In some locations, campuses are some of the largest continuous areas of land under single management in a community. The University of Minnesota, for example, takes up approximately 1300 acres in the Twin Cities, along and immediately upstream of the Mississippi River. Making changes on the campus to improve water quality in stormwater runoff is therefore a matter of working with just one landowner, rather than the potentially thousands who would have to be persuaded for a comparable urban area elsewhere.
This is why the EPA’s Campus RainWorks challenge is so exciting. Teams of students at colleges and universities across the country are invited to develop proposals on how to improve water quality and management on their campus. Winning entries will be awarded cash prizes and some will be offered the chance to develop their proposals further toward implementation grants.
Campuses have a lot of talent, and big comprehensive schools such as the University of Minnesota have schools of planning, design, engineering, and natural sciences. There is great potential to develop interdisciplinary, multi-practice proposals that really do illustrate the next generation of urban design.
We really need to do this here at Minnesota–who should be included?
You would think this would not be a problem, that is, designing our landscapes as if the rivers that we profess to love really are central to our lives. Experience of course shows otherwise: We dedicate all kinds of time and money to advocacy for our rivers, and then live in houses with great green lawns requiring fertilizer and pesticides which wash into and pollute those very same rivers.
But of course we’re contradictory; we’re humans.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has once again taken up the question of how cities can live with rivers. A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune describes the renewed effort to set up land use rules for the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities metro region. The state designated a “critical area” along the Mississippi corridor in the 1970s and hasn’t really made any revisions to the policy since then.
Of course, in this day and age there is lots of pushback from local governments against state “takeover” of local land use planning authority. And in the United States land use regulation is a local concern. Still, the 1970s designation recognized that the Mississippi River in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region is a regional and national asset, an asset which could be threatened by local decisions that were not made with the “river in mind.”
Quick background on the 1970s plan:
- it works as an “overlay district” appended to local land use plans. Municipalities (there are some 25 in the corridor) are required to update their corridor plan every few years, and to include the corridor as a special designation in their city planning efforts;
- it defines categories of resources that are of particular interest: scientific, natural, scenic, historic, cultural, economic, and recreational;
- it establishes “districts” (urban developed, urban undeveloped, rural undeveloped, etc.) as a way of sorting out where development would be encouraged or discouraged;
- the boundaries established in the 1970s became the boundaries of a new unit of the National Park Service in 1988 when the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area was established.
So what the Minnesota DNR is doing now is taking a look at how things have changed since the 1970s and what parts of the Critical Area Act might need to be changed also. Most of the pushback comes from the idea that the original districts should be modified to reflect the region’s growth over the past 35+ years. Mississippi River advocates, on the other hand, have typically been most fearful of encroachments on the river corridor’s scenic values, contesting the proposed heights of buildings near the river and pushing for more setback requirements and other planning/design regulations to protect the corridor.
Here’s another idea, which probably won’t make anyone very happy: How can we better protect the Mississippi River as a critically important source of drinking water and other necessary “ecosystem services”? Can we treat the river as part of a broader regional hydrology rather than just a pretty thing to look at and play on? Can we use urban design guidelines to enhance water quality and, maybe, make the river and its systems more resilient to alterations from a changing climate?
Now thinking that way would REALLY be “designing as if the river mattered”!
How can we convene that conversation? Ideas and nominations welcomed!
Minneapolis and St. Paul have enjoyed exemplary systems of parks and parkways since the late 19th century. Beginning in the 1880s, community leaders were inspired by visionaries such as landscape architect Horace William Shaler Cleveland to set aside lands beyond the boundaries of the growing cities, where prices were still affordable. The ensuing green spaces around lakes served for a while to protect sources of city drinking water as well as provide respite and recreation for the community.
Now, as this article in MinnPost.com elaborates, new visionaries are developing park plans for the twenty-first century. While the article’s title refers to “parks 3.0″ and I’m unsure what “parks 2.0″ was, we’ll just take it to mean “parks for the system’s third century.”
It is abundantly clear that new park planning will be marked by a multifunctional approach and a recognition that parks serve new constituents, who may well desire particular patterns of use that park planners don’t fully understand yet. It will be important to recognize that park systems must serve the needs of people as well as provide habitat for wildlife and a base for “ecosystem services” on a broad scale. New demands for features such as urban agriculture are examples of the opportunity and challenge for open space lands to meet new needs.
The article highlights the fact that the Mississippi River is central to planning in both St. Paul and Minneapolis. Both cities have just completed and adopted large scale planning frameworks: Riverfirst in Minneapolis and the Great River Passage in St. Paul. Both of these plans will set the tone for making the Mississippi River once again the “front door” to these cities.
But the river can, and must, be more than just a reclaimed open space or a “destination area.” We are beginning to recognize that the Mississippi River itself, and the water system that it is the most visible part of, is increasingly unstable, and is a vital part of the region’s health in many diverse ways. Riverfront open space is an ideal “field school” for the paradigm shift that is coming with regard to our recognition that we can’t take our water system for granted. Moreover, these places provide essential learning spaces for us to understand how to live “with” our river system, rather than just “on” the river or “beside” the river. Here we can learn, and teach, how the rivers actually work, that they are more than just wet features of our urban geography.
The people who can help us with this new learning are all around us, from scientists at local universities and at state and federal resource management agencies to people who have studied and absorbed what the river is for a long time. And even though there is no mention of this population in the MinnPost.com article, our native people, who have lived here for millennia and who are still inhabiting this place, have much to offer us as we try to live better with our water.
Bold new initiatives may well be coming to our rivers, but we would be wise to listen more than we talk; sometimes the boldest way forward is the most subtle and easily-overlooked.
Yesterday’s post offered big, perhaps unanswerable, questions about restoration of ecosystems. In many respects, our responses to these questions arise as much from some of our core beliefs and values, about the nature of community and responsibility, indeed, the “nature of nature” as they come from our scientific knowledge.
So here’s the thing: powerful responses to questions like these require the development of new ways of thinking and talking. For example, at one of the conference sessions I attended, the question was raised: “How much ecosystem restoration on the Upper Mississippi River is enough? How do we know we’re making progress?” Well, if the answer is posed solely to politicians and managers, the answer might be a variation of “However much we can afford.” Biologists, on the other hand, may be tempted to respond, “We need to restore enough in order to respond to these basic questions about biological patterns and indicator species, which could take several decades to answer.” Local members of the community may think that preserving enough habitat so there will be important experiences, say birdwatching for example, or duck hunting, will be preserved for generations, is enough.
The point is, these are not necessarily mutually exclusive responses, but they almost never are shared, given the present state of fragmented and often opaque discussions about the future of places that we think are important. All of these groups have to weigh in, and they have to learn to speak together so they can be mutually understood.
I’m not so idealistic that I think this can happen overnight, but I am of a belief that such inclusive, sustainable conversations can be encouraged and developed. Maybe it will take some time: the next generation of ecosystem restoration specialists will have to be scientists who tell stories and poets who know how ecosystems work. And both segments will have to be able to make their arguments transparent to the people who manage money and policy. It won’t be enough, isn’t enough now, really, just to articulate that people care deeply about a particular place. How can that deeply felt sense of place be articulated in such a way that planning processes are affected and funding decisions altered?
Hard questions, but maybe necessary to shaping the world we want to live in.
We’ll jump right to the Big Questions, for example:
- What’s the best way to proceed in making an ecosystem (riverine or otherwise) healthier, when it’s not possible to look back to an earlier, perhaps more stable, era as a model?
- If we accept the necessity for dramatic actions to alleviate threats such as the advance of Asian Carp, or harmful/toxic algal blooms, or emerald ash borer, foes that reduce “nature” to just another collection of elements that humans manipulate for our (perceived) own benefit?
- Can we imagine that we have the technological, policy, or regulatory “know-how” or skills to address ecosystem change at an ecosystem scale, e.g. the Everglades, or the Great Lakes, the Gulf Coast, or the Mississippi Basin? If our answer is “no,” then what?
My head is starting to spin a little bit at the scale and scope of these ideas, but I wanted to offer a bit of a sample of the sorts of questions hovering around our sessions and discussions at the Fifth National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration. There are over 300 of us here in a conference center outside of Chicago bouncing around from session to session, hearing case studies, reports from the field, and policy analyses from some of the most expert participants in the field. Look for more about the conference and the issues to be in this space in the future (including another post tomorrow); these are questions that get at the heart of many of the more complicated things River Life, and our partners, are working on.
Each year, nutrients run off from farm fields and out of urban and suburban yards into the Mississippi River watershed. These nutrients, when aggregated across an area that comprises over a third of the landmass of the United States, comprise a rich slurry of compounds that pour into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi, rendering a large area of the Gulf uninhabitable to fish and other life forms. This “dead zone,” so called because the lack of dissolved oxygen in the water renders marine life unviable, waxes and wanes every year through a complex mix of factors including weather and Gulf currents.
A constant in the annual dead zone development though, is the source of the nutrient materials, which come mostly from the intensive farming and urban areas in the Midwest. What can be done, given that we live in cities and have to eat? Policy makers point to the federal Farm Bill as the best source for ensuring that farmers are doing what they should to practice highest standards of soil and water conservation and proper nutrient management. This year, Congress failed to pass a Farm Bill; conservation measures were weak even in the bill that was considered.
The health of the Mississippi River is everyone’s business. Whether or not you are one of the 20 million plus people who depend on it for drinking water, the Mississippi contributes to the health and livability of our communities in countless ways. Even as we all depend on the Mississippi, so we all take responsibility for its health, whether we farm thousands of acres or a city lot. If we don’t manage land, there are other ways we need to be more “hydro-literate” about the Mississippi River and the water system that it anchors.
For more on this year’s Dead Zone, and what you can do about it, go to the web site of the 1 Mississippi campaign: “Can the River count on you”?
OK, so in the last blog post, I outlined several “scientific,” if you will, ways of looking at a river. This post addresses several others, all of which have a significant economic dimension. In other words, the perspectives contained here perhaps lend themselves well to analysis through frames of reference common in ecosystems services analysis, and are likewise subject to policies, planning contexts, and other cultural dimensions of “sense of place.”
Again, offered in no particular order and with the caveat that there’s a lot more to say about each of these than there is room for here:
- Rivers are commonly thought of as development amenities. Analysis has shown that the $300 million invested by public agencies in the Minneapolis Central Riverfront District has generated $1.3 billion in private investment. Stories like this are taking place across the northern hemisphere on urban riverfronts in the developed world.
- Rivers have been seen as recreational assets almost since time immemorial. Swimming, fishing, boating, all have been popular pastimes as well as ways to transport oneself and get food. Today, these industries contribute tens of billions of dollars to the US economy.
- Rivers are critically important sources for drinking water. On the Mississippi River alone, an estimated 15-20 million people depend on the river for drinking water; the figure on the Colorado is even higher, owing to its central place in the arid American West and the seven state regional compact that governs the river.
- Rivers are navigation routes. Cities have been located along rivers since the first proto-cities were formed millennia ago. Last winter’s drought, which threated to stop shipping on the Mississippi for days if not weeks, threatened billions of dollars of shipping and the thousands of jobs along with it.
- Rivers provide hydropower, which is a source of much controversy across the United States and around the world. Yet as energy experts look increasingly for “green” energy that is anot associated with fossil fuels, the hydropower potential of rivers is coming back into the conversation as it hasn’t in decades.
- Rivers are important destinations for tourism. Many cities across the world are remaking their riverfronts as destination attractions, hoping to bring people from all over to their community. The Mississippi River, for example, is one of the best-known geographic features in the United States.
- Rivers are important subjects of laws, regulations, and policies. All of the uses described above require policies, planning contexts and other institutional arrangements to work. Even so, many of these ways of looking at rivers conflict with each other, if not exist as mutually exclusive contradictions.
Ultimately science, the processes of defining biological and physical processes for rivers, cannot always help sort out problems that come from competing human uses. So while these frames, numbers 4-10 for those of you still thinking of our original “thirteen ways” trope, all are important to human culture and society, they all require frameworks beyond science to understand and manage. Furthermore, an outdated philosophy that regards humans as always and inevitably destructive of natural systems, will not serve us well as we seek to reconcile critical conflicts.
To solve new problems, or problems that are newly urgent, we need new ways of thinking about rivers. Some possible candidates for these new ways are numbers 11-13, to be described in a future post
Water has been very much on our minds here in Minnesota recently, and, if three stories in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune are any indication, it’s also “underfoot,” as in “in the way,” “tripping us up.” For some of us at least.
To start with the most recent news, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a report today suggesting that nitrogen levels in 27% of lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are so high that the water bodies cannot be used as a source of drinking water. For the most part, agricultural operations are the source of the excessive nitrogen, and PCA officials are quick to say that they don’t think farmers are deliberately over-applying fertilizer to their fields. Nitrogen is expensive, after all. Nevertheless, the polluted water is a problem and we appear to have some implicit conflict between two assumed “social goods”: inexpensively-produced food and readily available water.
Many water-oriented scientists see wetlands as significant buffers in a region’s water system, whether slowing water moving laterally across the ground or moving down into groundwater tables. This brings us to the second bit of news, a US Supreme Court decision in favor of a Florida landowner who had sued a water management district over what he perceived as heavy-handed mitigation requirements on development. To put a complex issue (over) simply: the St. John’s River Water Management District was in dispute with a landowner who wanted to develop wetlands. The district asked for a reduced development; the landowner offered a conservation easement over part of the wetlands in question. The sides did not agree, and the matter went to court. As explained in the article, water conservationists fear that the ruling will leave them open to suits from developers and/or will encourage local governments just to go ahead and adopt development plans in wetlands by giving variances. Either case is likely to have a harmful effect on the many benefits that accrue from healthy wetlands.
Among those many benefits are the reduction of flood potential. Wetlands absorb water rather than have it run off quickly in heavy rain events. The increased absorption and decreased water rolling into rivers and streams means that measures such as the 100 year flood plain (as delineated by FEMA) are potentially smaller. But homeowners in suburban Edina MN were surprised to learn that a recent FEMA floodplain definition had put their homes within the 100 year floodplain, thereby complicating their insurance policies, perhaps hindering their ability to build, and otherwise making life difficult. New flood plain maps sometimes show houses formerly in floodplains as no longer exposed also. How can this happen? Recalculating the area that has a 1% chance of flooding in any given year (the definition of a “100 year flood”) can find that nearby land use patterns and other changes causes the flood plain to move, sometimes substantially.
What’s the common thread here? In all three of these cases, people are being asked to see water differently than they had been accustomed to. Edina homeowners hadn’t thought of themselves as connected to water at all, unless they were thinking of their cabin “up north at the lake.” For farmers concerned about nitrogen pollution, water is a medium for carrying excess materials off their lands, a process that connects them to their watershed in ways they may not have thought much about.
Solutions to these cases, per usual, are not really matters of more science or better science. They are more likely matters of policy not yet coming into alignment with recent scientific understandings. And policy, understood most broadly as the mandated will of the people, may be out of sync with the public’s understanding of its relation to water. For most of us, water comes out of the tap when we turn it on. That’s all we know and all we need to know.
Except when it isn’t. We need to see water, and our relationship to it, better, so we aren’t as the Edina homeowners were, “surprised” when it comes into our lives in unexpected ways.
A recent article from the Indian Country Today Media Network serves as an important reminder both of the time-depth during which people have lived with the Mississippi and of the fact that the descendants of those earliest inhabitants remain on the river today.
Winterville Mounds, near Greenville Mississippi, likely date back 1000 years or more. Officials are planning an expansion and upgrading of the historic site, a process that involves a representative from the Chickasaw Nation, now located in Oklahoma after the federal government’s 19th century removal policies.
Winterville Mounds State Park is far from the only site associated with indigenous people along the Mississippi River. The National Park Service has a strong presence at Poverty Point National Monument in Louisiana and at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, just east of St. Louis, is owned and managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and has been recognized as a World Heritage Site. Farther north, the City of St. Paul manages Indian Mounds Park.
In the Indian Country Today article, Brady Davis of the Chickasaw Nation said, “The story of Winterville—and all of Mississippi’s Native American history from pre-Columbian time to today—is an interesting and important one. It’s a common perception that American Indians are only in the past, but we want to remind them and make them aware that they are still here,” Davis said. “The connection from past to present is really important.”
He’s right, of course, and his insight holds true for the entire length of the great river. As those of us who are newcomers to the river and its valley grapple with issues such as climate change, loss of habitat for fish and wildlife, and general issues of river sustainability, we need to ask questions of, and listen to, those whose tenure here is measured in centuries.
An article in this morning’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune highlights a new proposal by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) that would change how cities of all sizes handle stormwater. The proposal, which is controversial for reasons having to do with cost, and with notions of local control for urban land use, would mandate reduction in both volume of stormwater and the pollutants it carries. In essence, cities would be asked to keep rain water where it falls and ensure that the water that does come off the land into nearby rivers and lakes is as clean as possible.
There are, of course, at least three ways to see this news. First, river advocates would be saying “It’s about time we alleviated the damage cities inflict on surface waters.” Conversely, others would see this as another example of government overreach, and one that will impose higher costs on all taxpayers.
Not surprisingly, we hold a third view. Rivers, streams and lakes within and adjacent to cities are some of those cities’ greatest assets, and has been shown repeatedly can be drivers of higher property values. Some cities will pass the costs of new features such as rain gardens and more intensive onsite water management practices to developers and construction companies, raising the costs of new development slightly while protecting taxpayers at large.
More important perhaps, given what’s generally recognized as an impending crisis for decaying water infrastructure, rules such as the MPCA proposes could extend the life of municipal stormwater systems by reducing the wear and tear associated with heavy flow events. As the local example of Faribault Foods’ innovative water and energy conservation plan shows, new ways of managing water can reduce discharge by hundreds of millions of gallons annually.
Rules such as those proposed by the MPCA exemplify the innovations that we’ll have to make if we really are going to live as if our rivers and streams matter. Many would argue that the Mississippi River is one of the state’s most critical assets. Changing the “urban development DNA” of our metropolitan areas along the river is central to learning how to live with this world-renowned place for decades to come.