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“Who Is the River For?” Andy Sturdevant on River Community

May 29, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured PostsComments Off on “Who Is the River For?” Andy Sturdevant on River Community

(c) Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. Used with permission.The title of this post is a question that isn’t really asked often enough, and when it is asked, too commonly splits along hardened lines.  Either the river is seen as for “the public” with parks and green space, or it is for “the rich” with condos and high end eating and entertainment facilities blocking off “the public.”

Andy Sturdevant’s recent piece in, invites a more varied, nuanced approach to the urban Mississippi River in St. Paul.  He notes that there are several Mississippi Rivers in the Twin Cities, and multiple stories that are told in varying ways along each of those river reaches.  Parts of the river corridor in St. Paul speak of historic floods; other parts connect to the rest of the midcontinent through the inland navigation system; still other places and stories speak to historical connections between the river and its agricultural hinterlands.

This multiplicity is important, not least because those of us who think about the Mississippi River all the time sometimes assume our audience is as invested as we are.  Within the group that is fully engaged, the “Church of the Mississippi River” if you will (no offense intended), words and images and phrases have common meanings, shorthand for connections to broader ideas, policy positions, and complex issues.

Most people, though, do not (yet) belong to the “Church of the Mississippi River,” and therefore don’t have access to the shorthand, the references, and assumptions that makes up that community’s dialogue.  Rather than leave them out of discussions about the river, we need to be more inclusive in how we think, talk about, and understand the Mississippi.  Part of that effort at inclusion should be an invitation to join the policy conversations that take up so much of our time and energy.  After all, a broader public debate about the Mississippi and its future is good for everyone.

Many people, however, for all kinds of reasons, don’t yet see themselves as “river people,” and no amount of earnest discussion of the connections between agriculture and water quality, or of threats to floodplain connectivity, are going to make them such.  However, I think there is great potential in the tendency of people to begin to identify themselves with a place, whether that place is a neighborhood, a block on their street, a particular park or, perhaps, the Mississippi River.

Here I am expanding, I think, on work done by one of my mentors a couple of decades ago.  Bill Morrish was the founding director of the University of Minnesota’s Design Center for the American Landscape (now the Metropolitan Design Center).  One of the first in this area to think systematically about how communities faced the Mississippi River, Morrish published a series of “design briefs” on the subject, including the still-apt “Redefining the River Corridor as a River Community.”  In this document, Morrish explores ways the river can infiltrate the city and, conversely, the city can be better designed to take advantage of the river running through it.  By combining insights from urban design, landscape architecture, conservation biology and ecology, we can enhance both city and river.

This redefinition will be central to river work in the next decades.  Once we have understood how the river defines our communities, we can build on the myriad energies dedicated to making our communities more sustainable and equitable.  This work will necessarily be more inclusive, addressing everyone who cares about “here,” that sense of where they are and where they belong.

From that inclusion and care, will come the “river saving” acts that involve taking action on federal policy initiatives and the other work that will remain so vital.

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