University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Bruce Chamberlain to be Inaugural Minneapolis Parks Fellow

February 12, 2015Patrick NunnallyPlanning1

The efforts to plan and design open space along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis received a substantial boost this week with the announcement that Bruce Chamberlain would be the inaugural Minneapolis Parks Fellow.  As Fellow, Chamberlain will concentrate on the Water Works project in the Central Riverfront, and the Halls Island/Scherer site in Northeast.

The role of Parks Fellows is to connect the broad vision of new park development with the strategic planning that bridges the project through to construction.  Chamberlain, a former Assistant Superintendent for Planning at the Minneapolis Park Board and vice president of a local planning and design firm, brings great skills and expertise to the role.

The Mill City Times post on Chamberlain’s appointment contains the press release from the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, and the Parks Foundation’s web site covers the story as well.

As a long-time participant in riverfront planning, design, and program activities, I particularly appreciate Chamberlain’s skill at listening to diverse perspectives and ensuring that all feel that they have been heard and respected.  This habit of deep engagement may slow a project down initially, but is absolutely essential for community acceptance of new projects in such valued landscapes as the Mississippi Riverfront.

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.


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.

# # #

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

Minnesota’s Water Future–One Perspective

November 19, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, PlanningComments Off

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.

Busy Day for News about Rivers

Sometimes it’s like that:  there will be a series of stories coming through the Google Alert thread that pertain to our river subjects.  Sometimes, of course, there’s a lot of news but it all pertains to bass tournaments and so forth, We aren’t (yet?) writing about bass tournaments.

In northeastern Wisconsin, a plan to build a transport system that will allow boats to bypass a closed lock is causing concern.  Even though there are several steps proposed that would supposedly clean boats passing through the system, as described in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, many people are wondering who would be benefited and what the risks would be in bypassing the lock.  Currently the lock separates waters from Lake Michigan from waters in the Lake Winnebago system, an important Wisconsin sport fishery.  Invasive species of concern include the sea lamprey, round goby and quagga mussel.

Farther south, the Sierra Club’s Three Rivers Project will team up with American Waters and the 1Mississippi campaign for a river cleanup on Saturday November 22 (must be a lot warmer there than here!).  The Three Rivers Project hosts the regional outreach assistant employed by the Mississippi River Network to develop the 1Mississippi campaign.  The purpose of 1Mississippi is to recruit 20,000 River Citizens, people who are committed to taking action to improve the health of the Mississippi River.  Full disclosure: we are in the process of working out the details to become the 1Mississippi host for the Minnesota-Wisconsin region.

Here in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial board argues that plans for the 130 acre Ford truck plant site in St. Paul should be visionary, modeling what a 21st century community can become.  The site’s location on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River is one of its prime assets, and while there is general agreement that the site can be a model for the direction riverfront development should take, concerns remain on what exactly that direction should look like.  How much public green space is appropriate?  How tall should the buildings be?  What ongoing safeguards will be in place against the site’s polluted history?  The devil’s in the details.

Finally, again from the Star Tribune, there is a story reporting that Minnesota farmers are using more barges to transport their crop this year than usual, owing to the heavy use of rail cars by the North Dakota oil fields.  Navigation use of the Mississippi is a contentious issue, with well established talking points by the barge industry and commodity associations on one side and by large environmental groups on the other.  Both are partly right, in a general way, but the debate really needs to become much more specific and detailed before it can be understood properly.  This article does provide some good contextual details, although the usual platitudes in favor of navigation improvements are included as well.  Still, worth a careful, thoughtful read.

Water Works Park is a Step Forward for Mpls Central Riverfront

November 10, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, PlanningComments Off

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialized this morning in support of Water Works Park, and for the most part got it right.  This iteration of a design for the west end of the Stone Arch Bridge and the section of West River Parkway for a block or so on either side is pretty good.  It gets the most important element of any design for this place–protecting the historic water management system that pulled Mississippi River water out of the channel to power the mills–right through excavating and highlighting those structures.  It moves the proposed new building, which rightly provides amenities such as restrooms and food service, away from the river and immediate falls area.  It solves, at least for a while, the traffic confusion that has bicyclists, walkers, joggers, car drivers, and wedding photographers all sharing the same space, with sometimes fractious results.

We still need to see how a plethora of details are going to get solved, such as what kind of vegetative cover will go where.  I’m not sure the closing of the adjacent Upper St. Anthony Lock has been adequately accounted for (the material is long on marketing sizzle, and not as strong in contextual process as a wonk like me would like).  But this is arguably one of the most historically significant acres in Minnesota, so taking the time to think it through extremely carefully is certainly warranted.

Water In Minnesota–St. Anthony Falls

Last week we posted a short summary and links to some of the key University of Minnesota departments, institutes and centers associated with the study of water.  Today, we want to highlight one of our community partners, Mill City Times, which is a “go to” source for knowing what’s what on the Minneapolis Central Riverfront.

Anyone who has a serious, multidimensional interest in the future of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis needs to know what is taking place in the Central Riverfront.  Here is where the Upper St. Anthony Lock will close in the next few months, and where a number of hydroelectric projects are in various stages of review.  Very particular land use and design and planning decisions are being made here that will affect the perception, feel, and attractiveness of the public space at the city’s “front door” for decades to come.  From the plans for “Waterworks Park” to neighborhood association meetings, Mill City Times has announcements of what’s upcoming and comments on what has happened recently.

Bookmark the site, subscribe to the newsletter, follow it on Facebook or Twitter; if you’re serious about knowing the central riverfront, you can’t afford not to know what’s being written about in the Mill City Times.

New Stories, New Images for the Mississippi River

I just finished putting together the reading list for something we’re doing this year called “Making the Mississippi: Formulating New Narratives for the Mississippi River in the 21st Century and Beyond.” The seminar is funded by a John E. Sawyer Seminar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and we very much appreciate the support.  Working in collaboration with scholars from other institutions, as well as Mississippi River experts from outside academe, we are excited to begin conversations about how we have “made” the river through words and images.  For more on the Mississippi River seminar, check this page at the Institute for Advanced Study.

So I’m kind of a geek; putting together reading lists is something I’m really interested in.  For the seminar, we’ll be reading some journalism, some technical reports, and a fair amount of scholarship on the history, archaeology, and literary perspectives on the Mississippi River.  So that’s all fun, of course.

What makes the seminar really exciting, though, is the prospect of exploring the sources for new narratives for the Mississippi River.  Don’t get me wrong, the stories we tell about the river remain powerful and important.  But climate change is showing us that we should think more specifically about what we may mean when we call for “restoration” of natural systems in the watershed.  And the old “fight the river floods” stories, while heroic, maybe should recede into history if we would quit building in the floodplain, where we shouldn’t be putting houses and buildings.  Furthermore, as the demographics of our cities and regions change, leaders two generations hence may not be moved at all by the Mark Twain/Huckleberry Finn story that, implicitly or explicitly, is embedded in so much of what we write about the river.

So what should new narratives and images do, or look/sound like?  Several points come readily to mind:

  • We need to acknowledge that the Mississippi River is the most visible component of a water system that includes surface waters from some 40% of the continental United States and that is highly connected to groundwater in aquifers spanning the middle of the continent.  We ought to know better how the system works.
  • We should recognize that we have a complex relationship with the river, that we abuse and mistreat it by dumping wastes into it and tightly constraining its movement, but that we have also loved and respected it for millennia.  We must begin to see that our relationship with the river includes both of these tendencies, and that our relationship should be managed with the river’s health in mind, just as it would be for others whom we love and respect.
  • Our stories need to be multi cultural and multi vocal, tapping the deeply held beliefs and value systems and stories of the highly diverse population that lives along the river and depends on it.  Ultimately, the health of the river will depend on efforts of people not yet brought into the conversation.
  • We have to learn to recognize, appreciate, and allow for the dynamic nature of the river.  It’s not just a still picture that we look at and appreciate aesthetically.

Maybe these are self-evident, but I don’t think the full implications of these perspectives are widely understood or well thought through.  That’s part of our job in the Making the Mississippi seminar.  Watch here and elsewhere that River Life posts information about future public events associated with the seminar; come to the events and join the conversation.

In the meantime, I would love to hear other views of what our new narratives and images need to convey.


The Future Mississippi: A “Gardened” Landscape?

September 23, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, PlanningComments Off

This is more or less the vision put forth by John Anfinson a couple of weeks ago at his talk inaugurating the John E,. Sawyer Seminar at the University of Minnesota.  Anfinson, superintendent at the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and a historian by training, led the audience through three eras in the human manipulation of the river’s biological and physical systems.  He argued that the river’s future, in the face of a changing climate and threats such as invasive carp and other species, will see us managing the river’s systems “constantly and indefinitely.”

The video of Anfinson’s talk and the robust question session is available here.

Anfinson offers a provocative vision, one that may not sit all that well with advocates who argue for “restoration” of the river’s biological and physical systems.  Literal restoration, of course, is not possible for many reasons; is there a term that better, more precisely, expresses the goals of preserving systems more or less intact and functioning?

I think another important point from Anfinson’s talk is more subtle.  Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that we could somehow obtain all the scientific data on the Mississippi River that we wanted, and that federal and state policymakers were willing to make the river a national priority.  Then what?  How would we find a way to navigate among the multiple competing, overlapping, sometimes conflicting interests on the river?  If Anfinson is right, as I believe he is, that the river cannot be “all things to all people,” then how do we figure out which “things” it will be, and for which people?

Here is where a deeply humanistic study of the river is critically important.  What is it that people have said about their relationships with the river, and how have those been expressed?  How have they changed over time?  Whose voices and visions have been heard, and whose have not been?  The study of history, literature, art history, religion, landscape architecture, and related disciplines that are grounded in the nuanced study of what makes people deeply human–the humanities–is necessary to uncover those vital insights and perspectives.

We know a great deal about the Mississippi River from the perspectives of multiple sciences and policy perspectives.  But those views cannot tell us what we want, or what we ought to want, and for that reason science and policy will forever be necessary but not sufficient for understanding the river’s future.


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
Hold the Date! Mississippi River Symposium April 8-10
Come join us at our symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change” taking place in Northrop in early April.

For up-to-date program information on the symposium, please visit