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People, Land, and Water

River Life was a program of the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota that created new knowledge about the relationships between communities and the waters and lands that they depend on, and that depend on them. Our work connected scholars from disciplines across campus to community work and knowledges. The program drew to a conclusion in 2020 after more than eleven years of groundbreaking work. We are immensely grateful for the support and insight provided by our many partners and friends. Program participants are continuing the work at Open Rivers, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Institute on the Environment, the College of Design, and the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences. If you have any questions about River Life and the work we did, please contact Joanne Richardson at holr0002@umn.edu.

This site contains brief articles and links to resources that explore issues that bring together concerns for water, place, and justice, and related matters. These questions, which are some of the most complex and urgent that we face, require thinking that crosses academic disciplines and bridges the gaps between scholarly knowledge and community-based understanding.  While water, land, and communities are our “subjects,” the ways we explore them are deeply grounded in understandings of reciprocal knowledge, a commitment to environmental justice, and resilience in the face of climate change.

The Challenge and Opportunity

Located on the banks of one of the world’s great rivers, the University of Minnesota, through its teaching, research, and campus practices, is a model for developing future-oriented, resilient relationships between communities and water. We are all responsible for the conditions of our water, and should  understand that stresses on our water systems threaten our most vulnerable populations most heavily.  Working with communities of scholars and professionals on and off campus, River Life creates knowledge-sharing programs including the digital journal Open Rivers, a blog and a vibrant social media presence.  River Life uses these activities to increase interdisciplinary and cross-sector capacity to address the related issues of water and justice, two of society's greatest challenges. 

Except where otherwise noted, content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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"That’s Future Mississippi River!"

It has rained--a lot--throughout most of the Mississippi River basin this spring.  In St. Paul, the Mississippi was in flood stage for 42 days, a record. At the other end of the river, in Louisiana, the Morganza Spillway will be opened to drain excessive floodwaters for only the third time ever.  The river is high in New Orleans, causing concerns about what might happen if a tropical storm comes soon. The title of this post comes from what a former colleague said and he and I dashed through a summer thunderstorm some years ago.  The downpour was, indeed, “future Mississippi River,” as was the nearly 2 inches of rain that fell in the Twin Cities on Memorial Day.

The Past(s) and Future(s) of River-Adjacent Communities

In the Twin Cities, there is always a touch of nostalgia about river-adjacent communities such as the Bohemian Flats in Minneapolis, or the Little Italy community on St. Paul’s Upper Levee.  Now that the river is much cleaner than it was a century ago, and water levels are regulated through a series of locks and dams, it is fairly easy to romanticize riverside life. In fact, many people have moved into new residential developments along the Mississippi River, in some cases living where earlier generations were flooded out decades ago. Other spaces have become parks, as both Minneapolis and St. Paul have devoted considerable funding and energy to creating public access to the Mississippi.

Mapping the “Retreat of the Industrial Glacier”

The urban designer Ken Greenberg has written about the “retreat of the industrial glacier” as a figure of speech describing the availability of land in cities that was formerly taken up by now-obsolete industrial or transportation uses.  In Minneapolis and St. Paul, the central riverfronts of both cities fit this description: Minneapolis’ mills no longer produce more flour than anywhere else in the world, and St. Paul’s riverfront is no longer a hub of shipping. But what have those spaces become?  This storymap, created by River Life staff, offers snapshot images of the Twin Cities through maps and aerial photographs from 1895, 1969, and 2018, as well as offering other contextual information.

Knowing a River’s Past as a Way to See its Futures: The Schuylkill River Corps

Here at River Life, we think a lot about what a university like ours should do to be a good citizen of our place.  The campus at the University of Minnesota is on Dakota land; that is a responsibility we must take seriously. We are in a national park, on one of the world’s great rivers, and should take that fact of location seriously also. In Philadelphia the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, in collaboration with the Drexel Air Resources Research Laboratory and a host of nonacademic partners, has developed an exemplary set of projects that demonstrate responsibility to a sense of place on an urban river.  The Schuylkill River and Urban Waters Research Corps is a digital collection that examines the past, present, and some imagined futures of the urban river that passes Penn’s campus. A “public, cooperative research collective,” the program breaks down many of the siloes between campus and community, and between academic and professional disciplines on a large campus.