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Changing the Game by Changing the Question

July 16, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured PostsComments Off on Changing the Game by Changing the Question

My previous post made reference to seemingly-intractable conflicts between “developers” and “preservationists” when it comes to managing urban riverfront corridors.  The case in question is the effort by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to craft new regulations governing land use and building along the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities, known locally as Critical Areas.  Some local governments and related interests see this as a land grab and usurpation of local government rights, while some river advocates argue that too much flexibility will render any regulation meaningless.

And don’t talk to me about “balance”: everyone’s “balance” is at a different point in the spectrum of development and preservation; people still craft the debate as “us vs them.”

Maybe we need to change the question.  This recent article in Ensia focuses on energy use, but the concluding point–that changing what we ask means that we often see new solutions–applies to our riverfront dilemma also, I think.

For one thing, I am not 100% sure I know exactly what the “question” is that Critical Area regulation is asking.  Is it about how to maximize the value of the river for “city building”? About minimizing the impact of the city on the river?  Something else altogether?  Traditionally, both river advocates and local government business development interests see each other as somewhat adversarial.  Notice how both of my questions frame themselves in terms of “maximizing” one side of the equation, or “minimizing” the other.

What if we asked more detailed questions, such as:  What are the qualities of the river corridor that are most important to city developers?  Are the potential residents of riverfront housing wanting unobstructed views?  parks and trails?  Thankfully, after the Clean Water Act, we rarely have to talk about “rivers that don’t catch on fire” as criteria, although less visible pollutants are still a problem.  Likewise, what are the river’s qualities that are most important to advocates?  Can any of those qualities be maintained with development that is designed in a particular way?

I’m not an urban designer (and I don’t play one on TV), but there are many people working at various levels of government and in the private sector throughout the region who have a lot of expertise in this area.  As we recognize that the urban riverfront is an asset for all of us, how about having some more specific conversations about what exactly we hope for and how we can get to that.  Changing the questions can get us off the “us/them,” “preserve/develop” spot that we’ve gotten stuck on.

Where should we start?  What are the questions that come to mind?

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