better protect the Mississippi River as a critically important source of drinking water and other necessary “ecosystem services”?  Can we treat the river as part of a broader regional hydrology rather than just a pretty thing to look at and play on?  Can we use urban design guidelines to enhance water quality and, maybe, make the river and its systems more resilient to alterations from a changing climate?

Now thinking that way would REALLY be “designing as if the river mattered”!

How can we convene that conversation?  Ideas and nominations welcomed!


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