The River's Return

Turns out, cities can protect and profit from their rivers at the same time. Twin Cities planners share a few success stories.

If you want to understand Minneapolis, stand on the bridge James J. Hill built over the Mississippi in 1883. The stone arch landmark once carried up to 80 trains a day to lumber and flour mills, which tapped the might of St. Anthony Falls. The power of the river thundering over the drop—that’s why Minneapolis is here.

And if you want to understand a continental transportation network, visit the river landing at Lowertown in downtown St. Paul. This notch in the bluff was the farthest upstream horses and wagons could meet docking riverboats to unload cargo. Upstream lay 15 miles of unnavigable rapids and swift water culminating in St. Anthony Falls. So this is where St. Paul grew, first as a river town, and then as a hub for railroads.

Other large cities tell similar river stories, though few are more compelling than those of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“Is there anything more American than the Mississippi River?” asks Steve Johnson, chief of resource stewardship for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

“When Congress set out to designate some portion of the Mississippi River to celebrate the river and its role in American culture, they chose this place and not any other. And why was that? Here you have kind of a unique confluence of geology, natural history and cultural history. You’ve got features you find nowhere else on this big river.”

Even so, the Twin Cities, like cities elsewhere, neglected their founding rivers as railroads replaced riverboats and waterways became increasingly polluted. “We had our backs turned to the river for a long time,” says Pat Nunnally, the Institute on the Environment’s River Life coordinator.

It’s a sentiment you hear over and over. But in recent decades cities have reclaimed their riverfronts, not only Minneapolis and St. Paul, but also St. Louis, the Quad Cities, Chicago, New Orleans, Cincinnati and others.

Whether they approach it as urban planning on a river or river planning in a city, land managers and city planners are pursuing two sometimes conflicting goals in the name of “sustainable” river development.

First, to protect the ecological integrity of the river—its water quality, plants and wildlife, and the ebb and flow of current that sustains life, shapes the river’s channel and renews its floodplains. And second, to exploit the river in the city’s midst as scenery, for recreation and for continued economic gain.

They must, says Nunnally, “design as if the river really does matter.”

1. Serve and protect

Riverfront planning begins with protecting or restoring the river itself. Mike Davis unreels a capsule history to explain why.

Davis is a Mississippi River ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. In researching freshwater mussels, he discovered that “by 1900, all the mussels in the river from Minneapolis to Hastings had been killed by the pollution. That was sewage from the Twin Cities. It wiped out the whole river.”

Skip to the 1920s. River surveys showed that sewage decomposition had consumed all dissolved oxygen. “They found three fish between Minneapolis and Red Wing,” Davis says. “It was pretty much nuked.” 

The cities began primary sewage treatment in 1938, but a mid-1960s fisheries survey turned up more condoms than fish. Ten years later, a survey discovered only seven species of mussels.

More than a decade after the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, the river turned a bend. The Twin Cities upgraded sewage treatment and began separating antiquated septic and storm sewers—meaning far less raw sewage in the river.

In 2000, Davis and crew, scuba diving in the dark swift currents, found 26 species of mussels, including two state endangered species. Nowadays, game fish are plentiful and large throughout the Twin Cities.

Sewage clean-up “made the river usable by humans again,” Davis says. “Before, it was such a vile place to go, no one would go there. Now you go down to Hidden Falls Park or somewhere, it’s beautiful.”

2. Make the most of it

The most intractable barrier between river town residents and the Mississippi? “Probably perception,” says Tim Griffin, director of the Saint Paul on the Mississippi Design Center. “Until 10 years ago it was still an industrial riverfront. The city had really turned its back on the river.”

Sound familiar? Old habits are hard to break. So is old infrastructure that made the riverfront friendly to industry and inhospitable to visitors. Changing both habits and habitat has been a challenge for communities across the Twin Cities.

St. Paul’s revival of 17 miles of riverfront (more than any other city between Lake Itasca and New Orleans) began in the early 1990s. West Publishing, a major employer on the riverfront, had just left downtown. “It was pretty grim,” says Griffin.

But then-Mayor Norm Coleman, together with various urban planners and community leaders, began devising ways to reconnect the city and the river.

In 1997, the city published its Saint Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework to guide riverfront land-use decisions; the river planning apparatus soon evolved into the Saint Paul on the Mississippi Design Center.

This framework has encouraged planners to surmount the 100 feet of elevation that separates downtown from the Mississippi in some creative ways—among them, relocating the Science Museum of Minnesota along the riverfront.

Across the river, new facilities at Harriet Island have brought more than 1 million people a year to a site with a stupendous view of downtown. New housing at Upper Landing created a community along the river. Interconnecting bike and walking trails join the entire Twin Cities riverfront. And jealously guarded sight lines allow people views of the Mississippi despite new development.

“All the time,” says Griffin, “we’ve been operating under this mantra of more urban, more natural and more connected.” That is, restore natural areas so they’re even wilder. Concentrate development in areas that are already urban. And find ways to get residents to the river.

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River Life

Pat Nunnally

Several years ago, the University of Minnesota found itself surrounded by talk of river revitalization. The Minneapolis campus straddles the Mississippi, after all. Both Twin Cities had undertaken vigorous efforts to reclaim their riverfronts. In 1988, the federal government designated the 72 miles of river through the metro area as the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. State and federal natural resource agencies had a stake in restoring or protecting the river’s natural features, from bald eagles to freshwater mussels.

“Off campus there was a lot of attention paid to the Mississippi, not only in Minneapolis-St. Paul but from Bemidji to New Orleans—in revitalizing the river, in revitalizing community relations with the river,” recalls Pat Nunnally, a program coordinator with the Institute on the Environment.

U of M planners and designers decided to bring some of that attention to campus. Students might learn from the urban design going on around them and contribute to people living and working on the river.

Thus was born the multi-collegiate project River Life. Initially part of the College of Design, River Life is now part of the IonE.

As River Life coordinator, Nunnally acts as go-between for the university and various planning, resource and recreation agencies along the river as he looks for opportunities for joint research and education projects. 

For example, he says, design students will confront a site such as B.F. Nelson Park in Northeast Minneapolis, where a succession of sawmills, paper mills and a factory operated. Students must design a plan that will link the river with existing streets.

One River Life project now under way is the Telling River Stories Web site. In time, Nunnally says, the site will guide visitors along a comprehensive map of the Mississippi, where they can click to read site-specific stories.

“We’re trying to get away from sort of a grand march of history,” and instead concentrate on “things you need to know to understand the river at that place.” Examples: The Fort Snelling connection to the rights of slaves before the Civil War. Or the Dakota Indian concept of homeland at Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota.

Rounding out River Life’s educational focus, Nunnally teaches a class called Making the Mississippi that examines how people have settled and shaped the river for 200 years.

“We help the students understand that the Mississippi River is a cultural landscape. We really try to think about urban planning and design from the river out rather than the land in.”