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.

#TBT St. Paul and Pool 2: Dynamic Land and Water

cattle on the flats 1925

Grazing on the West Side Flats. This herd of cattle is standing more or less where Holman Field airport is now located. Lily Lake was filled in early in the 20th century to create the land for the airport.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

flood Upper Landing

Boating on Upper Levee during a flood. The Upper Levee neighborhood near the present Science Museum of Minnesota location flooded regularly during the first half of the 20th century. Residents of the community, nearly all of whom were Italian immigrants, moved out after the flood of 1952. Many went to the Railroad Island/Payne Avenue neighborhood on the east side of St. Paul, while others started businesses such as Mancini’s Char House and Cossetta’s Grocery and Deli on nearby West Seventh Street.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

St. Paul bluff cutback for rr

Cutting away the bluff to make way for railroads. The center of downtown St. Paul, between the Science Museum and the Union Depot, is located on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi. This photograph, probably from the 1870s or 1880s, shows the developing railroad beds below the bluff, where present Shepherd Road and current rail lines still run. The bluff appears to have been cut back through the soft St. Peter sandstone to make more room for the transportation network.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

St. Paul under construction

Filling the Mississippi shoreland to make room for new development. This image, looking upstream from the Upper Landing area toward Fort Snelling, illustrates how watery margins of the Mississippi were filled in to create more land for transportation and settlement. The photograph probably dates to the 1870s.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Water Is News in Minnesota

January 19, 2016Patrick NunnallyRivers0

That fact, to some extent, is news in and of itself.  For too long Minnesota has rested on the laurels of promotional slogans (“Land of 10,000 Lakes” and arcane facts (more boat and fishing licenses per capita than any other state) as evidence of the state’s love and stewardship of its waters.

Last week Governor Mark Dayton announced that he would be asking the legislature for nearly a quarter of a BILLION dollars in state bonding to begin the process of upgrading local water infrastructure systems.  This sum is rightly understood as a down payment on a multi-decade investment that will end up costing billions over the long term.

But the alternative, letting the state’s drinking water supplies fall into further disrepair, is unthinkable.  Just ask anyone involved with the crisis Flint Michigan is facing over its drinking water supplies.  The short version: two years or so ago, the city switched water supply sources in an effort to save money.  Not only was the new supply tainted, but chemicals in the water leached lead out of outdated pipes.  The result: unusable water and measurably high levels of lead in children’s bloodstreams.  This poisoning will affect at least a generation of people.  I won’t link to more details.  There are hundreds of stories on this; find the news source that you trust most and you’ll find a more complete account.

Closer to home, the issue of who cares for water in Minnesota is implicitly a concern for folks outside the “usual suspects” in water stories.  The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s outdoors writer, Dennis Anderson, noted in a recent article that one of the “storms” facing natural resource managers is that the emerging generation of Minnesota residents is less likely to have first-hand experience with the state’s waters than “boomers” have.  Anderson does not explore the changing demographics of the state, but anyone who has knows that Minnesota will become more diverse in the future.  Resource managers, and others concerned with water issues, need to broaden their appeal beyond evocations of childhood canoeing and fishing trips.

#TBT: What do Rivers have to do with “Heritage”?

The answer, like so much these days, might be “it depends,” or “more than you might think,” or (unfortunately) “who wants to know”?

OK, we can leave that last challenging bit out (been watching too much political commentary while at the gym) and return to our main topic.  Yesterday’s announcement of the inaugural issue of our new journal  Open Rivers got us thinking: what else have we been writing about at the beginnings of the year?  So here is the first “Throwback Thursday” piece, looking back at several previous posts that have spoken to how rivers engage our pasts, and through our pasts, our identity and sense of who/where we are.

Five years ago, we highlighted a project near St. Louis where archaeologists discovered a town site that appears not to have been inhabited for some 800 years.  Current floods and the record high water in 2011 have emphasized how perilous it is to build towns and farms in the floodplain of a river as volatile as the Mississippi.  Seems this is a lesson we have to learn over and over again.

“Heritage” has a less-gloomy side, though, and that aspect often appears when river communities “redevelop” their riverfronts.  Three years ago, my former student Derek Holmer wrote about how St. Paul could do a better job connecting the riverfront to spectacular architecture such as downtown’s Union Station.  Those changes are probably in the works, as subsequent news accounts have mentioned.  Meanwhile, check out Derek’s work at the Minneapolis For People blog.

In some ways, though, the most enduring and thought-provoking connection between “heritage” and rivers echoes the famous line from Heraclitus “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”  He is referring, of course, to the analogies between the passage of time and the flow of a river.  But I think the comment also connects us to the future of rivers; just as we have “made” the Mississippi that we have now, we are making the Mississippi for our futures.  I explored this a bit more in a post about the three main lessons of the River Life program, a post which seems as true today as it was two years ago.  The river is vital to our understanding of our past in this place, but it is also central to how we imagine ourselves continuing to live here in a sustainable way.  Final point: we can all contribute to that future, whether scientist or storyteller, policy work or parks user.

Introducing Our New Digital Journal Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi

We announce today the inaugural issue of our digital journal, Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi.

openrivers_banner_rlpjan2016“Open” speaks to our commitment to multiple voices, perspectives and subjects.  We will write about the public lands along our rivers, as well as about hydrology.  We will have perspectives from science and policy, from community engagement efforts and from interesting people, places, and events from wherever we find them.

“Rivers” speaks to our primary concern, but we understand that waters are connected and that rivers have watersheds.  So we will go beyond just the urban corridor of the Mississippi, although given our location, that’s probably our home territory and foundation for our inquiries.

Why rethink the Mississippi?  We argue that there are a number of reasons.  There are a bewildering number of people, agencies, organizations and resource and research efforts on the Mississippi.  They don’t talk to each other.  We don’t actually think they probably can; there are just too many differences.  The river is too big to understand.  But our effort is intended to bring together perspectives that don’t normally see or hear from each other, so that conversations might become more connected and integrated even if only a little.

We also feel that the stories we tell about the Mississippi, while important, should be reexamined. We talk about the dead zone, about the importance of flood ways and floodplains, about community redevelopment and navigation.  We ritualistically talk about Mark Twain, perhaps even quote his work.  Two factors, though, are only beginning to emerge as part of the story of the Great River.

First is climate change.  Simply put, the past is not any longer a good predictor for how systems will behave in the future.  The winter flooding stories in the news now speak to this fact; look for more in upcoming issues of our journal.

The second factor is demographic.  The populations in the cities and towns along the river and in the watershed are changing, becoming more diverse and are perhaps not as grounded historically and culturally in the history of the area over the past couple of centuries.  Many communities that have been in this region for generations have a fraught, violent, or transitory relationship with the river or its tributaries.  Mark Twain may not mean much to the regions newest residents.  And his work may not mean much to the residents of longest duration either.  We are committed to learning from and learning with native people, believing as we do that the perspectives of people who have been here the longest are vital to help us understand what we might do to live here sustainably for the long duration.

We hope you’ll read and enjoy the journal.  Share it, tell us what you think and what we should write about.  Write for us or contribute in some other way.

It’s a big river and we need to hear from everyone.

A historic shift for the Mississippi River in Minneapolis: ecological impacts being studied

Last summer, when the Upper St. Anthony lock closed for good (at least as permanently as anything done through federal policy-making) there was considerable discussion about changes in the ways the river and adjacent corridor might be used.  Would the absence of barge traffic through the lock spell the end of industrial waterfront uses above the falls?

The jury is still out on that, but in the meantime another study of potential impacts has begun.  The Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, working with the River Life program as well as several other partners, has received a grant from the State of Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Together we are studying the ecological and physical attributes of the river between the Coon Rapids Dam upstream and the lock/dam at the site of the old Ford Plant in St. Paul, just upstream from the junction with the Minnesota River.  We’re trying to establish baseline data on a number of conditions such as sediment load, presence and density of mussel populations, and river bed conditions, so that we can assess changes over the next 3-5 years.

The Mississippi River is, of course, a very complex system even up here.  Some people have worried that the absence of Corps of Engineers dredging will cause the river to “fill in” with silt.  Others see the absence of navigation as an opportunity to manage the river for recreation and ecological benefits.

Whatever the future management and policy decisions are for the river in Minneapolis, they should be informed by good science.  Good science starts with close observation and analysis of the data.  Stay tuned–we’ll know more in a few months!

For more on our study, and comments from our partners, see “Study to review effects of retiring a stretch of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis”


“It’s What We Do”: Working with Others at the University to Address Complex Problems

December 21, 2015Patrick NunnallyUncategorizedComments Off on “It’s What We Do”: Working with Others at the University to Address Complex Problems

Yesterday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune contained an editorial continuing its “One State” series.  This piece, on the need for a top-notch university, contained a passage that caught my eye immediately:

How will Minnesota keep its crop yields high enough to feed a growing planet and keep its urban landscape green, while at the same time protecting its signature natural resource, its water?  How will a state known for its homogeneous population in the 20th century make the most of growing diversity in the 21st?

The University has the research, teaching, and engagement programs already in place to address both of these questions.  Protecting the state’s water supplies, both surface and groundwater, is at the heart of faculty activity in the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources, the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, and a host of other parts of the University.  Likewise, the challenges raised by an increasingly diverse population are central to the work of the Office for Public Engagement, and the College of Liberal Arts, to name just two units.

We work with people in all of these parts of the University, connecting people, ideas, and research and teaching agendas that otherwise might not support each other.  I think there’s one part in the Star Tribune passage that speaks directly to our work, beyond just the emphases on water and diversity, important though those are.

The editorial writer makes some big assumptions when they write that the state’s “signature natural resource” is its water.  In many respects this is true: there are over 10,000 lakes in the state and nearly 100,000 miles of rivers and streams.  The headwaters of the Mississippi River are in Minnesota, and water from the state flows into three vitally important continental watersheds (the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and Hudson’s Bay via the Red River of the North).

To claim these resources as “signature” though, is to claim that their value and significance is widely understood.  This is the part I’m not so sure about.  Many writers have offered a variation on “we love our lakes because everyone goes ‘Up North’ to a cabin,” or “the Fishing Opener is really a state holiday.”

These claims come out of the assumed homogeneity of the state’s population historically.  Maybe “up north” and the fishing opener really speak to the lived and felt experience of the increasing numbers of new Minnesotans or Minnesotans we are just now realizing live here.  More than likely those communities don’t have lake experiences prominently in their background, or at least in the same way as so many of the rest of us.

Here’s where River Life comes in: how can our research, engagement and teaching elevate the visibility and value of the state’s waters for all of its increasingly diverse citizens?  Who is collecting “water stories” that resonate across the entire state, and how are those stories part of our policy discussions and the establishment of research priorities?


A Tale of Two Cities Revisited: Minneapolis, St. Paul offer more diverse and connected visions

December 18, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiversComments Off on A Tale of Two Cities Revisited: Minneapolis, St. Paul offer more diverse and connected visions

It would be interesting to go back through the past 20+ years of riverfront redevelopment in St. Paul and Minneapolis and chart the changing rationales and public benefits that were ascribed to particular projects.  “Back in the day,” that is, the 20th century, it might have been enough to repeat that the Mississippi River is a really cool place, one of the greatest rivers in the world, so everyone ought to support the project.  That would probably have worked, regardless of the project.

Things have changed, I think.  A recent article describing the early visions for the redevelopment of the Ford plant site in St. Paul goes into much more specifics of what community task forces are looking for.  The range is greater, and the bar is higher.  After all, this is 130 acres +/- on the river, near established commercial districts, in the geographic heart of the metropolitan region.  Community expectations ought to be higher.  The city staff members involved with the project have not got a lot to offer, since any discussion is still at very early stages.  But what they do say sounds as if they have learned a lot from some of the bruising battles from the past decade or so.

Upstream some 15 miles, Minneapolis’ riverfront is likewise in a state of transition, per a recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.  The area above St. Anthony Falls is undergoing the same conversion from industrial and commercial use to recreation and park land that the Central Riverfront began in the 1970s.  We can hope that the conversion above the falls will take less than 40 years, a hope that seems likely since better than half the land is now in public ownership.  Progress is steady.

Progress of another sort is shown in the article’s discussion of how trail projects that cross North Minneapolis and Northeast are being connected to riverfront efforts.  This connectivity has been sadly lacking in previous decades, which continues a century-long pattern of exclusion of those neighborhoods from many of the large park amenities in the city.

Connective projects are more important than ever, since the people living a mile or so away from the riverfront must have access that is clear and easy to navigate.  Only when the amenities of the riverfronts are broadly accessible to all the neighborhoods in the city will we have the fully inclusive relationship with the Mississippi that we need.

National Parks “Tell Our Story”–What Does That Say About “Us”?

December 16, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on National Parks “Tell Our Story”–What Does That Say About “Us”?

I may get in some trouble for this post–comments are always welcome–but I have a bone to pick with National Geographic and, indirectly, with national parks.  Yes, I know, the “yellow box” is a highly respected “brand” and national parks are “America’s best idea.”  I generally agree with both of those sentiments, but…

A recent visual blog describes national parks as “How National Parks Tell our Story–And Show Who We Are.”  The subtitle is promising:  “They’re more than scenic places.  They’re a nation’s common ground.”

So here’s what we are told directly:

  • national parks began to be established in the late 19th century; the National Park Service was created in 1916;
  • the current director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, sees the agency’s role as telling America’s broader story, not just protecting parcels of land.  His example is the civil rights story embodied in the Selma to Montgomery Trail site;
  • “They (national parks) help us imagine what the American landscape and its resident creatures looked like before railroads…” emphasis added.

This last part is egregiously wrongheaded.  As Mark David Spence (Dispossessing the Wilderness:  Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks) and other historians point out clearly, the human populations indigenous to North America were deliberately and forcibly removed in order that tracts of land could be made into playgrounds and wonderlands for citizens of the United States.  Some of the pictures reinforce this absence: people (including a “cowboy”) standing at overlooks gazing out at the spectacular, and “empty” landscape.

The images reinforce other indirect messages about who “we” are, namely that we are by and large separate from Nature that we connect with by going and looking at it.  Almost all of the photos show crowds of people on walkways, behind fences, and reading from markers.  Only the urban scene around one of the basins in Washington DC shows people on the grass and engaged in activities other than a variation of “standing and looking.”

As the National Park Service enters its second century, we have to do better than this.  Be honest about removal of indigenous people and the connection of that genocide to park establishment.  Treat nature as something other than a glorious object to be held apart from us and worshipped. Only then will we be able to live up to the promise of the parks: becoming the nation’s common ground.


What Would a “River Studies” Curriculum Look Like?

December 7, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on What Would a “River Studies” Curriculum Look Like?

Teaching about rivers is complicated.  Rivers are unarguably complex biological and physical systems.  Historically, rivers have been venerated at the same time as they have been used as trash dumps and worse.  Our current view is anything but simple: some groups hold that rivers are fragile systems needing protection from human despoliation while others retain a “functional” mindset: what can the river do for us?

Last Friday I had the great pleasure of hearing students in GRAD 8101 “Preparing Future Faculty” as they proposed a series of freshman-oriented classes that would center on the Mississippi River.  PFF, as it is known, offers a one semester intensive introduction to teaching philosophies, aims, and approaches.  Students come from all over the University, so planning teams are by nature interdisciplinary.

This was the third or fourth time PFF students had worked with Mississippi River teaching and, as always, the results were stimulating, provocative, and to a degree unsettling.  The “unsettling” part comes from a recognition of how good these future teachers are and a realization of how much could be done to “teach the river.”

For example, one group based its course on student photography projects, proposing that students capture a series of “then and now” shots based on images from a century ago.  Elaboration on what has and has not changed, and why, would constitute the bulk of student learning.  Another group chose policy as the lens through which learning would take place.  Students would work with one major policy direction, say the Farm Bill or the Water Resources Development Act, and learn what the bill contained, what it does not contain, who contributes and whose voices are not heard, what are the intended and unanticipated consequences of the policy.

This is all great stuff, and bodes well for the future, because policy makers, program directors and advocacy leaders in 2050 are these students in class right now.  The work shown on Friday was all interdisciplinary, problem-oriented, community-based and well connected between course aims, assessments and activities.  It’s probably fair to say that each of these six proposed courses is richer than anything I had in my entire undergrad experience.

There is still room for disciplinary knowledge of course.  Deep engagement with part of the world, whether that engagement comes from the sciences, professional schools such as design, planning or engineering, or through humanistic inquiry, is important as a core set of concepts and knowledge that grounds teaching and inquiry.  The work going forward, I think, is taking that deep grounding and using it to look outward, to the community, to problems in the “real world,” to rivers as the case may be, rather than just refocusing within siloed perspectives.

I would think and write more about this, but I’ve gotta run–have a couple of courses to prepare for spring and the bar just got higher!

On Water in the “Just City”

December 2, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on On Water in the “Just City”

Lots of people involved in water conversations take for granted many of the issues peripheral to their main concentration.  Folks may be focused on water quality or availability, on the strength and resilience of aquatic ecological communities, or the varying roles that water bodies play in urban community development.  This last bit, where people are concentrating on disparate things like parks, urban riverfront revitalization, and brownfield cleanup, point professionals toward multi-sector collaboration and interdisciplinary inquiries.

All of this is fine, but there’s a key question that often gets left out: For whom are we working?  It is certainly true that clean, abundant water is a critically important benefit for all sectors of society.  It’s less evident that water-based public space is equally “public” for everyone.  We have been poking around with this question of how issues of equity and inequality intersect with the critically important issues attached to urban water and water-related open space such as waterfront parks.  There are interesting conversations taking place about urban ecology, urban sustainability, and urban livability.  But it wasn’t until we ran across this set of readings The Just City Essays: 26 Visions for Urban Equity, Inclusion, and Opportunity that we felt we were getting to the heart of the matter.  These writings, drawn from an international cast of designers, planners, scientists, and critical theorists, put human well-being–for ALL of the population–at the center of their discussions.

The writing gathered in The Just City Essays would be a valuable basis for even more broad-ranging conversations on the role of water as both amenity and necessity in formulating the “just city.”  These conversations should take place in classrooms and seminars, at academic conferences and professional meetings, even on street corners and community gathering spots.

Water needs to be part of the discussion of urban justice, and urban justice certainly needs to be part of the conversation on water.  If you know where these conversations are happening, and what is being developed out of them, drop me a note or post a comment in reply to this post; we’re collecting literature on this intersection and always want to learn and share more.

Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
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
The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change
For more information about our John E. Sawyer Seminar Spring Symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change” which took place at Northrop on April 8-10, 2015, please visit the symposium web page.