Nearly 130 years after Minneapolis’ impressive park system was laid out, the city’s largely treeless downtown may be poised for a greener, leafier future. A series of meetings last week appeared to lay groundwork for softening downtown’s hard edges with more tree-lined streets, pocket parks and perhaps a central park, all aimed at bringing downtown under the green canopy that covers much of the rest of the city.
“There’s a tremendous momentum in this city to make downtown a more beautiful, more complete place,” said David A. Wilson, managing director of Accenture’s Minneapolis office. “You can see what’s missing here when you walk down the streets in other cities. Greening changes the whole feel of that experience.”
Wilson was among the corporate and political leaders who met last week to advance the greening project. No initiative was officially launched — although the Park Board will plant 500 trees downtown this year as a starter — and no financial model was officially adopted. Still, you get the clear impression that decades of inertia and ambivalence are coming to a close.
Among the reasons:
• Downtown doesn’t want to be left behind as the economy pulls out of a deep recession and development resumes, probably by 2014. But to compete with suburbs and other cities across the country, downtown must raise its “curb appeal.” Its relatively barren streets and huge expanses of surface parking make a poor first impression and fail to deliver the high-quality public spaces that builders and customers have come to expect.
• Attracting growth is important. As Mayor R.T. Rybak has said, the city must again add middle-class population along with jobs and commercial activity to hold the tax base required for delivering the quality of service that residents expect. The city must, in other words, win a larger share of metro growth and prosperity to stay viable. Nowhere is the growth potential greater than in downtown neighborhoods like the North Loop, Elliot Park, East Hennepin and the Mills District.
• There’s growing recognition that the city needs private-sector help to construct and maintain quality public spaces. For years businesses have complained bitterly about the city’s inability to keep up, but now the city’s financial dilemma is clearer. It’s clearer, also, that private efforts can work wonders. The Downtown Improvement District (DID), launched in 2009, has demonstrated the value of cleaner, safer, more attractive sidewalks. Adding a green element seems the logical next step.
• Greening is essential to downtown’s gradual conversion to a 24-hour model — a city that doesn’t empty out at night but becomes a place to live, work and shop in proximity. That model requires infilling surface parking lots and maintaining attractive, perhaps even beautiful, sidewalks.
Green isn’t just for decoration
But all this discussion about trees and flowers isn’t just about decoration. It’s not only about the energy and environmental savings either, or about enhancing property values. It’s about a fundamental need that Minnesotans don’t often articulate: We not only like green, we need green.
I noticed it when our family moved here in the mid 1990s and saw the eager faces of my neighbors as we lined up at the plant nurseries every spring. I noticed, as an editorial writer for the Strib, the extra emotion that readers placed on preserving and protecting nature. Because we endure long, brutal winters, we hold the green outdoors of spring and summer close to our hearts. I can’t imagine a downtown that thrives without paying attention to that fundamental need.
“We’ve come full circle,” said John Erwin, a parks commissioner who understands the irony of excluding downtown from the city’s green profile.
“The parks were built by business leaders as a tool for economic development,” he said, referring to the extraordinary step of reserving lakeshores and parkways for the public as an incentive for building valuable residential neighborhoods nearby. “But in doing that we turned our backs to downtown; now we have to turn around and look toward it. The question is, can we do this? The answer is, we’ve done it before and we can do it again, only this time we have to include downtown.”
Finding a governing/funding model
Erwin’s comments came during a meeting at the Minneapolis Club that included City Council President Barbara Johnson; Council Member Lisa Goodman; Bill McGuire, former CEO of UnitedHealth Group and a parks enthusiast; and a number of other corporate executives, including Accenture’s Wilson. McGuire and Wilson stressed the importance of forging a public-private governance model so that greening could happen deliberately and systematically rather than as disparate or competing projects. The consensus was that a high-profile leader is needed — perhaps Rybak.
“Our future is not bright if we don’t make downtown a more attractive place to live,” McGuire said.
Goodman emphasized the need to establish a fund — perhaps a conservancy — to ensure that plantings are properly cared for. She said that incremental steps from individual properties would be helpful, too, including pots, hanging baskets and roof gardens.
Michael Rotondi, the energetic Los Angeles landscape visionary (his firm is RoTo Architecture), moderated the discussion. Earlier in the day, he had sketched out the larger implications to a breakfast crowd at the Hennepin County Central Library by asking a series of questions:
In a world dominated by individualism, is it possible to reach a consensus on such a project? How can you have long-term vision in a short-term world? Can we invest in projects that will mostly benefit those yet unborn? Is it possible to think deeply when you have to move quickly? Is it acceptable to fail and try again? Can you design and maintain a landscape for both summer and winter? Can landscape help to promote our innate need to come together face to face in a digital age?
For me, Rotondi’s questions offered a reminder that the urban topics we discuss in this space are all part of the same inter-related whole, the same civic ecosystem. Landscape, for its part, isn’t just about beauty; it’s about social interaction, the democracy of public space, economic development, prosperity, education, public safety, environmental benefit, energy conservation and healthy lifestyles.
Rotondi put it this way: “Nature isn’t just nice to have; it reminds us that we’re part of the bigger system. It’s not just an amenity, something extra to add on if you can afford it; it’s essential.”