University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

About Patrick Nunnally

As the coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s River Life program, Pat Nunnally works to establish lasting relationships among the University of Minnesota and groups working on river sustainability. In the past two decades, Nunnally has developed a unique practice as a consulting historian, communications manager and interpretive planner, with a focus on rivers, trails and scenic byways. He has organized events and conferences with a Mississippi River connection, and has presented his work at numerous academic and professional meetings. He’s also worked with public agencies and private firms on many planning projects for culturally sensitive sites. Nunnally’s writings have appeared in a variety of forms, including the ongoing blog River Talk. His latest published piece is a short reflection on the importance of diverse stories in shaping an inclusive future for the Mississippi River. The City, the River, the Bridge, an edited collection of essays examining the consequences and aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse, will appear in January 2011. Since 1999, Nunnally has served on the U of M faculty, teaching classes in landscape planning and urban studies. He holds graduate degrees in English, American studies and landscape architecture from Vanderbilt University, the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota.

This is How Change Begins: Forum on Closure of St. Anthony Lock

A week ago, the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership held a forum on the future of the Minneapolis Central Riverfront after the closing of the Upper St. Anthony Lock.  Dave Tinjum, publisher of the Mill City Times, filmed the session and has made it available.  Dave does yeoman work for the communities around the Minneapolis riverfront and we want to thank him publicly for the dedicated community service he performs.

The video is conveniently divided so that viewers can skip to any of the particular speakers, go straight to the questions, which were highly interesting and well-informed, or simply view the entire program.  A quick summary of some of the key points each speaker made:

  • Council Member Jacob Frey welcomed the group and offered his sense that the Central Riverfront holds tremendous potential as part of the economic revitalization of this part of the city,
  • Architect Tom Meyer, who has been part of the St. Anthony Falls riverfront for better than 40 years, described how the lock at Upper St. Anthony was completed in the early 1960s, just as the great age of industrial milling was coming to a close.  After a period where the area lagged behind investments in the rest of the city, a number of key events took place in the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s that set the stage for the historic transformation that will happen when the lock closes.
  • Nan Bischoff is the project manager for the lock transition effort at the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.  She too has deep experience in the area, which forms part of her perspective as she organizes the studies and analyses that will lead the agency to recommend whether to keep the facility although it is essentially nonfunctional, or transfer all or part of the facility to another public entity.  The processes are driven by federal rules and regulations, and she assured the crowd that there would be plenty of opportunities for public comment.
  • Janna King, President of Economic Development Services, Inc. completed a study of the economic impact of closing the Upper St. Anthony lock.  While the general impact, in terms of more trucks on local highways, a loss of jobs, and potential economic increase from recreational river use is fairly well known, her studies provide a large number of important details.  Nevertheless, measured at a broad level, the impact to the region is estimated at a $22 million dollar loss, measured out over some 25 years.
  • The last panelist to speak was John Anfinson, Superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the local unit of the National Park Service that covers the Mississippi River in this area.  A professional historian, Anfinson pointed out that the lock’s construction was the result of long-running competition between Minneapolis and St. Paul, and that it was barely economically feasible when it opened.  It never achieved the hoped-for role as a nationally-significant component of the inland waterway system that stretches from Minnesota to New Orleans.

The closure of the lock is relatively imminent, slated to take place on or before June 15, 2015.  The decisions about what happens to the facility, and by extension how this part of the city is affected by this momentous occasion, has just begun.


River Sites as Sites of Conscience: the Past Strengthens the Future

At this point in history, the early 21st century, most folks generally understand that our history hasn’t always been a uniform, steady story of progress whereby enlightened and sensitive people make unerring choices as society moves toward an ever-brighter future for everyone. (In case you think I’m being my usual semi-snarky self, let me just say that this was the dominant narrative in K-12 history classes for a very long time.)

We know, of course, that history is fraught with stories of mistakes, violence, well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) efforts that reaped unintended consequences.  Telling those stories in public places, whether through memorials, or through interpretive programs at historic sites, parks, and open spaces, is part of how our rich and complex legacy is conveyed to people today.

Shockoe Bottom is a site in the City of Richmond VA that is deeply associated with slave trading in the city’s past.  Currently, the city and others plan to redevelop the site, further erasing the opportunity to convey this painful part of the city’s past.  A coalition of local and national advocates is rallying for a different future, one that incorporates the site’s past into its present, and retains the site’s capacity to act as a “site of conscience.”

What has this got to do with our work, you may ask?  Rivers were historically the key routes of transportation, commerce, and exchange between communities, regions, and nations.  River sites such as Fort Snelling and the sites of many indigenous settlements, now all but erased in the dominant society’s memory are strong candidates to become “safe places to tell challenging stories” as a recent National Park Service report said.

A richer, more nuanced understanding of our river’s past is necessary for us to engage a broader and deeper set of possibilities for its future.

New leader at Mississippi River National Park

John Anfinson, a historian who has published widely and served the Corps of Engineers as well as the National Park Service in protecting and managing the Upper Mississippi, is the new superintendent at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

As he explains in this recent news story, Anfinson’s main goals as superintendent are to increase the river’s visibility to Twin Cities residents and help them understand why the Mississippi River in this region matters.

The park faces a number of challenges and changes in the immediate future, from the impending closure of Upper St. Anthony Lock to the ongoing vigilance against the threat of invading carp.  But there are strong opportunities as well, not least of which is the National Park Service’s upcoming centennial celebration in 2016.

Last fall, Anfinson gave a talk at the University of Minnesota in which he argued that the river’s future is strongly affected by its past, but that the longer term vision of the river is a text yet waiting to be written.  View the video of the talk, plus the extensive question/answer session here.


Big Changes to Minneapolis Central Riverfront? Learn More

The Upper St. Anthony Falls lock has become one of the most recognizable parts of the river landscape in the Central Minneapolis riverfront.

But it’s closing soon, no later than June 2015.  Now what?  Will the Corps of Engineers stop dredging everywhere above the Ford Lock and Dam?  Will the lock building and its small visitor center stay open? What about the Lower St. Anthony Lock?

Who will have a say in how these changes are managed?

Learn more by hearing a panel of experts lead a discussion this Thursday, January 22, at Mill City Museum, 6:00-7:30.  More details in the press release copied below:

In June 2015, the St. Anthony Falls Upper Lock will close primarily to stop the spread of invasive carp into the Upper River. What will be the impact on the Minneapolis Riverfront? “Minneapolis After the Lock: Unlocking New Opportunities”  a Riverfront Vitality Forum presented by the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership (MRP), impanels a group of experts to discuss these questions and hear ideas about how the river can be used in new ways. The Forum will take place on Thursday, January 22nd, from 6-7:30 PM at the Mill City Museum. Admission is free. Reserve a seat at

When barge traffic ends, river management practices such as dredging will change. The closure will also have an environmental and economic impact on the entire river in the city of Minneapolis. What are the opportunities that the lock closure will bring to the river and riverfront in terms of recreation and development? How does this closure fit into the Central Riverfront Master Plan? These questions and others will be addressed. Scheduled panel speakers are:

  • Jacob Frey, Minneapolis City Councilperson for the Third Ward
  • John Anfinson, Superintendent, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, National Parks Service
  • Nanette Bischoff, Project Manager/FERC Coordinator, U. S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • Thomas Meyer, Principal, MSR Architecture, Interiors and Urban Design
  • Moderator: Kathleen Boe, Executive Director of the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership.

Note: According to Federal law, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will close St. Anthony Falls Upper Lock no later than June 2015 primarily to stop the spread of invasive carp into the Upper River. Such a spread has the potential to inflict destruction on lakes and rivers throughout Minnesota, effectively destroying water recreation throughout the state.

MRP launched the Riverfront Vitality Forums to bring diverse groups together to work on issues critical to creating a vibrant riverfront community.  MRP’s signature work—the Riverfront Vitality Report—is tracking the results of public and private efforts toward creating a healthy, livable riverfront with greenspace and trails accessible to everyone.

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For further information, contact: Kathleen Boe, Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership,, or Merle Minda,

Tonight-Sip of Science-Volcanoes, Anyone?

Our friends at the National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics are at it again–another semester of Sip of Science begins tonight.  Read below for more details:

A SIP OF SCIENCE – the 2nd Wednesday of every month
Volcanoes and Our Past
Kent Kirkby, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota
Wednesday January 14th, 2015 5:30p.m.
Aster Cafe, 125 SE Main Street, St. Anthony Main, Minneapolis

A SIP OF SCIENCE bridges the gap between science and culture in a setting that bridges the gap between brain and belly. Food, beer, and learning are on the menu in a happy hour forum that puts science in context through storytelling.

January 14th Event

Volcanic eruptions are among some of the most spectacular events in our shared human experience. All too often though, eruptions are treated as historic oddities – unusual events of limited importance in the greater scheme of things. When typically volcanism does make it into history books, the mention is brief, focusing on the eruption and its immediate death toll. This myopic approach grossly underestimates the long term impacts volcanism has played in human history and how it has shaped our society. Join us for the January Sip of Science as geology professor Kent Kirkby presents the opportunity to acknowledge, perhaps even celebrate, the roles volcanism has played in human history.
The talk takes place during happy hour at the Aster Cafe || Food and Drink Available for Purchase

A gift of three plastic dinosaurs at the age of seven sparked a career path for Kent Kirkby — and graduate research undertaken while living in a mountain lion’s cave in the southwest confirmed it. Kirkby, now a teaching professor at the University of Minnesota, worked for more than a decade in the oil fields of Colorado and Alberta, Canada before returning to academia. Since coming to the university twenty years ago, he’s focused on developing more effective teaching methods often interwoven with storytelling. While his courses have touched on topics ranging from natural disasters and dinosaurs to the geology behind landscape paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, all have focused on the intersection of human history and Earth processes. A native Wisconsinite, who has yet to develop a taste for Minnesota hot dishes, Kent has two sons who have fled the nest, and currently lives with his wife (also his best friend), three cats and a decent-sized green aluminum Brontosaur.
A SIP OF SCIENCE is a science happy hour sponsored by the National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics (NCED). It is a chance to hear about new and exciting research over beer, in a cool bar. Come talk with the experts about their efforts to address some of the Earth’s most pressing problems. NCED’s A SIP OF SCIENCE brings the wonder of science to happy hour.

Get more information at:

On Black Lives and the “Green Movement”

It seems that if you are living in the United States you have to be making a conscious effort not to know about the events that have been transpiring in Ferguson, MO, or who Eric Garner is.  If you’re not on social media much, or at all, you may not have heard of the #blacklivesmatter trope that is sweeping the country, both in physical as well as digital space.

#blacklivesmatter for those of us concerned with rivers, place-based thinking, and our shared environmental future.  I won’t make the case fully or extensively today in this post, in part because I haven’t fully sorted it out myself and in part because there are many, many complicated threads involved.  For some, the question of African-Americans and “the environment” is a question of raising environmental justice issues to the top of our agenda.  For others, the primary concern is including African-American populations in the communities that we seek to engage with our programming.  The Twitter account @Outdoorafro is part of some of the conversations, as is the planner Kristen Jeffers, who tweets at @blackurbanist. Serious inquiry into the issue has to take into account the work of Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of environmental justice.”

Two recent blog posts highlight the fraught and complex relationships between African-Americans and the environmental community.  Michael Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, writes of his recent experience when the Sierra Club spoke out in solidarity with groups protesting the deaths of Eric Garner and others.  Some commenters wrote back that the Sierra Club had no business becoming involved in these issues; Brune argues cogently that it does.

Writing in LA Observed, Jon Christensen summarizes Brune’s argument and extends it, pointing out the need for the “big green organizations” to diversify their membership, their employee ranks, and their boards of directors.  To date, many but by no means all of them have.  Christensen argues that when they do, and when the environmental movement looks a lot more like the population of the United States, that development will be very good for the environment, as well as for the people who care about that environment.

Writing the River

All of us who think about stories and the Mississippi River have to think about Mark Twain.  Often that means an almost ritual citation of one of a half dozen or so passages, or a reference to the river as “Mark Twain’s river” as if it didn’t exist before he wrote about it.  Of course it did, and it continues to exist, albeit with a host of meanings, only some of which are associated with his writing.

It’s that question of the river’s meaning that interests us in the “Making the Mississippi” seminar.  Last week we spent a good deal of time talking through a perspective that the literary scholar T. S. McMillin raises in his book The Meaning of Rivers.  McMillin concentrates on the chapters in Life on the Mississippi where young Sam Clemens begins his education as a pilot.  The boy realizes that his previous understanding of the river, which was all bound up in romantic notions of freedom and faraway places was an “overlooking” of the material facts of the water.  This idealized, abstract knowledge was worse than useless; it actively interfered with the knowledge that he had to develop to navigate a boat.

Unfortunately, on having learned his pilot’s trade, such that he could “read” the river going upstream or down, by day or by night, Clemens comes to realize that the romance of the river was lost.  He no longer cared what the river means, or if it’s a passage to mysterious places; he only knows what he has to in order to get his steamboat around the next bend safely.

McMillin suggests, and I concur, that true river literacy comes at a point in between the two ends of the spectrum that young Clemens experienced.  We have to know enough about how the river works to deal with it respectfully as a system in the “real world.”  But we should never lose our awe at its power, its mystery, indeed, its magic.

So what is river literacy?  Are there specific bits of knowledge, or perspectives, or points of view that are necessary for us to have a “literate citizenry” with regard to the Mississippi?  What do we have to know to interact with the river in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, resilient, and healthy?

Riverside Communities: Overlooked Hinges Between Past and Future

The Mississippi River corridor contains many places that are widely recognized as having national or international significance.  But the stories of places where “ordinary” people have made their homes in proximity to the river are, often literally, overlooked.

This week, we begin a series of blog posts written by recent graduate Rachel Hines, an archaeologist who has conducted extensive study on the various “flats” communities along the Mississippi in the Twin Cities.   These low-lying areas were subject to regular inundation by foul-smelling river water, and were sometimes threatened by bigger than usual floods.  The people who lived in “Bohemian Flats,” “Little Italy,” “Swede Hollow” and comparable sites were often new immigrants living where land was cheap.  In the mid part of the 20th century, these communities often were romanticized as they were destroyed, for various reasons.

But these communities bear closer examination, largely because they have been so easily romanticized and overlooked.  Rachel’s series explores the coping strategies that communities developed as they lived in this proximity to a large body of moving water, as well as investigates what happened to these communities and these landscapes after the people left.  By studying particular sites closely, and seeing their development through time in detail, we can gain a measure of insight into what the Mississippi has meant to the communities here.

The series “Living with the Mississippi” takes readers through Bohemian Flats, Little Italy/Upper Levee, West Side Flats, and Swede Hollow:   Who was there? How did the community change through time? Why did the people leave and where did they go?  What has the land become subsequently?

In some if not all cases, these places are central to the future riverfront planning in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Our series explores themes of place and memory, the river in relation to the communities through which it flows, continuities and differences in ways people have lived in proximity to the Mississippi, and how the river has had variable meanings and uses to different communities through time.

The Mississippi is an iconic, mythic place, as well as a water system of almost incomprehensible complexity.  But it is also a location, a place that is central to understanding where we are and what we might imagine our future to be.

The blog series starts on December 4, and is available here and at the River Life blog.

Living With the River: It’s All in the Prepositions

Some of you may remember prepositions from, oh, say 7th grade grammar class.  Prepositions are the small words like “with” “to” or “in” that express relations between two things.  Little surprise, then, that last week’s John E. Sawyer discussion on “relational ontologies” ended up being a discussion about prepositions.

To over simplify, “relational ontologies” is a matter of arguing that the relationships between things are more important than the things themselves.  So for example, there is a river, and there is a community of people.  Both are definable in any number of ways.  But the important thing is the nature of the relationship between them.  Taken a bit further, the idea would extend to an argument that our best relationship with the river entails obligations on us and that the river has existence and merit and value on its own, whether we are here or not.

Important concepts, and, like many important ideas, sorta hard to get your mind around.

So let’s think about prepositions a bit.

Some advocacy groups say they “speak for the Mississippi River.”  I guess that’s better than speaking “at” the river or speaking “in” the river.  But does speaking for the river imply that it can’t speak for itself?  Maybe it “speaks” when it floods, reminding us where its proper domain is?

If we are going to develop a way of living “with” the river in an appropriate way, what does that ask of us?  Is living with the river like living with a person?  Aldo Leopold has argued that harmony with land is like harmony with a friend: you can’t cherish one hand while cutting the other one off.  Do we “love” the Mississippi by restricting it within levee floodwalls, bunching it up regularly behind dams, and dumping our trash into it?  Do we express our love for it by alternately stifling it and putting it on a pedestal to worship?

One of the important contributions of humanistic thinking in the academy is to ask us to question things that we commonly take for granted.  We might think more closely about our language for the river, and what that language expresses about what we think the river is, who we think “we” are, and what the right relationship is between us and the Mississippi.

I think we’d find that the relationships are more complicated than we think, and that despite easy derision (“of course the river doesn’t actually talk”) there’s more to our relationship with the Mississippi than meets the eye.

Minnesota’s Water Future–One Perspective

Last week I gave a talk at the convention of the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIAMN).  The room was full and the audience was attentive, asking thoughtful, informed questions about the ways design in urban space can have an impact on water.  I was pleased to give the talk and thank the AIAMN folks for offering me the platform.

I won’t go through the whole thing here–it was a 90 minute talk after all.  The abbreviated version is that I used the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities as a proxy for water in urban design, and encouraged the audience to think of water as more than an aesthetic dimension to the space they are shaping.  An abundant supply of clean water will be integral to our urban future.

We also spent some time talking about the Mississippi River Critical Area Program, managed by the state Department of Natural Resources in an effort to protect multiple resource values associated with the urban Mississippi River.  The present iteration of the program pays some attention to water quality, but I argued that we need a more robust way for planners, hydrologists, and designers to pool their collective talents.

I closed with some hopes/guesses about Minnesota’s water future.  After all, that was the title of the talk they signed up to hear, right?  I suggest that in Minnesota’s water future:

  • We will design cities as if rivers and water really matter, and that in order to do this, water management will be an important part of every professional designer’s training;
  • Actions such as throwing trash or pet leavings down storm sewers will be regarded as socially unacceptable, as will blowing/raking leaves or grass clippings into the gutter, where they wash down the storm sewers into the nearby water body;
  • Events such as the rain storms we had here last June, which dropped record amounts of rainfall across most of the Twin Cities region, will be expected, and preparing for them will be part of civic planning and design, rather than aberrant emergencies that disrupt our lives and cost millions of dollars to clean up after;
  • Children will know their watershed address, where their water comes from and where it goes after they have used it, in much the way they now know their street address and how to navigate their town to get to school.

I will add one additional point here, and that is to suggest that these concepts will be applicable to all children, in all parts of the city and region, not just a few who have particular advantages.  It’s going to take all of us to manage our water future.

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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