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Looking at the Upper Riverfront through youthful eyes: Will new parklands be safe places?

Connie Xiong, Ka Thao and Noushee Khang at Patrick Henry High School.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Connie Xiong, Ka Thao and Noushee Khang at Patrick Henry High School.

Chances are that kids growing up in south Minneapolis or nearby suburbs have a pretty good appreciation of nature, given the closeness of the Chain of Lakes and the connecting parkways. To share space with a flock of geese or to notice differences among tree species while strolling around Lake Calhoun or Nokomis is, for them, no big deal. Understanding that urban life is part of a delicate ecosystem is easier when the evidence is all around you.

It’s harder if you’re a kid in the north or northeast quadrants of the city where industry has claimed the banks of the Mississippi River, placing nature out of sight and out of mind.

“I never even knew the river was there,” Noushee Khang, 17, told me last week as we chatted in the cafeteria at Patrick Henry High School on Minneapolis’ North Side.

While four of the world’s top design firms complete conceptual ideas for how to reconnect the Upper Riverfront to nearby neighborhoods (their presentations will be next Thursday at the Walker Art Center), Khang and a group of 20 inner-city teens are busy contributing their own insights.

Here’s something they told me that I hadn’t thought much about – and, perhaps, the big-time designers haven’t thought much about either:

A different response in troubled neighborhoods
While the prospect of lush new parks along a famous river brings excitement and anticipation to prosperous neighborhoods, the notion of nature and solitude brings anxiety to troubled sections of a city. In poorer neighborhoods, parks and nature preserves tend to be regarded as places to avoid, secluded places of potential danger.

“Will it be safe to go there?” emerged as a chief concern of Khang and other members of the Park Board-sponsored Mississippi River Green Team as they worked on their own plan for the upper river.

Team members told me that their fondest wish is that one day, perhaps when they have their own families, the Upper Riverfront will be crowded with confident and curious neighbors enjoying the outdoors and forging a link with nature. If the upper Mississippi can become more like, say, Lake Harriet or the downtown riverfront, then their dream will have come true.

“I’d like to be out there fishing in a river clean enough to eat the fish and to see a lot of people enjoying the views and the activities, just like you see in the movies,” said Ka Thao, 15, a sophomore at Henry.

“To just be able to walk over to the river, or ride a bike, and see people enjoying themselves and being aware of how important the river is, that would be great,” said Connie Xiong, also a 15-year-old sophomore.

A balance of parks and industry
All three students said they recognize the need to balance the value of new parks with the value of industry and jobs along the river. “Industry is there for a reason,” Thao said. But she explained how her teammates looked for opportunities to bring portions of the riverfront to the public, largely by creating green fingers that stretch over the Interstate 94 freeway and into the neighborhoods. Along the way are community gardens, tree farms, sports fields, bike trails and playgrounds. At the river’s edge there are trails for walking and places to rent canoes, fishing boats and picnic tables. Remaining industrial plants are screened with berms and trees. New parks are maintained by partnerships of public and private players.

Khang, Xiong and Thao all are exploring careers in environmental fields. Xiong is especially interested in bringing clean drinking water to the developing world. Thao wants to be an environmental attorney.

Their investigation of the Upper Riverfront is a joint project of the Park Board, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization and the Minneapolis Employment and Training Program. Their curriculum is aimed at teaching students to think critically about the natural and built environment that surrounds them. Developed by Minneapolis design consultant Mary deLaittre, the program aims to move students beyond thinking about the importance of recycling to consider sustainable community design as a way to influence future lifestyle choices.

Cheers and boos

  • Cheers for Gov. Mark Dayton’s selection of Ted Mondale to head the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. The former state senator and Met Council chair has the political skills required to forge a Vikings stadium deal and deliver a sensible solution.
  • Cheers for Metro Transit’s ridership performance in 2010. More than 78 million riders boarded the agency’s buses and trains, up 2.3 percent over 2009. Hiawatha light-rail trains were especially popular, posting a 6 percent hike in boardings for the highest total in the line’s six-year history. In contrast, the Northstar Commuter rail line finished the year nearly 21 percent below ridership projections. Transit officials blamed high unemployment, noting that ridership numbers trended up in December and early January.
  • Cheers for St. Paul’s unveiling of the first all-electric car to be added to a municipal fleet in Minnesota. The Ford Transit Connect, sponsored by Xcel Energy, is part of a push to establish all-electric vehicles and charging stations in the state. Mayor Chris Coleman said that each of the three Ford vehicles that St. Paul expects to operate this year should save the city $1,300 in gasoline and 3.5 tons in carbon emissions.
  • Cheers for Minneapolis’ making available 13 city-owned vacant lots for community gardens. Because the lots are unsuitable for redevelopment, they can be leased for gardening well into the future.

In metrospect: Three significant stories to consider:

  • Do roads pay for themselves? Not even close. While the U.S. PIRG study has an anti-auto whiff to it, the numbers are probably close to correct and the assertion that drivers don’t pay the full cost of roads is spot on. The report estimates that gasoline taxes and other user fees pay for about half the cost of building and maintaining the nation’s roadways. It estimates the cost of roadways over and above revenue raised through gas taxes and associated fees since 1948 at over $600 billion.
  • Jevons Paradox challenges the notion of efficiency. Back in the 1970s I wrote an essay about how the push-button phone was not a labor-saving device but an instrument to encourage more phone calls in the same amount of time. Little did I know that I was writing about Jevons Paradox, a proposition posed in 1865 by British economist William Stanley Jevons. He argued that conserving energy (coal) was futile because more efficient furnaces caused an increase in the demand for coal. The same arguments are being made today as the debate over energy conservation heats up, according to David Owen. His piece in the Dec. 27 New Yorker, “The Efficiency Dilemma,” is a must-read for planners hoping to design cost-efficient communities.
  • “The Trouble With Liberty,” by Christopher Beam, dives into libertarian politics, a pool into which planners and designers should dip their toes. Given the rightward slant in Congress and state legislatures, an understanding of the Tea Party world view makes this piece New York magazine essential reading.

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Comments (1)

"Will new parklands be safe places?"

Um, probably, as long as criminals don't go there.