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The Broad Reach of Environmental Design in the Twin Cities

April 13, 2017

By: Amber Morgan, a local writer based in Minneapolis

Environmental design in the Twin Cities is broad and far reaching. Of course, traditional environmental design is at work in a “state that has long prided itself on environmentalism and freshwater lakes,” that are increasingly threatened by rising salt levels explains Tom Fisher, Director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota. Housing and gentrification are also chief built environment concern in the area due to the rising cost of housing, particularly housing for those who earn below the median income, that is causing affordable options to disappear. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being an affordable place to live,” Fisher adds. Racial equality is also an ongoing challenge in the Twin Cities, housed in a state where the population of new Americans has tripled since 1990.

Yet, when it comes to these issues and others, designers share part of the responsibility. “[The design community is] aware of these issues, but we’re also complicit,” Fisher notes, evidenced by changes like the flurry of high rises being erected around Minneapolis and St. Paul. So here we explore what’s being done to address these issues and others around the Twin Cities. As we move through a few practitioners and initiatives, you’ll notice that environmental design in the Twin Cities reaches far and wide, bumping up against unexpected industries like hop growing.

In highlighting select projects from the environmental design section of the Twin Cities Wheel, we take a tour of the complex, ambitious, and impactful environmental work that’s happening in the Twin Cities.

Environmental Design in a Traditional Sense

The headquarters of The Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA), the region’s oldest and largest horticultural trade association, is a current design project for Michael Keenan, Director of Design at Urban Ecosystems Inc., a design studio anchored in the belief that global environmental challenges can be addressed at the scale of gardens, parks, and streets. Keenan and his team of landscape architects and designers are endeavoring to create a space that showcases a complex and diverse take on what good environmental design can encompass, one that considers not only humans, but other important environmental aspects like pollinators as well.

Environmental Design in the Twin Cities

A green roof that Urban Ecosystems Inc. constructed in 2014, designed to stay green throughout the year without the use of irrigation. Photo via Urban Ecosystems Inc.

A central focus in this project and all of Urban Ecosystems, Inc.’s projects is sustainable water management, organized around the belief that “the nature of cities can be a catalyst for… preparing communities for the changing environment of the 21st century.” One of the project goals is the establishment of a multidimensional water management strategy—rainwater from the roof will be collected for reuse in a highly efficient irrigation system with a smart controller that will adjust the watering schedule to coordinate with recent rain events and current soil moisture data. Stormwater runoff from the public street will also be collected in two rain garden basins that will help remove pollutants, decrease downstream flooding, and replenish the local groundwater aquifer.

Keenan credits part of his ability to do this kind of innovative work to the culture of Minneapolis and St. Paul and its awareness of environmental issues, leading to an abundance of good design to combat them. This is one of the reasons he sees such good environmental design here. “I think we have a culture and economy that’s willing to pay for these things and that really wants these things,” Keenan explains. He continues to expound that even beyond the metro area, the state as a whole has a culture that puts attention on environmental issues, particularly water management, evidenced in the state’s passing of policies and regulations like the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment which increases sales tax in order to generate funds for clean water projects.

While policy and regulation are significant to Minnesota’s environmental design landscape, according to Keenan, the end users also play a key role in determining whether a project will thrive or flounder based on their feedback on aesthetics and subsequent usage. “If people don’t like whatever sustainable action you might be talking about,” Keenan said, it won’t work because it will simply never be used. “I will always argue that people are an integral part to [a project’s] sustainability.”

Another local organization that is making efforts to sustain the area’s water is Minnesota’s Freshwater Society. Two years before the nation’s first Earth Day in 1970, the organization (now recognized as a leading public nonprofit) was founded upon a commitment to “conserving, restoring, and protecting freshwater resources and their surrounding watersheds.” Their work includes the dedication of the organization’s experience and resources to other initiatives that support their environmental commitment and generate public participation in the process. They go about this in a variety of ways like sponsoring public lectures, hosting workshops, and publishing information in collaboration with other similarly focused organizations in the environmental space. Collaborations like these have ranged from projects with community groups—like scout groups, school classes, and church committees—to participation in large-scale clean-ups with a direct aim of reducing pollutants that flow into lakes and rivers.

Freshwater Society’s conservation work often sports an educational slant. For example, the organization holds annual conferences—with 2017 drawing a record crowd—to educate snow removal workers and their supervisors about the harmful effects that road salt can have in groundwater in addition to helping them search for alternative, more eco-friendly approaches. Freshwater has also developed a Master Water Stewards program in collaboration with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District in order to recruit and train neighborhood-based volunteers who will then conduct their own efforts to conserve, restore, and protect water in their individual communities.

In line with the values of the Freshwater Society, water is also of particular concern to local hops grower Eric Sannerud. Co-owner of Mighty Axe Hops brewery, though young, Sannerud has been at the helm of his farm for over four years now as it moves into its fifth season, which is expected to run from April through October.  Although environmental design isn’t a common pastime for many brewers, Sannerud has been interested in environmental issues since he was in high school when he participated in climate action efforts. It was his environmental passion and concern that led to him becoming a farmer.

Environmental Design in the Twin Cities

Ben Boo, COO at Mighty Axe hops, works with green hops. Photo by Laurie Schneider, courtesy of Mighty Axe Hops.

Sannerud’s larger mission is to move beyond sustainability and create a resilient farm, one that can maintain its functionality even after being confronted with an environmental challenge. He said that one way to ensure a resilient farm is to increase the efficient application of inputs that direct water back to its main source, incurring less loss and maximizing efficient use. Examples of the inputs Sannerud talks about is utilizing small tubes that drip water alongside plants rather than an overhead spray mechanism to water crops, and cover cropping (planting crops that allow for better soil management) to increase the soil’s ability to capture and retain rainwater and in turn reduce reliance on irrigation.

However, Sannerud doesn’t shy away from the practical restraints that sometimes get in the way of his mission. He notes that, because farms exist within a system that doesn’t often reward the best environmental behavior, citing little to no limitations on water usage as an example, instances arise in which he and his team are led to make compromises. Yet whenever it’s feasible, Sannerud and his team opt to practice what they preach: “The farm as landscape is a portrait of your values,” Sannerud said. He constantly asks himself, “am I painting a picture on this landscape that aligns with my values?”

Environmental Design with a Social Slant

Although traditional, natural resource-focused initiatives are often the first thing that come to mind when we think of environmental design, Twin Cities-based incarnations of the practice illustrate that it can also be a vehicle for other outcomes, like those with a social angle. One such effort is the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) whose mission is “helping people and places prosper.” The LISC strives to create “increased housing options and vibrant commercial corridors” by focusing its economic resources, through investments like loans and grantmaking, on three things: affordable housing and the built environment, economic development through income and wealth building, and neighborhood vibrancy and community health.

While the nuts and bolts of LISC are focused on the built environment, the organization’s end goal isn’t affordable housing and thriving commercial corridors themselves, but what they lead to—LISC’s entire strategy is crafted around the belief that these are the first steps to improving the quality of life in traditionally disadvantaged communities, and that their work can be a vehicle for racial equity in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Another local organization that interweaves social objectives into its environmental design is 4RM + ULA, a full-service architecture firm with an approach intended to combine technology, sustainability, and artfulness. James Garrett Jr., who co-founded and serves as the managing partner of the firm, believes that community-based, human-centered design is the foundation of good design, period. “Working with the community, working with end users, is the natural order of things—and the way things have been done up to now has been incorrect,” he said.

Garrett Jr. and his firm are currently working on a design project in St. Paul’s Rondo community, a neighborhood that has been historically disenfranchised and one in which residents have been given little to no agency in past design initiatives that have directly impacted their neighborhood and their lives. When Garrett Jr. received a call from Marvin Anderson, the executive director of Rondo Avenue, Inc., about the organization’s efforts to purchase the land where the last commercial building in the neighborhood stood and turn it into a commemorative plaza, Garrett Jr. knew it was a project that aligned with the socially-focused values of 4RM + ULA.

Environmental Design in the Twin Cities

A mock up of 4RM + ULA’s design work in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. Photo courtesy of 4RM + ULA.

Because both Garrett Jr.’s and his business partner’s grandfathers grew up as neighbors on Rondo Avenue and both of their mothers had lived in the neighborhood, they were considered legacy members of the community who also just so happened to be local architects. 4RM + ULA was hired and has designed plans for the land to be used as a quiet space for “contemplation, education, and inspiration,” free from the constant noise and traffic of Interstate 94, which sliced through Rondo during its construction in 1994, destroying swaths of the neighborhood in the process. Through an intentional design that includes interpretive spaces and vantage points to peer out over an adjacent freeway that still characterizes “Old Rondo” to many, the plaza is specifically crafted to educate visitors on the history of the neighborhood as it highlights the community’s “continued growth and success,” the project’s website explains.

By preserving the history of Rondo and highlighting the progress of an often forgotten place, 4RM + ULA is using the built environment as a way to preserve and maintain the humanity and dignity of a place that often succumbs to outdated reputations and stereotypes. It’s through work like this, and the development work of LISC, that Minneapolis and St. Paul showcase that environmental design doesn’t have to stop at brick and mortar creations, but that it can influence intangibles that the bustling Twin Cities, like most cities, are struggling with like economic, racial, and overall social justice and equality.

Urban Design in the Twin Cities

Carrie Christensen, an urban designer who wears several hats like environmental designer, planner, and arts administrator, serves as the lead consultant for the design, installation, and management of the Northside Demonstration Greenway. The project, which began several years ago as a citizen’s coalition, was created to explore whether low-traffic streets in north Minneapolis—a historically low-income, racially diverse, and underserved part of the city, especially when it comes to urban green space—could be converted into a greenway. Christensen notes that the ultimate goal for the greenway, should it be permanently adopted, is for it to be a space that is “safe and welcoming for all,” as well as one that is ecologically robust through including elements like pollinator habitats and edible plants.

In June 2016, the greenway entered a temporary demonstration phase, installed in order to give community members a chance to directly experience a test run of what a permanent greenway might feel like and an opportunity to provide feedback. “Community based design is about participatory design,” Christensen believes. The temporary greenway is set to be in place until late spring 2017 and includes features like designated pedestrian and cyclist pathways and boulevards, chicanes intended to calm traffic, and a protected play area.

Christensen explained that since its creation, positive feedback has been received about the restricted traffic, with mixed reviews coming in about the chicanes themselves, as some residents have noted that the chicanes make driving confusing and create a heightened concern for child safety. Since receiving the feedback, the chicanes have been removed, but other features like the crosswalks that residents have reported enjoying remain. However, Christensen noted that the overall community response has been that residents are pleased with the greenway’s qualities, especially with how quiet their streets have become and their children’s new ability to play in car-free spaces.

The project has taken a bottom-up approach throughout, prioritizing resident inclusivity and involving neighborhood organizations on the ground level as opposed to a top-down, designer-driven approach, one that was aided, according to Christensen, by a variety of consultants who have been hired since 2008 to gather community input and gauge community support. “At its best environmental design is . . . truly taking into account how humans are interacting with the environment. In terms of design, environmental design is a very democratic field because it’s out in the open,” Christensen said. “It’s people shaping the world that they live in.”

Across the Mississippi River In St. Paul, another initiative has turned to urban design as a means of improving the environment in which local residents live. Initially, the Riverfront Corporation, a private nonprofit, was focused solely on revitalizing St. Paul’s riverfront. As the organization’s website explains, the Mississippi River historically served as the city’s main source of economic development until industrialization hit in the early 1900s. The riverfront became neglected and was essentially destroyed by waste, sewage, and nearby neighborhood demolitions. In 1984, Mayor George Latimer established a Riverfront Commission which, in 1994, was renamed the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation. In 1997, the organization published the Saint Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework, a community-driven vision for St. Paul’s downtown and riverfront areas that continues to influence local environmentally-based urban design to this day.

However, in 2010, the corporation realized that good urban design can have lasting benefits beyond the banks of the Mississippi. The Riverfront Corporation officially updated its mission to reflect a broader application of its economic and community development work: “The Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation will elevate Saint Paul’s quality of life and stimulate economic vitality by championing innovative, sustainable urban design principles for the city and its river valley, and by engaging community in the design process.”

The organization still engages in the same riverfront work revitalization work it has always done, evidenced by its Great River Passage project that was designed to provide easier and better access to the river for residents by creating new connections between the river and surrounding neighborhoods in addition to crafting view corridors that allow for vistas of the river and beyond.

Environmental Design in the Twin Cities

A graphic accompanying the Great River Passage’s Master Plan. Image via

Yet, several of the Riverfront Corporation’s project library highlights the variety of projects they’ve undertaken since expanding their mission. For example, the Landmark Plaza project was designed to better connect local businesses, arts, and cultural organizations with Rice Park. Thanks to donations from members of the Riverfront Corporation, in addition to other sources of funding, the plaza is now a popular downtown St. Paul location that functions as a lunch spot just as much as it does a connection between the entities it was designed to link.

Tying it all Together

Environmental design in the Twin Cities goes far beyond the smart, sustainable use of our natural resources. The edges of environmental design brush up against not only several other fields and sectors of design, but environmental design itself is made possible here by the collaboration and dedication of elected officials, voters, and engaged communities that have been prioritized and given a leading role throughout the design process. If one thing ties these various environmental projects together and to the others on environmental design quarter of the Twin Cities Wheel, it’s that community values, participation, and engagement are driving the choices and happenings of environmental design in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s not always easy, and often course corrections need be made, but the outcomes have at least one similarity: proof that buy-in from communities produces lasting and impactful environmental design.

Amber Morgan is a writer and editor from Minnesota. Morgan’s work has taken her from the midwest to the east coast to Latin America through her explorations of both print and digital media production in addition to content strategy, visual media, and event design. She’s currently exploring social design in Minneapolis, particularly as it relates to public space and performance. 

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