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River is Central to New Park Initiatives

Minneapolis and St. Paul have enjoyed exemplary systems of parks and parkways since the late 19th century.  Beginning in the 1880s, community leaders were inspired by visionaries such as landscape architect Horace William Shaler Cleveland to set aside lands beyond the boundaries of the growing cities, where prices were still affordable.  The ensuing green spaces around lakes served for a while to protect sources of city drinking water as well as provide respite and recreation for the community.

Now, as this article in elaborates, new visionaries are developing park plans for the twenty-first century.  While the article’s title refers to “parks 3.0” and I’m unsure what “parks 2.0” was, we’ll just take it to mean “parks for the system’s third century.”

It is abundantly clear that new park planning will be marked by a multifunctional approach and a recognition that parks serve new constituents, who may well desire particular patterns of use that park planners don’t fully understand yet.  It will be important to recognize that park systems must serve the needs of people as well as provide habitat for wildlife and a base for “ecosystem services” on a broad scale.   New demands for features such as urban agriculture are examples of the opportunity and challenge for open space lands to meet new needs.

The article highlights the fact  that the Mississippi River is central to planning in both St. Paul and Minneapolis.  Both cities have just completed and adopted large scale planning frameworks: Riverfirst in Minneapolis and the Great River Passage in St. Paul.  Both of these plans will set the tone for making the Mississippi River once again the “front door” to these cities.

But the river can, and must, be more than just a reclaimed open space or a “destination area.”  We are beginning to recognize  that the Mississippi River itself, and the water system that it is the most visible part of, is increasingly unstable, and is a vital part of the region’s health in many diverse ways.  Riverfront open space is an ideal “field school” for the paradigm shift that is coming with regard to our recognition that we can’t take our water system for granted.  Moreover, these places provide essential learning spaces for us to understand how to live “with” our river system, rather than just “on” the river or “beside” the river.  Here we can learn, and teach, how the rivers actually work, that they are more than just wet features of our urban geography.

The people who can help us with this new learning are all around us, from scientists at local universities and at state and federal resource management agencies to people who have studied and absorbed what the river is for a long time.  And even though there is no mention of this population in the article, our native people, who have lived here for millennia and who are still inhabiting this place, have much to offer us as we try to live better with our water.

Bold new initiatives may well be coming to our rivers, but we would be wise to listen more than we talk; sometimes the boldest way forward is the most subtle and easily-overlooked.


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One Comment

  1. River(s) as Learning Space(s) | The 2 July GroupAugust 6, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    […] and mentioned that our riverfronts could provide “essential learning spaces.”  Most readers will probably glide over this phrase, being more interested in rivers than in […]

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