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For St. Paul, Mississippi River is past, present, and future

November 4, 2013Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured PostsComments Off on For St. Paul, Mississippi River is past, present, and future

St. Paul's present relationship to the river is quite different.Earlier this fall, I was invited by Prof. Roopali Phadke of Macalester College’s Environmental Studies Program to participate in a small group workshop considering the future of St. Paul and the role various technologies might play in that future.  St. Paul is one of six cities participating in a program called “The Futurescape City Tours,” organized through Arizona State University.

The group of us met and discussed our attitudes toward technology, then took a daylong walking tour of downtown and the immediate vicinity, with stops highlighting innovative technological systems such as those at District Energy and the St. Paul Union Depot.

The Depot, of course, is combining “past technology” of rail travel with innovations and multi-modal transportation that will serve St. Paul well into this century.  And for me, considering St. Paul, that was one of the dominant themes: how the past and decisions that were made better than a century ago continue to shape the ways we will live in this place for the next century.  Apparently a lot of us felt this way, our photoblog on Flickr is resonant with the built forms of the past in this place.

For me, of course, the view always turns toward the Mississippi, the reason for St. Paul’s very existence in the first place and perhaps its most distinctive physical characteristic going forward.  For example,

St. Paul’s past is intimately tied to its location at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River.  That place, where people and goods disembarked from riverboats and, often, continued their journey by rail, is still marked on the landscape by extensive railyards, often separating people from the river.  This image, taken from the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, illustrates that juxtaposition.

St. Paul's past is intimately tied to its location at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River.

St. Paul’s past is intimately tied to its location at the head of navigation on the Mississippi River.

St. Paul’s present relationship to the river is quite different.  Rail yards have been replaced by multi-use development and parks.  People can get close to the water and in some places actually put their feet in the “Mighty Mississippi.”  As the picture shows, the rail tracks are still there, still forming a barrier from downtown to the river, but there has been a whole new neighborhood developed at the waterfront.

St. Paul's present relationship to the river is quite different.

St. Paul’s present relationship to the river is quite different.

St. Paul’s future river relationship will be more subtle, as these tiles, created by school children and forming part of a rain garden at the Vento Sanctuary illustrate.  You maybe can’t tell from the photo, but I know the artist who worked with these children, and they were a multi-ethnic, mixed income and background group.  St. Paul, where Garrison Keillor broadcasts “Prairie Home Companion” on many Saturday nights, will look less like “Lake Wobegon” in the future, and those of us who live there will have to be taking our water relationships much more seriously, hence the photo of rain garden elements.

St. Paul's future river relationship will be more subtle, as these tiles, created by school children and forming part of a rain garden at the Vento Sanctuary illustrate.

St. Paul’s future river relationship will be more subtle, as these tiles, created by school children and forming part of a rain garden at the Vento Sanctuary illustrate.

What does this all add up to?  I don’t really know, but our workshop leaders were kind enough not to make us focus strictly on nanotechnology.  Technologies come in all manner of shapes and scales; understanding those we already have, and that we’ll have framing our lives for decades, is an important place to start!

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River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
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.