In 19th century midwestern and High Plains towns, there was a natural urge to create enclosed and urbane settings as an escape from the surrounding open landscape. The history of their city parks tells a story of the of the desire to create “beauty spots”—places of geographic fantasy and a kind of “paradise” on the plains.
A generation later, in the City Beautiful and Beaux Arts eras (1900-30), midwestern towns began to build even grander, neo-classically inspired settings with pergolas, performance halls, and amphitheaters. Surrounded by churches and the neo-classical Sheldon Auditorium, Broadway Park in Red Wing, Minnesota may be one of the most beautiful small civic spaces in the country.
Postcards show how towns wanted their parks to be seen by others. Though retouched with color and perhaps some early “photoshopping” to remove flawed elements—they document civic aspiration and pride.
The following images capture the range of town oasis parks from the very formal to the rustic. This page will continue to be updated.
All titles, text, and captions copyright Frank Edgerton Martin, 2018.
Above. Two contrasting views of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, June 2017
The following is a story that I just completed on the new idea of “public design”. This idea is hard to define—and I think needs to be. Like “Sustainability” and so many other words, good ideas can be watered-down. So it’s essential that well-meaning design trends and ideas be placed in historic contexts. You can’t do any kind of service design in any city without knowing its history….
You can explore more about “public design” at Impact Design Hub where this piece is posted along with other profiles of the Twin Cities. Thanks to David Dewayne—IDH’s competent editor.
Minneapolis and St. Paul share rich legacies of innovation in public interest design. They lie at the center of a geographically immense and low-density metropolitan region spanning roughly ten counties and seventy miles to the north and south. One reason for this sprawl is that many residents moved to “the Cities” from rural Minnesota. They preferred the large lots of the post-war suburbs that were booming at the time. And land was cheap.
The region is home to one of the highest capita numbers of Fortune 500 companies in the country. Some of them, like General Mills, served national and international markets as early as the 1890s. Almost all of them—3M, Medtronic, Ecolab—require highly trained workforces; and they have a history of supporting education.
One of the most remarkable civic stories here dates to 1946 when the Dayton family, owners of the department store chain that would grow into Target, began to donate 5% of their pre-tax profits to local charities ranging from healthcare to the arts. Within a few years, many other leading businesses, including large banks and insurance companies joined “the 5% club” too. The result was a burgeoning of the art and history museums, grants for artists, theatre groups, and other non-profits groups that continues today.
Yet, there’s a hidden regional history here too—narratives dating to 1819 when the federal government established a strategic fort at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers to control the new “Northwest” frontier. Fort Snelling was designed to anchor federal military operations for “Indian Removal” across the Upper Midwest. It was from here that George Custer launched his expedition that met a fatal end at Little Big Horn in 1876.
Early 20th century romanticized view of Fort Snelling.
Fourteen years earlier, after the Dakota-Indian War of 1862, over 1500 women, children, and elderly tribal members were incarcerated on the floodplain below the fort during a brutal winter. Roughly 150 of them died in captivity.
These are narratives of inequity, class conflict, and prejudice that we rarely tell. Owning up to the fullness of this past offers powerful insights for public design in the region today. They remind us why, in this relatively isolated and often cold place, we have distinctive social challenges—and perhaps, a special flair in solving them.
1899 bicycling routes in the Twin Cities. Today the region is a national leader in bike travel—despite the winters.
Public designers in the Twin Cities are varied in their training, audiences, strategies, and tools to create social impact. They include architects, public artists, a state employee seeking to end homelessness, and a narrative designer seeking to write new pathways to racial equity.
What unites them is that they help people to tell forgotten stories or share new ones. Through participatory design and conversation, they empower others to find a home for their particular voices.
Today, in a state that is 80% white, Voices for Racial Justice exposes hidden structures. VRJ works with communities of color not just “be at the table”—but to “lead the way toward a more inclusive and equitable Minnesota.” But you can’t lead a conversation if you can never share your unique experiences.
Ashley Fairbanks makes this happen as VRJ’s Director of Narrative and Network Building—a title that she created to convey her purpose. In a superbly-written 2016 article for the Twin Cities Planet—“What one Native woman thinks everyone should know about Native people,” Fairbanks sheds light on her distinct perspective as a member of the White Earth Nation. She brings to life the challenges and the sense of burden that many Native Americans face in explaining their cultures:
“In organizing circles, there is a commonly accepted idea that you never have to be anyone’s teacher. As an Anishinaabe woman trying to do change-making work, I’ve never felt like I have that option. There are so few of us, that if we don’t share our narrative, who will? If only half of us graduate from high school, how do we get our stories out there? If only 13 percent of us graduate from college, how much burden do we have to rely on that 13 percent to always be the ones to tell our story? To always be the ones at the table?”
The role of being a “spokesperson” for a misunderstood culture is something that most Euro-Americans never know, or even consider. Yet Fairbanks is a gifted communicator who does just that. Having received grants and fellowship from both arts and policy organizations, Fairbanks describes herself as a “public artist” and “interdisciplinary designer”. She designs activities and public events for VRJ that foster idea sharing, writing, and expression. She crosses disciplinary boundaries to build social connections and to reveal participants’ stories of structural exclusion along with future pathways to overcome it.
One message for public interest designers across the country is that it’s good to have groups like Voices on your team. As advocates for neglected viewpoints, they can make projects from public art events to neighborhood planning much richer. Storytellers like Fairbanks can teach both practitioners and their public clients how to communicate through stories. In this way, they can build more personal bridges of communications in their work together.
Whereas narrative designers like Ashley Fairbanks help people share their own stories, ThreeSeven helps people to interact with public architecture and even to help build it. As an architecture student at the University of Minnesota, Troy Gallas, ThreeSeven’s co-founder, had a late night epiphany in the design studio. It was sometime around 2003 and he was thinking about the depth of the great architectural works he was studying. “I realized that there was more to architecture than beautiful forms or functional spaces, it was about bringing people together and creating environments where a community can be fostered and strengthened,” he recalls.
Although this insight is a basic tenet within the Impact Design community, it can be a striking revelation for a young student inundated with the Beaux Arts paradigm that architecture is essentially aesthetic—and that the visual realm of forms and spaces matter most.
Gallas was one of the early members of Works Progress and more recently, ThreeSeven. Both community design groups grew out of a cultural buzz in the Twin Cities around in the early 2000s when students began to embrace the idea “service design” and an expanded sense of “design” itself.
Gallas explains that these early conversations “eventually grew into Works Progress where we were able to explore new and unique ways of showcasing and building community through exhibitions, events, and community spaces.”
Ten years later, Gallas still thinks beyond traditional professional roles and established definitions of beauty in architecture. “We honestly haven’t really defined specific goals for ThreeSeven as our work is always evolving based on the projects that come our way. We’re constantly shifting between public art, placemaking, architecture, and design.”
Working with ThreeSeven’s co-founder Patrick McKennan, Gallas describes the following three projects and their impact:
The C/Arts: Mobile Art Carts we designed for Springboard for the Arts. One is a cart for artists to sell their work, another is a cart for social practice artists, and a third is a stage for performance artists. The carts can be checked out for free and wheeled around Lowertown St Paul.
The “Living Bus Shelter” that we created for the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and Metro Transit aimed to activate transit stops with high ridership and no amenities by reimagining what a bus shelter can be.
The “Water Source” was designed as an interactive installation at the River Balcony Prototyping Festival in St. Paul. The project encouraged participants to participate in the installation by tracing in yarn the path their drinking water takes from the Mississippi River through a network of channels and treatment facilities and eventually to their neighborhood. “Water Source” was aimed to educate about the journey St Paul’s tap water takes, reconnect participants to the Mississippi River, and create an opportunity for them to engage in creating the sculptural work itself.
Most people in metropolitan regions rarely notice the ecological systems all around them or the potential beauty of streets that they visit every day. Through projects like “Water Source” ThreeSeven sheds new light on the landscapes and public spaces where we live. In doing so, they help to build a broader public interest and commitment to their stewardship.
Founded in 1953 and based in Minneapolis, HGA is one of the largest architecture and engineering firms in the country. Over the last twenty years, the company has expanded to eight offices across the country in regions ranging from San Francisco to Washington, DC.
During this time, the firm has grown to 850 people; and across all the offices—and most of the new hires are relatively young.Jessica S. Horstkotte explains that many of them want more from their careers than a salary and promotions. Like Troy Gallas, many of them went to school in the early 2000s during the Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2007. Many of these graduates choose where to work today based on opportunities for life-long learning and community service.
Jessica S. Horstkotte explains that many of them want more from their careers than a salary and promotions. Like Troy Gallas, many of them went to school in the early 2000s during the Iraq War and the Great Recession of 2007. Many of these graduates choose where to work today based on opportunities for life-long learning and community service.
HGA Community Action began in 2015 as a grassroots effort. In 2016, firm leadership began to actively support their work and by the end of that year, 237 employees had contributed across all offices.
The following are three Twin Cities examples as described in HGA Community Action’s 2016 annual report:
—West Broadway Public Plaza Demonstration Area. HGA partnered with artist Emily Stover and contractor Field Outdoor Spaces on a proposal for a new public plaza in North Minneapolis. Our concept for a flexible gathering place was designed to improve public access, decrease the perception of crime, and enhance aesthetics along West Broadway Avenue in Minneapolis.
—The HGA Minneapolis office provided short-term design services to four local organizations that we selected through an RFP process. Each group worked with a team of 5-6 HGA employees, coming together to explore their needs and co-create solutions during an intensive, eight-hour workshop.
—Rochester, Minnesota Community Design Workshop. “Activating the Alley”
HGA helped to re-envision a prominent alley in downtown Rochester in collaboration with key city stakeholders. Our contributions included overall strategy, guidance on grants to fund the project, and design concepts that could support a safe, attractive, and business-friendly experience year-round.
For many large national design firms like HGA, supporting public design within their corporate structures is good for business and attracts new talent. International firms such as HOK and Gensler have community design programs of their own. As public impact design is further defined and implemented, it is likely that firms of all sizes will soon follow. Impact Design Hub can become a forum where design firms share ideas and stories of success.
Like ThreeSeven’s design to visually express city-wide hydrology and HGA’s work with neighborhoods, public interest policy designers in the Twin Cities are connecting and revealing complex social systems. As Minnesota’s State Director to Prevent and End Homelessness, Cathy ten Broeke entered the housing field in 1993 and today explores the structural systems that cause and perpetuate homelessness. By stepping back to find the overall connections between public policy, funding sources, public health, and design—she is public designer of long-term systemic change across Minnesota.
“Ending homelessness does not mean that no one ever again will have a housing crisis,” she says. “It means that we will put systems in place to ensure we can prevent the crises from leading to homelessness whenever possible. When someone does become homeless, we must ensure that it is rare, brief, and only happens once.”
Safety, improved job skills, and looking beyond immediate barriers are all connected in ten Broeke’s planning. “I believe in the ‘housing first’ approach, which means ensuring people get connected to housing first—regardless of their particular barriers – mental illness, sobriety….” Then clients are given the varied support they need to sustain that housing.
It all starts with having the security of a home place. “Everything is much easier and more successfully addressed when someone has a safe and stable place to live.” In this sense housing is both a human right and a foundation for public health and wellness. The lesson for impact designers nationwide is to meet with and collaborate with planners whose skills and backgrounds are very different from one’s own. Artists and architects can learn from environmental scientists. Policy planners can work with groups like VRG to understand in a more personal way the experiences of people facing challenges of poverty, mental illness, and homelessness.
Public designers like Cathy ten Broeke cross disciplines and agency boundaries to address to ask new questions. Over the last 140 years, the Twin Cities region has built its most successful public designs by doing just this, by casting aside old barriers and taking a larger view.
In 1883, the landscape architect Horace Cleveland convinced Minneapolis business leaders to build a new kind of park system for an emerging city—one that linked natural resources such as lakes, rivers. A few years later, Cleveland’s vision for parkways and regional design expanded to the rival (and sometimes loathed) city of St. Paul.
Cleveland saw the two cities not so much as competitors—but as a greater region that he called “the United Cities”. He planned for parkways on both sides of the Mississippi River and stronger connections parkway connections between them.
In the early 1970s, progressive state leaders created one of the first regional governance systems in the country. Guiding planning for five counties, the Metropolitan Council checked leapfrog sprawl and protected ecological systems throughout the region. As an echo of the work of Cleveland, they hired renowned landscape architect, Ian McHarg to create a regional plan identifying sensitive ecological areas and critical groundwater recharge zones. Today, parks and nature preserves throughout the region are sited in such places to preserve them.
In Saint Paul today, public artists continue to address such ecological systems and public spaces city-wide. But their tools are more than parks and boulevards. They embrace the public arts of performance, storytelling, exhibits, and festivals that spark new conversations. Over ten years, Public Art Saint Paul has supported artists through fostering new roles for them community and ecological planning.
Colleen Sheehy serves as the group’s Executive Director. After working with the relatively static object-based collections of art museums, she grew fascinated with public arts planning where space itself becomes a stage for gathering and meeting others.
Sheehy believes that the most pressing issues for public artists in St. Paul relate to social equity and climate change. Her team addresses equity through community engagement with deep listening to the history and cultures neighborhoods. For example, Sheehy says, “In our work on the food plans for the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods, it’s been critical to collect the food stories and to understand the cultural assets of the communities….”
To address the global threat of climate change, Public Art Saint Paul involves artists in transforming civic infrastructure. Sheehy is encouraged that agencies like city water and parks departments, along with expansive watershed districts, are involving artists in helping to rethink storm water infrastructure. Environmental artist Christine Baeumler serves as Public Art Saint Paul’s Artist in Residence in the Capitol Region Watershed District. Recently, Public Art Saint Paul’s “City Artist” Aaron Dysart joined a team to think about artistic treatments of storm water in a city park.
Regarding social equity and ecology, Sheehy cites the all too obvious fact that “the greatest challenge is the automobile. It has dominated urban design for at least 60-70 years. Streets and highways have divided communities and make it harder for people to connect on a face to face basis.”
After generations as dividing walls, arterials and freeways can be rethought as public spaces where such events can happen. “I think we need bold new ideas rather than working around the edges of what exists. We’re talking not only about design issues but about cultural and behavioral change.”
Sheehy believes that artists as facilitators can make the biggest social impact through working in such public spaces and with communities. “When I think of design, I don’t think of just the built, physical environment, but the process that generates the physical design.” This is a scope far beyond creating object-based statements.
Environmental advocates across the country can find examples in their own communities when urban renewal, public “plop” art, and fortress-like buildings desiccate downtowns. It’s time to think about how this all happened—and how public interest design can overcome top-down vision behind it.
At its best, The Twin Cities have historically planned for the greater whole—and for the long-term. At our worst, we have shown the arrogance to believe that we know the answers now—who can live here and who should not, who can be a “designer” and a planner and who cannot, what stories, cultures, and historic places merit recognition.
But, as Colleen Sheehy argues, we can no longer afford to be so confident and narrow. “We are at a point in human history when all professions need to have relevance and impact on making a better society so that we can address the unprecedented and urgent issues and conditions that we face.”
Fortunately, a new generation of Twin Cities professionals in design firms and allied fields are pushing for greater public involvement. For them, reaching out to others and learning along the way is part of satisfying career. They are intentional about reaching out to people overlooked and considering the long-term effects of policy, transit planning, and education on their communities.
Speaking of the unintended consequences of his own work, Troy Gallas hopes that, “as the placemaking trend continues to grow, it won’t turn into another form of gentrification. We need to be careful about showing up and telling a community what they need. A lot of damage has been done ‘in the public interest’.”
This is a powerful lesson. In a region where public policy once sought erase entire cultures, restricted for Jews and anyone of color from moving to new neighborhoods, spurred explosive and segregating urban sprawl, and destroyed much of the historic fabric of its downtowns, we should be humbled by the lessons of our history. Gallas notes that what we “need to listen, engage, and think critically about what we’re doing as designers.”
The message is that so single era has all the answers for public design. Minneapolis and St. Paul are still more relatively isolated and homogenous than most American regions of their size. We should remain aware of our limited regional sphere of discourse, questioning, and cultural exposure. Yet, there is also an extraordinary tradition of charitable generosity and long-term thinking. There are more stories and cultural histories in the Twin Cities than anyone can never know. Public designers here today are helping to reveal these stories, to identify our lingering predispositions, and to consider what solutions we might be missing.
During the last week of May 2017, as this article was being edited for posting on IDH, the world-renowned Walker Art Center in Minneapolis found itself in a major a public relations crisis over public art. It stemmed directly from the Walker’s and an artist’s lack of knowledge of Dakota history in Minnesota. As described in my article above—in 1862, Minnesota was home to the brutal US-Dakota War.
At the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the Walker commissioned a large wooden sculpture, “Scaffold” by Los Angeles artist, Sam Burton. Resembling a children’s play structure, the work actually depicts various gallows used in hangings throughout American history. One of them is a replica of the gallows used for the hanging of the “Dakota 48”—48 men from the Dakota tribe hanged in Mankato, MN during the US-Dakota War of 1862—the largest mass execution in American history. Neither the Walker’s curators nor Burton had any sense of the ongoing impact and pain associated with these hangings. No Indian tribes in Minnesota had been consulted. The Walker and Burton thought the sculpture would be “instructive”.
By May 26, as the Walker promoted and described all of the new works in the Garden set to open on June 3, the true meaning of “Scaffold” was revealed. Then, a week-long protest ensued, plunging the Walker into perhaps the largest and most embarrassing controversy in its history.
After a May 31 meeting at the Walker, tribal leaders, city, and Walker staff agreed on the demolition and possible burning of the piece. The possible burning may take place on Pike Island below Fort Snelling. This is the site where of the 1862 concentration camp for Dakota women, elders, and children. They were incarcerated there immediately after the Mankato hangings.
For more information
June 1, 2017 coverage by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis):
June 1, 2017 coverage by the Los Angeles Times:
May 30, 2017 coverage by the New York Times:
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves”
—From On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt. Princeton University Press. 2005
See philosophy applied: https://newrepublic.com/article/124803/donald-trump-not-liar
Click here to explore a new guide to Minnesota architecture. After several years and much volunteer effort, the first 50 entries of the Minnesota volume of Archipedia are now online. Founded by the Society of Architectural Historians as an all-digital encyclopedia of American architecture, this collection was edited by Victoria M. Young of the University of St. Thomas and myself.
You can click above or use this weblink to reach the Archipedia MN site. My hope is that, given the high level of foundation and volunteer support, these essays will remain available to the public at no charge. For now, take a look at the introduction and first 50 entries that cover the whole state and their descriptions by many of Minnesota’s leading architectural historians and writers. Thanks to all who contributed.
Image above: Reflecting pool at the University of Minnesota, Morris—one of the sites covered in Archipedia. Circa 1940.
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, designed by Milo Thompson. Thompson was one of the leading architects included in the Modern Masters oral history project.
After World War II, a handful of optimistic young architects transformed Minnesota by designing modern schools, churches and civic buildings. Within just a few years, their take on modern design was recognized nationwide. Thanks to a new video oral history project, their stories are now as available as their buildings.
Much of Minnesota’s modern architecture — including O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine University, designed by Curt Green of HGA, and the American Indian Center in Minneapolis by Thomas Hodne — is qualified to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But these structures also have a human history — a rich collection of memories by and about the architects who designed them.
American Indian Center in Minneapolis designed by Thomas Hodne
To collect these stories, the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (MNSAH) recently videotaped interviews with Minnesota’s leading modern architects, those who worked for them, and some of the journalists who covered their projects.
These interviews (vimeo.com/mnsah) reveal how Minnesota’s architectural prowess grew to a national presence and became an important part of the state’s economy and culture. They are also rich with entertaining anecdotes about near-mishaps on projects, what it took to win a new commission or what it was like to deal with tough architecture professors.
Architectural historian Jane Hession, who co-conducted some of the interviews, said the goal of the Modern Masters project is “to capture first-person interviews with some of the most significant contributors of modern architecture and design in the state
Gary Reetz, a MNSAH board member, gave one of the first oral histories. Reetz, who started working at HGA in the 1970s, worked with the firm’s modernist founders, Richard Hammel, Curt Green and Bruce Abrahamson. He shared memories, many of them funny, of their distinctive personalities and talents.
Reetz shared a story from the late 1950s that has become part of HGA’s founding lore. The College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., hired the then-new firm to design a performing arts center. Green, always charming with clients, drove a group of Benedictine nuns around the state in his open-top convertible to look at similar projects for ideas.
Several of the nuns recalled this adventure decades later when they hired HGA once again, this time to design an expansion for the building. Green clearly had more than charm. Both the first and second phases of the Benedicta Arts Center are award-wining examples of Minnesota’s leadership in design for education and the arts.
First phase of the Benedicta Arts Center designed by Curt Green of HGA.
Bette Hammel, wife of Richard Hammel, tells stories, too. But her vantage point is that of a journalist who married an architect and became fascinated by his field.
One of Bette’s closest friends was James Stageberg, a notoriously challenging professor and a leading modern designer. With partner Thomas Hodne, Stageberg designed 1200 on the Mall and a vision for the Minneapolis riverfront in conjunction with the Walker Art Center.
It’s not as if Minnesota’s modern flair is a thing of the past. In fact the state’s distinctive take on modern architecture is typified by David Salmela, a renowned architect based in Duluth.
David Salmela in his Duluth studio overlooking Lake Superior and the city.
Salmela is nationally recognized for his unique blending of modern and Nordic traditions in houses and other projects. Locally, his most visible projects include Izzy’s Ice Cream near Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis and the community of Jackson Meadow in Marine on St. Croix.
“The beauty of the project,” Hession explains, “is that we have the opportunity to ask an architect like David Salmela … to speak about how the landscape and cultural diversity of northern Minnesota influenced his designs. Or to talk to architectural journalist Linda Mack [who covered architecture for the Star Tribune] about the challenges and rewards of writing critically about Minnesota’s built environment.”
Today, Minnesota’s architecture and engineering firms employ thousands of specialists who work in health care, corporate and cultural design projects across the country. Indeed, we have one of the highest number of architects per capita in the nation.
These firsthand accounts bring to life a vibrant midcentury period when Minnesota became known for modernism and innovative design.
It still is today.
Link to Modern Masters videos: vimeo.com/mnsah
Link to MNSAH: www.mnsah.org/
Frank Edgerton Martin is a writer and landscape historian based in Minneapolis. He took part in some of the interviews for the Modern Masters project.
A collection of essays that I started back in college. I’m putting them together as an e-book. Will post more here.
The Novelty of Being There
A collection of essays on “sense of place” and the hidden beauties of the world around us
Frank Edgerton Martin
Have you ever wondered why so many American cities began to lose their pedestrian-scale charm about sixty years ago? Have you ever considered how much you might already know about building humane and lasting communities?
Many Americans have begun to ask these questions. We have begun to question the shared character of public space that we have lost in a time when we have so much wealth and technological prowess. This small book lays out some tools to revisit places where we live, to ask new questions of their character and future possibilities. Such a revisit to ordinary places can be surprisingly instructive because the most important places in our hometowns and cities are those that we rarely notice.
The most important places in our lives are those we take for granted. In fact, we have to forget about our favorite chair as we read it, stop noticing they city’s skyline as we work there, forget about the museum’s famous architecture as we are transported elsewhere by its works. In being taken for granted, our houses, apartment buildings, neighborhoods, offices and schools become the settings where we grow into maturity and pass our lives. In this silence lies their greatest beauty.
It is a rare moment when experience a “Novelty of Being There”—when we step outside ourselves to notice the regions we inhabit, when we pause to consider how lovely, or unusual, or ingenious their construction might be. And that’s how it should be. The aesthetic moment of seeing the sun emerge from a dark storm cloud over our town in the Adirondacks, the emotional thrill of coming home from college for the first time…these are times when we are both inside familiar places but also newly aware of them.
We see them anew and we sense their possibilities. We may see how they have formed us. We may even gain a flash of insight into how to steward and improve their planning and design. All of this can seem very novel and revealing. But we can’t always live in the stream of such revealing experiences.
Yet, if we never step outside our the daily routines of habitation, if we never notice the places where we live, we will come to have much lower expectations for what their public spaces, landscapes, and communities (however you define them) can become. We can argue that the nature of American life encourages us not be present and aware, to be lost in our thoughts, plugged into music, driving to the soccer game, listening to the idle chatter of celebrity life and sports as we commute, surfing the news.
For many years, educators and environmentalists have bemoaned children’s loss of free time and contact with nature. There is even now the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the sanitized world of structured childhood with lots of car time, sports leagues and college tutoring. But, our experiential deficits are actually much deeper. We’re not only isolated from “nature” (however you define that), we’re also oblivious to the built world of streets, stores, the design of our own homes, gardens, and public spaces.
Many Americans live in one new suburb that looks just like another; they feel safe and predictable…and that’s not such a bad thing. The blanket of middle class comforts that our society offers— utilities that work, relatively low food costs, gas that’s still pretty cheap compared with the rest of the world—have a calming, even soporific effect. Why notice the world around us when so rarely anything breaks down? Because we are so fortunate, we are so unaware of our material wealth and stability.
This book is not a rant against modern suburbs, in fact, we should explore them as quite varied and fascinating when you look into their histories—and we will discuss them later. Nor, should we assume that, with the growing gulf between rich and poor, soaring health care costs, and other strains, many Americans live stress-free lives. Rather, what I want to say is this:
That we limit our ability to design effective cities and regions because we fail to notice places that are humane and those that are not. We give away our power and wisdom to a myriad of development forces that we hardly understand.
There are many ways to drift away from one’s home region…and it often doesn’t require geographic distance. Many of us “move away” from our home environments because we are given faulty, shallow “maps” or languages of expression. It’s not just the rental car map. It’s a lifelong barrage of jargon, representational modes, and fabricated desires that create a specialized array of languages of discussing cities, none of them very rich or transferable to people outside the target audience.
City planners use zoning maps with little reference to three dimensions, history, or ecology.
Home builders speak of their homes as “products.”
Regional governments call our cities “Municipal Urban Service Areas” or MUSAs. The services include sewers, water, streets. The “MUSA Line,” the point at which it’s really not cost-effective to build more sewers and water lines.
Architects create sharp isometric aerial views and bright fly-though animations that make new buildings into sculpture. Often, we have no idea what the buildings will even be made of…and neither do the architects! But they look good…at least while they’re still fictional.
These renderings and simulations have a propagandistic force. They set the range of questioning. They can persuade cities to build projects that future generations may regret. Such birds eye views and isometric renderings can look impressive. Their power is that often create a false sense of “being there”. They can distract us from how this future world will really look from the street—which is where we actually live given that we are not birds.
The Gateway Urban Renewal District in downtown Minneapolis tore out almost the entire 19th century commercial district to create a Corbusian future when people would live in the sky. Today, some of the buildings are historic in themselves as mid-century modern works. But they are significant as icons, as objects in urban space—but not as part of human-scaled and coherent urban fabric.
Such specialized words and pictures may help to discuss questions of quantity and economic value. But, they are not a language that everyone who grows up in a metropolis learns how to speak and understand. As esoteric dialects, they do not convey a genuine shared and evolving sense of regional distinctiveness. In fact, much of the vocabulary pervading commercial real estate, city planning, traffic engineering, and landscape architecture avoid the validity of personal experience at all. Emotion does not ground professional “practice” in the architectural marketplace. (Unless of course, as a tactic in marketing “product”).
So why are our cities and suburbs becoming so hot in the summer, polluted all year, antithetical to walking?
Why is a food coop near Lake Minnetonka (lovely on the inside and filled with organic produce) set in a strip mall with no trees and no sidewalks? Why do none of the communitarian-environmentalist staff seem to care?
Because we no longer even notice where we are. Because we have forgotten to talk about what makes places that matter. Because we are focused on the tasks of life at hand with little room to step away. Banality has been normalized.
Thus we are no longer really engaged with the physical regions we call home. We’re somewhere else, mostly inside buildings, inside our jobs, inside our cares, entertainments and responsibilities. We fled the city and the suburb long ago. We have become strangers.
These essays explore how most Americans along with our design and building professions have become dangerously removed from commonsense observation of what works in building communities. Rather than planning for the long-term, we too often copy one another, tear-down historic buildings, and focus on object-based design at the building scale rather than the larger fabric of neighborhoods.
We over-emphasize how designed buildings and landscapes “look” rather than how they sound, or smell, or how they will age over time. We design with great visual rationality, yet we forget that familiar places of work and home work best when we forget them. Yet, with their silence, there must also be moments of discovery and reflection.
Sometimes they happen with the change of seasons, in the fleeting moments when the leaves turn bright, when the first snow arrives We notice once again long-familiar smells and crunching sounds while walking in the woods.
In Los Angeles, residents experience anew the feeling of dry heat and winds sweeping across the desert when the Santa Ana Winds return in autumn. Sometimes these winds can be stirring and sometimes they can create a sense of dread.
This book explores why noticing the world—why our “attentiveness to being there”—is essential to becoming better citizens and stewards of the built environment.
Learning how to “be-in-the-world” again (at least, occasionally) is one of the best tools that we have to return to the humane and sustainable architecture that existed in many American towns, main streets, and cities up until about 1950—before television, before the Internet, before the structured life of children.
My use here of the term “humane” here is just a means of asking the Big Question: what does relevant, nurturing and equitable community design really mean?
The British architect Christopher Alexander, author of several books about a return to the lessons of ordinary places, calls this idea, “the quality without a name.” It’s not an easy concept to talk about; and very hard to through statistical opinion or in purely visual terms. But know it when we see it; and we can point to places that make sense and those that do not.
That’s what children do before they know the names of things; they point. And often, when they can’t have that candy bar, they start to scream because that is another way of communicating. When it comes to understanding and talking about the built world of everyday life, we do not have to be architects or historians. We can use our personal experiences to point to places that have qualities that may be difficult to name but are clearly there, inviting and memorable.
There are countless examples when the discovery of the beauty of place appears in a moment. And we will visit a few of them in the essays to follow.
We can think of post cards as another way of pointing, a means to show off how we want our town or business to be seen by others. Like any kind of map, post card photography is the result of choices made. Elevated view points quite literally posit a “point of view.” But do they reflect the world in which we live?
This early color post card of a cemetery in Winona, Minnesota exemplifies how maps and photographs are often culturally-grounded and edited by choices.
It’s a striking view of Limestone entry gates, the sinuous gravel drives drawing the eye over the smooth lawns—and into the distant the Mississippi River bluffs. The view seems like a very accurate depiction of a natural and human landscapes. But it is not “objective”.
Consider the photographer’s elevated position. Like many renderings of urban renewal and new museum projects, most people will never experience the site this way. Secondly, notice how the photo is dividend in to three distinct parts: the foreground, middle ground, and background bluffs.
And yet …great cities and regions have always afforded moments and sites where we can step away to find our bearings in settings that are real. This view of Alma, Wisconsin and the Mississippi River is also elevated. Yet, this a place where one where one could actually go to see how the river town fits together.
Unlike an architectural rendering or staged post card, this photo is not a removed projection—but the documentation of its character from a special viewpoint. It’s a special visit to a viewpoint we don’t see everyday. But we can go there. In Alma, one can still climb up to this vista today.
Reflective moments happen by retunrning to such vistas or when we go away for a long-time and then come home again. Everything, for a moment, seems new again. Maybe a little different from our past memories. But a world that is very much—noticed.
This is the kind of momentary and revealing experience that we can seek anew.
Our sense of “beauty” and fashion changes over time. To ask new questions of where we live, we need seek out the origins of our current definitions of “good architecture,” “wealth and prosperity,” and “expertise” because they say a lot about who gets to speak out, whose experience is considered important, and the vast segments of Americans who are completely left out of the discussion about what they value, about how to build cities and towns for coming generations.
What matters for active citizens is not just the range of the questions we ask about the promise of our cities—but also, by default, the questions that are left out. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse coined the phrase, “the universe of discourse” for this system of socially-acceptable questions and valid answers. Why should this matter for architects, landscape architects, contractors and builders? Why should most of the rest of us who spend our lives in their productions care?
Language will continue to evolve. But there are instances when, as George Orwell argued in his famous essay, “The Politics of the English Language,” words can be changed or fluffed up to mislead us. For our purposes, the politics of words matters because we need a much broader universe of accepted discourse if we are going to rediscover, notice, and share lessons from ordinary places again.
Why is it acceptable to publish jargon-laden writing while it is not considered “academic” to write first-hand accounts of environmental or social experiences in peer-reviewed articles? One is considered scholarly and the other not. Yet, it is, as the philosopher Edmund Husserl argued, “a return to experience itself” that is needed if we are to appreciate the settings of everyday living.
In a graduate school research methods class, I had a professor who taught us the simple dictum: “Everything that exists can be measured; and if it can’t be measured, then it doesn’t exist.”
He was a social psychologist and I really liked him. His notions about the value of empirical and statistics-based research completely contradicted everything I had Iearned in at Vassar. It was kind of shocking. But I knew that his claim about measuring made sense if one were studying traffic counts on a highway.
Yet, if that highway happens to be the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas, an old route traveled by native peoples, early explorers, and pioneers seeking a better life— there are much broader questions to ask. It makes sense to listen to the travelers’ own stories through their sketches, memoirs, and journals. That requires a completely different sense of validity and form of measurement. No single approach to research and mapping is “correct”. We need many. We need richer maps of regions, old roads, campuses, and towns with many layers.
We can consider “environmental memoirs” as one of these layers in our personal appreciation and map of home. In looking to our own environmental history, it makes sense to consider our own origins, to look again at where we grew up and our journeys through childhood.
Here is how I began an environmental memoir my own:
I was born in 1958 at Abbott Hospital in downtown Minneapolis, a small old hospital now closed. Even though my Abbot roots make Minneapolis my native city, I did not grow up there. My hometown is actually a much larger place—the Twin Cities metropolitan area whose ever-growing girth encompasses the old twin downtowns and postwar suburbs, freeway office parks and surviving farms. Like many members of my generation and region, I grew up in “the suburbs”—in Minnetonka to be exact, a village ten miles west of Minneapolis, its Victorian neighborhoods and Abbot Hospital.
When I think of the places that I loved as a child—our woods on a windy afternoon, the Skyroom at the Dayton’s Department Store in downtown Minneapolis, my grandmother’s old house on Kenwood Parkway in town, I realize that these places and my tastes for them have stayed with me to this day. For a long time I felt ashamed of the fact that I was born and raised in Minnetonka Village and not a real city. But I am really not a child of Minnetonka either. When one is born a villager in a place like the Twin Cities, one grows up in a much larger chunk of space where cities and villages and farms are united by fate.
In the chapters to follow, I plan to share the landscape descriptions of fiction writers, American pioneers, essayists and others. Many of them will describe the Twin Cities, the place I know best.
Overall, I hope to share three broad ideas:
A “calling” can mean many things, but it is a driving purpose—and we have completely forgotten how to talk about it. That is why my region—and probably yours—are becoming so bland.
In the pages to follow, when I speak of growing up in the Twin Cities region, I occasionally consider what James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Meaning calls “moments of annunciation.” These are moments in one’s family’s life and episodes in the history of our home regions forge a lasting impact. In my own case many of these events—the building of a metropolitan park system… the raking out of a streambed— are actually quite heroic even though ordinary people made them happen. Mostly, they are just stories, but stories that are novel because the people within them happened to notice where they were.
Thinking about our environmental histories is a powerful antidote to the forces of contractor banality and star architects, indifferent zoning boards, and town councils that assume that new development is good development if it builds the tax base. Ultimately, returning to and learning from environmental experience can inspire us to ask new questions, to set higher standards, and see greater connections between our own small decisions and the local future. That’s why how we measure and make sense of our hometowns, woods, commercial districts, alleys and offices—matters.
Our own maps and environmental stories can instill within us passion to care for the land. But we have to tend these stories and pay heed to them. We have to slow down for a moment and pay attention to where we’ve lived and how we live today. This is part of the value of writing one’s environmental memoir, of trying to piece together how you came to care for the places that you do. Here is one small memory I have of our house and woods—and a moment of caring for a small stream. It came early on in my environmental memoir writing and enriched me with a new appreciation of my parents.
Set on the top of a hill, our house looked into a sea of arching elm trees at mid-level. But when you walked down the path that led within, these trees seemed huge. They swayed and made a collective roaring sound when the wind blew.
At the age of five, I developed an affection for a kind neighbor, Mrs. Waters, who lived on the other side of the woods. After phone calls with my mother, she would occasionally invite me over for milk and cookies. Such visits required an adventure north through the woods and thus a kind of “trade route” to the other side of uncharted territory.
These were my fist solo trips. There was a good path that led down a hill from our pond to a little stream and then back up again to the northern edge of the woods. Once out of the enormous canopy of trees, I walked through a meadow and then into neatly mowed suburban yards and cul-de-sacs.
I came to know the route quite well; and through it, the immense woods began to gain landmarks. In particular, it was the little stream that I loved. Most of the summer, it was dry. But in spring, when the snow melted, the creek was filled to its banks with rushing waters. It was thrilling to see.
Late one fall, I remember being quite concerned that the piles of leaves in the stream bed would clog up the creek when the waters flowed in the spring. My parents and my little sister Laura came down there with me to rake the leaves out. I remember seeing my parents standing on the banks, talking happily, and reaching down into the little valley with the rakes.
When we took our rakes into the woods to clean out the stream bed, we carried out a simple ritual of caring for the Earth. Even though it was completely pointless from an ecological perspective, this small act, more than any other was, best expresses why I still care about the future of our woods, and Minnetonka, and our region today.
That is why raking out a dry streambed may be so important. After all, leaves decay, water flows downhill; nature has a way of cleaning up the messes that it makes. Surely, as grown-ups, my parents were aware of these simple, rational facts. “Practical” people do not rake out dry streambeds. But my parents wanted to encourage me to care for a place that I loved. Decades later, now that pretty much everything I try to read about architecture no longer makes much sense and my mental maps of our huge metropolis seem so devoid of interest, I ask myself…what could be more lovely?