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RIVER LIFE

In Atlanta, Integrated Water Management + Community Engagement=Resilience

Atlanta GA is, to say the least, a complex place.  It has been the herald of various “New South” efforts (some of which weren’t really so new) since the 1880s, and even today contains all of the depth and self-contradictions that can be found across the entire country.

So it wasn’t really surprising to find that Atlanta is the location for a recent case study report on the American Rivers blog, where it had been picked up from an earlier River Network posting.  These two national organizations, which until fairly recently had reflected stereotypes of environmental orgs as interested in “wild” places where elites could afford to travel for recreation, have become increasingly attuned to urban issues of environmental equity and water management.

This case, like many in Atlanta and other urban locales, begins with a large scale infrastructure decision affecting a neighborhood comprising largely poor people and communities of color.  The vicinity of Turner Field, formerly the home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, has been carved up by highways, leveled for sports complexes and parking lots, and otherwise converted to a sea of impervious surfaces over the past 50+ years.  Now the Braves are leaving; what shall the site become?

In this instance, American Rivers collaborated with ECO-Action, a community environmental justice group, to devise specific approaches to stormwater management that would support the mixed-use development that was the neighborhood’s #1 redevelopment priority.  Working together, planners proposed measures that would capture the first 1.8″ of rainfall, an amount that covers over 90% of the rainstorms the city sees.  Capturing that water on site, rather than having it rush off into an already flood-prone neighborhood, provides benefits for the neighborhood as well as the nearby Chattahoochee River.

How did they do it? The author, Jeremy Diner, offers suggestions that are familiar to community organizers although not, perhaps, part of river advocacy “tool kits” yet:

This experience suggests that we start by breaking out of our own silos. We free up more evenings to attend community meetings. We trade our keyboard for a telephone or a handshake. We listen more and talk less.

Can’t really say it any better.

Innovative Knowledge Sharing and New Relations to Place

It sometimes surprises our community partners when they learn how “non-placed” much of University scholarship is.  Many of our faculty have their most important professional relationships enacted through a network of scholars working on similar projects; the community represented by their department or college is important, but not really where their primary allegiances are.  In a similar manner, many scholars, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, study broad theoretical frameworks that are not explicitly “placed,” even though the impacts or applications of the ideas are all around us.  For many reasons, places like the U of M tend to reward scholars for the original ideas rather than the application of ideas.

I’m not writing this to complain or start an argument–I know there are many generalizations in the previous paragraph.  But I want to highlight two projects that I ran across recently, both of which provide potentially valuable complementary perspectives to traditional scholarly work. In Vancouver, the  Wikiupedia project offers an augmented reality access to indigenous stories of that place. The app has potential to “unsettle” or “decolonize’ stories of a place that are more commonly seen through the lenses of settler stories and occupation.  Project developers hope that it can preserve indigenous cultures, capturing stories and language, vetted by indigenous cultural-knowledge keepers before the relations to land and place that are expressed through that language are lost.

The other innovative project that offers new connections between knowledge and place originates closer to home. The Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities and other partners are collaborating on a series of art installations and research projects known as “Date/um: Ecological Temporalities of the Lower Schuylkill River.” The project’s lead curator, Patricia E. Kim, explains in an online essay that the sharp juxtaposition of diverse kinds of information serves both to illuminate how science and art can speak together, and also to advocate for continued collection of rich scientific data.  Toward that end, the PPEH project has been a leader in the national DataRefuge project, which seeks to “build refuge for federal climate and environmental data.”

Art, science, and place: key components for the next generation of water programs. The work that needs doing requires an aesthetic and ethic of “both/and”: engagement and science, both grounded in place; scholarship and community perspectives, mutually reinforcing each other.

Bethany Wiggin, the Founding Director at the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, will present a talk on the PPEH work on the Schuylkill River this Thursday, March 9, at Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus.  Further information is on the Institute for Advanced Study web site.

 

Climate Change, Heritage, and the “Future(s) of the Past”

Climate change poses a whole host of problems for all of us (whether we acknowledge them or not), but some of those problems have not gotten as much attention as others.  In “The Art of Losing,” a blog hosted by the University of Minnesota Press, author Caitlin DeSilvey writes about the recent National Park Service policy document concerning heritage resources that are at risk from a changing climate.  In the United States, the administrative structure around historic preservation is oriented around a conception that wants to “stop time,” to preserve the significant fabric of historic structures as they were in the significant part of the past.  In some cases, “restoration” is called for, but for the most part programs such as the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks Program, indeed even many individual units of the National Park System, make an implicit promise that the visitor will see the past landscape or building “as it was” during the historically significant time.

In this conception of time, the effort is always uppermost to preserve, to stop time somehow, to slow down or interrupt the processes of decay and loss.  So the new Park Service Climate Change Strategy breaks new ground with its acceptance that a changing climate will necessarily result in the loss of historically significant places.  In the face of inevitable loss, what are the appropriate ways to recognize the importance of what was in this place?  Perhaps a more difficult, yet more important, question is how to talk about the multilayered systems that are changing a place that is loved and that has wide significance.  When rising seas bring the Tidal Pool up to the base of the Jefferson Memorial, how will we have to change our thinking about the passage of time and the impermanence of landscape?

A community visioning project in Boston “Boston Coastline: Future Past” offers one approach.  As illustrated on a web site and video, participants walked the streets of the city, more or less tracing the future shoreline, given some climate change projects.  Maybe it’s not surprising that the future shoreline closely approximates the shoreline of the area when Europeans landed in the 17th century.  What does surprise many people is how much of the present city, including some of the region’s most famous areas, is built on created land, fill that has been scooped up and solidified, and on which buildings, streets, and parks have now been placed.

Neither the National Park Service nor the Boston walkers directly engage the ways in which water shapes our sense of where we are, our sense of what physical components of our best-known spots make it distinctly “here.”  We have a lot to learn about our “water past” in order to understand better our potential “water futures” and how our most desired future might be achieved.

#TBT: On Communities of Color and National Parks

Beginning this month, Black History Month, but continuing far beyond it, this blog will be taking up issues of diversity, inclusion and equity as they pertain to water and “water landscapes.” By that last phrase, we mean the spaces, often public space and often intentionally designed, that are defined by their relation to water.  A surprising number of public lands, managed by federal, state, and local agencies, are focused around a feature such as a river, creek, lake, or seashore.  We feel that these places are where some of the most important systemic changes–in the ways we treat each other across communities, and in the ways we treat water–will be enacted.

Part of the Throwback Thursday focus on this post, then, looks back to a piece I wrote here a couple of years ago, exploring connections between the calls for justice in Black Lives Matter, and the questions of whether African-Americans feel connected to the outdoors, to parks, and to the “green movement.”  Short answer: not really, but people are beginning to work on it.

Lauret Savoy, a writer and professor of environmental studies, explores the roots of African-American connection (or disconnection) to national parks in an eloquent essay published last year, during the Centennial Celebration of the National Park Service.  She writes that as a child she realized that the national parks she loved attracted few people of color and that most of the stories told by park rangers were not about people like her, “…I began to wonder whose stories mattered and whose ‘public lands’ these were.”  Subsequent historical research into the histories of indigenous people across the western plains and the connections between their removal and the establishment of the parks showed her how fraught the stories of the national parks really are.  Furthermore, her research clearly showed the ongoing presence of “buffalo soldiers,” African-American troops in segregated units of the United States Army, in the formative efforts to maintain park resources.

These stories are certainly not lost on the present National Park Service, although it does take time to change the habits of an established bureaucracy.  Together with national programs such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, the current management of the National Park Service is making an effort to promote the parks as places where diverse communities can go comfortably and partake of the contact with nature that brings so many benefits.  Furthermore, efforts are growing to create a more diverse work force in the parks, as well as other public lands, and to spread the word of the benefits of public lands, so that future generations of communities of color can be champions as well as participants in  these special places.

Bears don’t read boundary signs: environmental history in/of the north land

January 17, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Bears don’t read boundary signs: environmental history in/of the north land

An interesting post on a blog of early Canadian history reminds us (again) of how recently we have put in place structures we now think of as “inevitable” or “permanent.”

In the 18th century, as Britain and France were figuring how how to deal with their colonial ambitions in the St. Lawrence River valley, reports of “bear years” and “squirrel years” complicated nationalist efforts to “fix” boundaries.  Periodically, large numbers of black bears moved south out of Quebec, reaching into Massachusetts territory, where they excited and alarmed settlers.  Other years, the migrants were thousands upon thousands of black squirrels.  In all cases, the shifting numbers of animals were accompanied by movements of indigenous hunters, which, of course, complicated efforts to figure out where these populations “belonged,” which crown, if any they were “subject” to, etc.

These reports are interesting and fun to read about in their own right (to me, at least) but they also remind us that our tenure on these lands and waters is relatively recent.  Underneath our territorial lines and roadways, our “property” boundaries, lies a still-living continent of land and water. We would do well to remember this.

We Are Water: Water/Ways Goes to Lanesboro

January 10, 2017Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on We Are Water: Water/Ways Goes to Lanesboro

Of course, in a literal sense, we ARE water: some 70% of our body is water.  Minnesotans often talk about their love of water as a distinguishing state characteristic: more boat and fishing licenses per capita than any other state (so I’m told), strong nonprofit advocacy around many different water concerns, powerful governance and advocacy by lake associations.

But what do Minnesotans really think about the water in their lives?

The highly popular Water/Ways exhibit opened in its fifth location, Lanesboro MN, on Saturday and once again the combination of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling “Museum on Main Street” exhibit with a series of displays from Minnesota state agencies is inspiring over a month of local programming.  Efforts are coordinated by Lanesboro Arts, with a calendar and more information found here.

This year is Governor Dayton’s “Year of Water Action” so we’ll be hearing a lot more about agency activities to build a water ethic, and how a water ethic can materially help create a landscape of cleaner rivers and streams.  One of the virtues of Water/Ways is the development of a story map for each of the host communities, where local citizens speak their mind about the water that is important to their lives.

It would be worthwhile to make a study of what can be learned from these diverse perspectives, and what additional questions have yet to be answered.  What are “ordinary citizens” talking about that policy specialists and scientific wonks are overlooking?  What are the specialists concerned about that has not yet made it into the awareness of “regular folks”? Whose voices do we hear often, and who is not heard?

Stay tuned…we’ll be exploring these questions further.

Voices and Images from #NoDAPL Standing Rock Action

In case you have been under a rock for the past few weeks, you have heard about the actions taken by a growing number of Native people in North Dakota, standing up against an oil pipeline that threatens vital water sources and sacred sites.  The work of the water protectors (not “protesters”) can be followed on Twitter through #NoDAPL.  Here is a link to a collection of the published articles on the subject.

In the (likely) event that you don’t have time to read everything on that list, I’m going to give you a highly selective sample of some of the richness that the #NoDAPL movement has generated.  I believe that all of the links offered below are from indigenous writers, photographers, and perspectives.

Jaida Grey Eagle created a series of images #StandWithStandingRock in September 2016.

Several members of the Standing Rock Sioux community offer particular reflections of their history with water in this place in a short video “Thank You for Listening.”

Nick Estes puts the Standing Rock action in a historical context that includes the Louisiana Purchase, a series of treaties with Lakota people, and the Pick-Sloan Act that created a series of impoundments on the Missouri and flooded Sioux communities including the people of Standing Rock.

Jen Deerinwater, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, offers “5 Things Every Nonnative Needs to Consider Before Visiting Standing Rock.”

As I said, this is a highly selective list, gathered from following Twitter accounts such as @AmericanIndian8, scholar/activist Kyle Powys White from Michigan State, and indigenous feminist Eve Tuck.  “Traditional” news media have been notably absent or unreliable, with a few well-known exceptions, which you will undoubtedly run across.

Listen, read, heed what is being said and shown.  Use these voices and images to start your own journey of learning and exploration.

What Stories Should be Told at the River?

October 11, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on What Stories Should be Told at the River?

Because I’ve been involved in Mississippi River work for a long time, people (sometimes) think I have something to add to their projects.  I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours last week with two people who are working on developing interpretation and planning ideas for parts of the riverfront in Minneapolis.  It’s always fun talking with folks who care about the same things I do, and this was certainly no exception, but they caught me up short with this question: What would I want the interpretation on the Minneapolis riverfront to convey?

Never at a loss for words, I warmed to the task quickly, after some initial hesitation.  I’m actually not sure I gave them what they were looking for, since I’m not necessarily inclined to name specific people, events or facts that everyone visiting the riverfront should learn.  We’ve mis-taught history as a “march of facts” for far too long.

So here, in no particular order and with much explanation left out, are the things that I think riverfront interpretation and education should convey to the public:

  • This is a place of converging biological, physical and human dynamics and stories;
  • This is a place that has been valued for millennia by people who are still here;
  • The making of this place by industrial and urban processes follows patterns common to other places but also unique to here;
  • The place that is made here does not serve everyone equally;
  • Understanding this place now means knowing its past and its possible futures;
  • Understanding this place now means understanding upstream and downstream;
  • Understanding this place means understand that it is dynamic, that it carries various things from one place to another, it is a place of flowing as well as a place of stasis;
  • Nothing here is accidental.

I hope to hear from some of you about what I have left out or what I have perhaps over-emphasized.  I’m certain I’ll be writing more about this in the days/weeks ahead.

Historic Gathering in North Dakota to Protect Indigenous Land, Water Rights

August 30, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on Historic Gathering in North Dakota to Protect Indigenous Land, Water Rights

On the North Dakota prairie a storm has been gathering for months.  Since last April, people from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have assembled at a point just off their reservation to pray, discuss, and bear witness to an unwanted oil pipeline construction project that threatens their lands and waters.  Required federal consultation processes continued on, but when ground was broken to take the pipeline under the Missouri River just a mile upstream from the reservation, the vigil became a full-fledged protest.  Now, a month after that start of construction, indigenous people from across North America have gathered at a camp that has thousands of occupants, work has stopped, and the matter is in the hands of judges in North Dakota and Washington DC.

Some reports indicate that this is the largest, most inclusive multi-national gathering of Indian people since the 19th century.

I have skipped over many details, of course, in this summary, but there are a number of very good accounts online (along with some that emphasize division and conflict, which don’t appear to square with the reported facts on the ground).  There is a good background explainer that carries the historical context ; Standing Rock Sioux chairman David Archambault II has an eloquent explanation of his tribe’s position here.  A Washington Post story highlights some of the powerful accounts of individuals who have gathered at this place.

There is little that I can add to the detail and immediacy of the accounts linked above.  Two things, though, do occur to me:

First, the Army Corps of Engineers, as the federal agency responsible for granting permits to the pipeline company to cross the river, has said that tribal members did not consult specifically on exact locations of burials, sacred sites and other areas protected by federal historic preservation law.  Federal law does not require such disclosure, though, only that tribal representatives argue that there is a likelihood of damage to culturally sensitive resources.  The pipeline was originally aligned to cross the river half a mile from the water intake for the city of Bismarck, but was moved because of worries that a spill might contaminate water supplies.  We’re supposed to think that indigenous culturally-sensitive lands are somehow less important?  Water has manifold meansings to indigenous people everywhere, central to their spiritual and cultural lives as well as physically essential.

Which leads to my second point: the threat to water and other resources that comes at the hands of a shortsighted, highly intrusive project that is being rammed through without appropriate consultation as required by law.  This is not just about water, although water is one of the central resources on the earth and must be protected.  As the #NoDAPL gatherings have repeatedly said, “Water is life.” Nor is this just an indigenous issue; all of us are subject to the rule of law and environmental protection processes.  When those processes are truncated, and when damaging projects are inflicted on unknowing communities, that is a threat to all of us.  Fights about pipelines are fights about our shared future, how, and by whom that future will be decided.

Finally, I cannot urge you strongly enough to watch this commentary by Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC.  He minces no words in placing the Standing Rock dispute in the 500 year context of genocide against indigenous people across North America, and seeing this fight as only the latest example of indigenous courage, resilience, and spiritual power in their continued enduring.

“Healing Hikes”: Now, more than ever, vital for Communities of Color

July 12, 2016Patrick NunnallyRiver MeaningComments Off on “Healing Hikes”: Now, more than ever, vital for Communities of Color

Last week’s post on OutdoorAfro.com offers a central, foundational, connection between the distressing news in our headlines and the work of connecting rivers and open space to communities.  The article’s commitment to #HealingHikes highlights the values that are too often taken for granted in the environmental community, values such as the rejuvenating effect of being in natural surroundings, and connects those values to vital concerns with self-care, health, and endurance.

The article is not long: read it.  Consider well what it says. Read it again. Its eloquence is moving.

I also want to re-post something that appeared in this space 18 months ago, which seems more relevant today than ever.  I don’t think it is coincidence that River Life has recently committed to exploration of how public spaces, particularly those spaces that connect us to rivers and to water, can and must become spaces of more inclusive civic engagement.  Stronger relationships are necessary between Black Lives and the “Green Movement” as well as other place-based commitments to enhancing equity and inclusion in our cities.  The time to start building those relationships and connections is now.

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