University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Hard to Believe it’s Been 10 Years: Have We Learned Anything?

November 6, 2015Patrick NunnallyProgram & AnnouncementsComments Off on Hard to Believe it’s Been 10 Years: Have We Learned Anything?

The short answer is “yes.”  If we haven’t learned anything in ten years’ work, then River Life should simply close up shop.

But we have learned quite a bit, which positions us, we think, for more focused and powerful work going forward.

In 2005, Ann Forsyth, then director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota, made a small one time grant that allowed me to focus my attention on how the university could better connect with the Mississippi River, which runs through the middle of the Minneapolis campus.  After all, both Minneapolis and St. Paul were strengthening their river connections; the university should do likewise.

It did not take long to realize that the Mississippi River was a subject that interested the university beyond the College of Design.  In 2007 we became a program of the new Institute on the Environment (IonE).

We think of our time with IonE as “River Life 2.0,” and it was certainly a formative period for us.  We committed to digital media as our primary form of knowledge sharing (as opposed, say, to traditional publishing outlets) and became focused on expanding the ways we understood rivers.  Put simply, much of the work of riverfront revitalization that cities are engaged with does not depend on knowing how rivers work.  Recreation managers, community planners, and real estate developers ought to know more hydrology and aquatic ecology, but for many the river is just “a wet thing near the ground we are interested in.”

Even though we learned a lot about various river sciences during our time at IonE, we were never going to be actual scientific researchers, which is really the name of the game for that institute.  So in 2012 we moved again, this time to our present administrative home at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).  The IAS, which describes itself as “contributing to intellectual community across the campus and beyond its borders,” has been a partner of ours from the very beginning, so in many ways this last move felt like coming home.  My academic and writing background is in the arts and humanities, so in some ways we have completed the triangle: from the “doing” of design/planning to the realm of scientific investigations to the humanistic concerns with meaning and significance.

So where are we going?  We continue to focus on the Mississippi River, recognizing that the river is both a vitally important and enormously complex physical space in its own right and a central location in which to situate other inquiries.  For example, which communities within the Twin Cities have not had equitable access to the river’s amenity values, and why?  Who controls how the region’s waters are managed–the Mississippi after all is the most visible part of a vastly complex regional water system–and who benefits most from that water management?  How can we better understand the water relationships, and all that follow from them, between the watershed and the main stem of the river?

We’ll explore these and related questions through research, through teaching that we conduct and that we support in various ways, and through a new digital journal that will commence later this fall.  Watch for that, and for ways to add your voices to the growing conversation about a more sustainable, inclusive future for the Mississippi River.

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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.