Rethinking what “Downtown” really means



—Drawing by Gilbert Osmond, c. 1956


My recent article for the Star Tribune challenges the idea that “downtowns” must be a compact core of commerce surrounded by freeways.

To become a livable downtown, Minneapolis needs to return to its roots as a collection of neighborhoods

By Frank Edgerton Martin Special to the Star Tribune. November 10, 2017

The words we use to describe cities — such as, “downtown”, “central business district” or even “city center” — contain assumptions about what should happen there, who should live there, and how the area should look and feel. We rarely question what we mean when we talk about downtown, especially when it comes to Minneapolis.

It’s time to do so.

Our definition of “Downtown” is preventing us from creating a truly urbane, equitable and 24-hour city — a civic landscape where people live, work and play in the central city and surrounding neighborhoods


Loring Park’s downtown vista.  The Loring neighborhood was filled with pedestrian scale buildings, stores, residential hotels, and churches that flowed into the business and retail core. Linen postcard from the mid-1930s.

In the early 20th century, Minneapolis had a more connected, cohesive feel. You could live in a neighborhood like Stevens Square, which is close to the center of the city, and walk to work downtown.

Along the way, you’d pass from single-family homes to apartment hotels to clusters of small businesses and offices, with the buildings growing larger and more densely spaced the closer to downtown you got.


Historic apartment architecture in Loring Park

Now Stevens Square — like many other nearby neighborhoods — is cut off from downtown by a tangle of freeways. And while the city’s skyscrapers are visible for miles, the downtown area is disconnected from the rest of the city.

Cities across the country have been facing a similar problem and trying different tactics to keep their downtowns vital.

Portland, Oregon, for example, is celebrated for reintroducing streetcars downtown. Some planners, looking to invigorate Minneapolis, say Portland should be our model. But it’s not the streetcars that have made Portland so successful: It’s that city’s transit systems, which weave together the nearby neighborhoods and make car-free living possible.

There are no Downtowns in Europe


Downtown is an American term, coined in early 19th century Manhattan. The city started on the island’s southern tip. The only direction it could grow was northward (or “up” on maps). “Uptown” (or Upper Manhattan) became a primarily residential area, while downtown was all about commerce, an association that has stuck.

Some cities, including Philadelphia, never adopted the downtown moniker, retaining the more European Center City name for its core. But as newer cities emerged in the west, most embraced the commercial downtown idea, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.

After World War II, this concept of downtown shaped freeway planning across the country as well as in the Twin Cities. As a result, Interstate 94 cut off the State Capitol and surrounding neighborhoods from downtown St. Paul. And I-94 and Interstate 35W also severed several neighborhoods from downtown Minneapolis — and from each other. For both cities, the legacy of interwoven, walkable neighborhoods began to vanish.

Propaganda for Freeways. This circa 1958 flier promotes Jet Age transport wrapping downtown Minneapolis with monorails and freeways. Of note: All vehicles had fins. Minneapolis History Collection

Ironically, one of the fastest growing residential areas in Minneapolis today, the North Loop, would have been cut off from the core had the ring of freeways around downtown been completed.

Citizen protests stopped that final link, but as late as the 1970s, the city’s Metro Center ’85 plan assumed that the North Loop and much of today’s East Town would remain industrial.

According to that plan, downtown Minneapolis should become a “compact core” with skyways tied to surrounding parking ramps. However, seeing cities as fortresses and freeways as a way to bring workers and shoppers into the city from far-flung suburbs is outdated.

Rethinking the future

Rather than assuming that the car-based design of the city is here to stay, we should consider how we live — and how we want to live. Public subsidies for parking, roads, and expanding freeways should be a choice, not a mandate.

We don’t necessarily need to import a costly streetcar system like Portland’s or replace all cars and roadways. Instead, we need to ask: What kind of transportation system can restore the web of neighborhoods that once defined the core of Minneapolis and St. Paul?

In Baltimore, transportation subsidies now fund free circulating buses that are revitalizing a vast network of commercial, cultural and residential areas from the Johns Hopkins Medical Center to the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry. A simple bus system has woven a larger area of the city together for residents and tourists alike.

We can make a choice to reintegrate relatively diverse and affordable neighborhoods like Phillips and Marcy-Holmes into downtown Minneapolis. The rich fabric of the city’s older neighborhoods — from Dinkytown to Sumner — creates an urban environment of greater choices and varied experiences available for downtown’s residents.

It’s time to determine what we want downtown to mean.

Frank Edgerton Martin, MSLA is a consulting writer for architecture and design firms and a historic landscape preservation planner.



From Memory to Memorial—a review

Cover image for From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93 By J. William Thompson


From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93

By, J. William Thompson


This compelling new book is a model for narrative non-fiction writing about landscape architecture,  9/11—and specifically,  how the community of Shanksville, Pennsylvania moved from grief to building a lasting memorial.

As the former editor of Landscape Architecture magazine, J. William Thompson is one of the leading design writers in the country. Moving beyond a standard magazine feature style, he builds on the fact-based storytelling tradition of Truman Capote, John Hershey, and Tony Hiss to give readers the sense that they are part of the story unfolding around them—that they are rooted in a place and community.

Starting with that September morning in 2001 when United Flight 93 crashed deep into the ground on the edge of Shanksville, Thompson traces the years as the town and the families of passengers from all over the world forged a memorial of healing and long-term acceptance.

Ever since the controversies over Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, we have known that creating memorials that satisfy everyone is almost impossible in an increasingly pluralistic nation. There are no longer universal symbols for honor, patriotism, and heroism. And this diversity and debate played out in Shanksville.

But, Thompson’s remarkable narrative also shows how— even though Americans interpret symbols and memory differently—there are moments when we find a process to overcome old divisions and to move on.

For this reason alone, Thompson’s book deserves to become a lasting part of college reading lists for courses in design, art history, architecture, and journalism—just to name a few.


J. William Thompson,

From Memory to Memorial: Shanksville, America, and Flight 93

Keystone Press/University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

200 pages
5.5″ × 8.5″
26 b&w illustrations/3 maps

#memorials  #memory  #9/11  #landscapearchitecture

Parkways that Unite Us

Minneapolis city parks evolved from a master plan to link people, places

Our city parks were designed to be connected — to each other and to us.

Farview, Powderhorn, and Loring parks are keystones in a remarkable vision for the Minneapolis park system.

In 1883, landscape architect H.W.S Cleveland designed these three Minneapolis parks in his master plan. He also he designed parkways to connect the parks, which were then on the outskirts of the city. The names of those parkways will undoubtedly surprise you: Lake Street, Lyndale Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, and 26th Avenue N.


horace-clevelands-map copy1883 parks plan following the existing city grid. Farview Park is shown located on the northwest corner of the proposed parkways. From the collection of the Hennepin History Museum.


Farview, which Cleveland located on one of the city’s highest points, formed the northwest corner of his park system, at the junction of 26th and Lyndale Avenues N. The park was worthy of its moniker: Farview’s vistas of downtown and the riverfront are still spectacular today.

Because it was then a remote location, and had hilly terrain, the Minneapolis Park Board was able buy the 21 acres for Farview at one-third of the cost per acre of the land for Central Park (later called Loring Park), which Cleveland also designed.

Finding lower-cost land was a smart strategy for building a citywide park system. As park historian David C. Smith noted, “ … Cleveland often said that some of the most desirable land for parks — hills, ravines and riverbanks — were often those parcels that were ill suited to other uses.”

Powderhorn Park 1892 original plan

From the collection of the Hennepin History Museum.

Cleveland’s elegant watercolor plans of his designs for Loring and Farview parks, as well as a rendering of Powderhorn Park, represent some of the finest American park designs of the 19th century. But it’s Cleveland’s concept for the parkways connecting them that created a model for tying together people and green spaces across the entire region.

In the late 1880s, Cleveland’s vision expanded to St. Paul, combining the Twin Cities in a region he called “the United Cities.” He planned for parkways on both sides of the Mississippi River and stronger connections from West River Parkway to Summit Avenue.

Cleveland’s plans set the foundation for one of the world’s finest city park systems. Over the decades, the parks have changed and adapted, but they continue to unite what has become a sprawling metro region of more than 3 million people.

Parks and Recreation

Originally, Cleveland had intended that Lyndale and Hennepin avenues be park connections. But by the early 1900s, commercial growth along those thoroughfares eroded their parkway character. By 1905, the Park Board shifted to new connecting parkways — along Minnehaha Creek, the Mississippi River, Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

The parks themselves also changed.

In 1906, Theodore Wirth was named superintendent of Minneapolis parks. Wirth, who was born in Switzerland, grew up playing winter sports and hiking in the Alps. He thought the parks needed to welcome more physical activities all year long.

He created recreation centers, which lured city residents, many of whom were first- and second-generation immigrants who spoke a range of languages. Then and now, the parks are places where cultures blend.

Take Farview Park as an example. The neighborhood around the park was once largely Jewish, later African-American. Over the past 30 years, new immigrant groups have continued to move into the neighborhood, including Mexicans and Ecuadorians, Hmong families, and most recently East Africans.

Despite its hills, Farview’s northern edge is flat enough for a large sports field. Once upon a time, kids played baseball and football there and skated on the ice rinks in winter.

These days, you’ll still find kids playing flag football, soccer and basketball.

“You see a lot of different groups playing sports,” said Farview’s recreation director, Huy Nguyen.

What gives Nguyen the greatest satisfaction is when kids from different cultures start to play together, to share their varied games.

Too many of us, however, have never been to Farview Park, even though it’s arguably Cleveland’s best designed park in the city. We rarely travel beyond our own neighborhood parks and the popular Chain of Lakes. In a relatively segregated city, we too infrequently interact with communities of other cultures. Farview lies in the middle of the North Side, which has been a minority community for more than 50 years.

Cleveland had a vision of a park system that tied people, as well as green spaces, together. Well planned, well maintained and well programmed parks set the stage for cross-cultural experiences — no matter what the cultural makeup of the city’s residents might be.

We need to support the park system that Cleveland envisioned, so that it continues to provide a connection to nature and a vibrant connection to one another.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.

Regional History and Public Design—before designing for the future, it helps to know the past




Above. Two contrasting views of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, June 2017


Impact Design in the Twin Cities

June 7, 2017

Link: Impact Design Hub

by: Frank Edgerton Martin

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.


New Designs for Storytelling

G4144.T89E63 1899.S75 2F

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.

Public Design for Everyone: Works Progress and ThreeSeven

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.

Private Practice/Public Interest Architecture

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.

Systems Design puts Housing First

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.

Overcoming Barriers: Connected Parks and Public Art

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.

Lessons from a Complicated Regional Past

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.


Author’s note:


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:

Frank Lloyd Wright at 150

Here is my new June 2017 article for the Star Tribune on how Minnesota made a lasting impact on Frank Lloyd Wright—even though he couldn’t stand our architecture.  #Wrightego  #unbridledego   #Southdale

Frank Lloyd Wright’s surviving Minnesota structures are a tribute to his foresight and his legacy


Frank Lloyd Wright designed few buildings in Minnesota, but they proved to be essential to his career and his legacy. 

STAR TRIBUNE FILE Frank Lloyd Wright designed several iconic structures in the state, including the Elam house in Austin.

In November 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright visited Minneapolis to give a talk on his optimistic design philosophy and the “Mile High” skyscraper he planned to build in Chicago.

Local boosters took the internationally celebrated Wright, then 87, on a tour of the city’s newest architectural landmarks.

Things did not go well.

Wright complained about the harsh climate, called the new Prudential building near Cedar Lake a “desecration of a park area,” and said that most of downtown Minneapolis should “be blown up, and only a few tall buildings left standing with room enough to cast a shadow.”

We know this because Minneapolis Star reporter Frank Murray interviewed Wright along the way and covered his speech to the Citizens League.

What may have shocked Minnesotans most was Wright’s outright rejection of Southdale, the first enclosed shopping mall in the country, which had recently opened.

“Who wants to sit in that desolate-looking spot?” Wright is quoted as saying. “You’ve got a garden court that has all the evils of the village street and none of its charm.” (To read the original story, go to

During that visit, Minneapolis Tribune photographer Paul Siegel took an iconic portrait of the master: Wright draped in tweeds, with soaring Space Age birdcages of architect Victor Gruen’s Southdale behind him.

Wright may not have taken to the Twin Cities, but he nevertheless made his mark here — building structures that expressed his vision for the future of American cities.

Wright’s Fall and Rise

Genius has its privileges. And Wright, who would be 150 years old this year, was clearly a genius of design with a healthy ego.

Starting with his apprenticeship with the brilliant architect Louis Sullivan in the late 19th century, Wright invented several original American design styles over the next 60 years, including the geometric beauty of the 1905 Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., the sweeping horizontality of the Robie House in Chicago in 1910, and, ultimately, the all-white Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which opened in 1959.

His first decades were promising and by 1920, Wright was known worldwide for his public projects, such as the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. But with the rise of Modernism and the Bauhaus School of design in Europe, he fell from the architectural leading edge.

Beginning with the Depression in 1929, his practice and income slowed to a standstill. Wright relied on the tuition and labor of his students at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., to survive. They cut wood, grew crops and lived as a nearly self-contained community.

Then, in June 1932, University of Minnesota professor Malcolm Willey and his wife, Nancy, invited Wright to design a home in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood that could be a “creation of art.” Wright responded with a long, narrow, 1,200-square-foot design that he called Gardenwall. It came in over its $8,000 budget, but not by much. (Groups can tour the red brick and cypress home, at 255 SE. Bedford St., by making an advance request at

Though small, the Willey house was a turning point in Wright’s career because it became a prototype for the Usonian House, a vision for the American home that Wright would promote for the rest of his life.

Wright also designed the Elam house in Austin, Minn., a direct descendant of the Willey House. Completed in 1952, it boasts five bedrooms, three soaring fireplaces and massive limestone walls.

Larry Millett, author of “Minnesota Modern: Architecture and Life at Midcentury,” described the 4,000-square-foot Elam house as “by far the largest of Wright’s 10 Minnesota houses” and a “superb example of his work.” The home is one of a handful of Wright’s roughly 400 surviving houses where you can stay overnight, in this case by booking its 820-square-foot guest house (

Gas Station as Social Hub 

The Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, Iowa, is the only Wright hotel that survives today, and you can stay there, too.

Completed in 1910, the project combined stores on the street level with a bank and a 42-room hotel. It became a prototype for Wright’s renowned Midway Gardens in Chicago and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel.

After a long decline, the hotel closed in the 1970s. Through heroic efforts by the community, it reopened in 2011 with a restaurant, overnight and tours. (Along with the Park Inn, Mason City has a rich architectural heritage worth visiting, with homes as well as entire neighborhoods designed by leading Prairie School architects.

Wright never built any hotels in Minnesota, but the year before he died in 1959, he designed the R.W. Lindholm Service Station in Cloquet. The unique building features a cantilevered copper canopy over the gas pumps and upstairs glassy lounge.

Although this is the only gas station that Wright completed, he intended to build hundreds of them for his Broadacre City idea. Wright disliked the density of cities, so he came up with his own version of suburbia, low-density communities where Americans would live in simple Usonian houses and drive. In this new world, Wright saw service stations as landmarks and social centers — hence the lounge at the Cloquet service station.

The dozen or so Minnesota buildings that Wright designed represent a tiny fraction of his output over 60 years. But some of them were new experiments or marked a turning point in his career. We’re fortunate that 150 years after Wright was born, we have examples of his groundbreaking design that we can still visit through a tour, an overnight stay or just to fill up your car with gas.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.

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Streetscapes: The Value of Small Shops

Small shops help make the Twin Cities vibrant, affordable and dynamic

Storefronts, which change with the times, help make our cities vibrant, affordable and dynamic.

Photo: Frank Edgerton Martin.   A row of modular shops on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis.

Home to the nation’s first indoor shopping mall (Southdale) and the first megamall (Mall of America), the Twin Cities has a history of thinking big when it comes to retail.

Maybe we should be thinking small.

Styles for retail buildings — indoor malls, outdoor malls, “festive retail” (think St. Anthony Main and Galtier Plaza) stand-alone big box stores — come and go. Small storefronts, on the other hand, have thrived for generations.

Modest in size and usually simple in design, these centrally located structures have proved flexible enough to change with the times and the demands of consumers. That’s why they’ve been able to serve as home to many different kinds of businesses over the years.

Consider the storefronts at Lyn-Lake in Minneapolis or along W. 7th Street in St. Paul. Although they were built in the 19th century, they remain actively used today. Even at major intersections, such as 48th Street and Chicago Avenue S. in Minneapolis or Fairview and Cleveland avenues in St. Paul, small stores have been able to change with the times. Instead of hardware stores and insurance offices, these storefronts now host bakeries, fix-it shops, salons, clothing stores and restaurants.

By adding feet on the street, storefront shops help build community. They also nurture small businesses by providing start-up spaces and offer jobs close to home. Most important, they provide a greater economic return to neighborhoods than larger chain stores, according to several studies.

Unlike national chains and big boxes, small stores make more of a personal connection, too.

Alain Lenne is a daily presence at his shop, La Belle Crepe, in the Medical Arts Building in downtown Minneapolis. In fact, with his French accent and trademark hats, it’s hard to miss him.

Lenne creates a remarkable fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine, ranging from crab Benedict crêpes to pho. What’s really remarkable is that all this happens in a space that is roughly 12 by 22 feet.

Of course, this wasn’t always a crêpe shop. In the 1960s it was home to a Fanny Farmer store. And before that? Well, just check out the transom window over the front door. There’s an etched glass panel that says: “Medical Arts Circulating Library and Card Shop.”

A few miles south is another example of the flexibility of small storefronts.

Located at 704 and 708 W. 22nd St. in Minneapolis, Fox Den Salon and the Caffetto coffee shop are next-door neighbors. The two very different businesses are run out of nearly identical storefront bays. Caffetto’s display windows are covered with posters for upcoming events. The Fox Den’s windows are filled with handmade seasonal displays. Such stores have a personality you won’t find in the controlled environments of skyways and shopping centers.

Striving for balance

Successful small shops face one dilemma: Sometimes they’re too successful.

They can lure more people to an area, and the homes, apartments and condominiums built to house those people chip away at the existing inventory of small buildings with modest rents.

And then the small-scale, personal shops that attracted many newcomers in the first place — the bookstores, co-ops, dry cleaning and shoe repair shops — get priced out of the neighborhood. We already see that happening in Uptown, the North Loop, East Hennepin and Dinkytown.

So how can we balance such new development with affordable rents for the small businesses that neighborhoods — and downtowns — need?

Cities have the power to require affordable housing in new residential and mixed-use projects. Why not do the same to ensure affordable small business in new developments in high-growth areas?

Critics will argue that this would deter new investment. But given the resiliency of small shops, doesn’t supporting them make as much sense as investing millions in public financing for massive downtown projects and sports venues?

American cities have always been in flux, responding to changes in technology, new immigrants and emerging economic opportunities. When parts of a city become nothing more than purveyors of luxury goods and expensive bars and restaurants, our streetscapes lose their rich, diverse character.

It’s time for public leaders and investors to see small shops and the active street life they foster as a basic tool in building a prosperous and creative city — more useful than glamorous boutiques, often more interesting than tall buildings, and more enduring than the latest tastes in public art and landscape architecture soon to reappear on Nicollet Mall.

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.

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Streetscapes: The “Bottleneck”

Is it possible to fix the bottleneck at Hennepin and Lyndale?

A reconstruction project has improved the Hennepin/Lyndale intersection, but stops short of redressing decades of bad decisions.


caption: New York has Times Square. Washington, D.C. has Dupont Circle. Minneapolis has the Hennepin-Lyndale bottleneck

For decades, the hourglass-shaped intersection of Lyndale and Hennepin avenues has been known as the Bottleneck, a crowded junction where cars, bicycles, pedestrians and, once upon a time, streetcars all merged in seemingly endless traffic jams.

A recently completed reconstruction project on the northern end of the Bottleneck (between Vineland Place and Douglas Avenue) has resulted in improved turn lanes, additional green space, new pedestrian-scale lighting and attractive bands of pavers. When the landscaping is completed in the spring, the additional green space and better bicycle and pedestrian crossings will be even more evident.

The $9 million, two-year project clearly made the revamped intersection more attractive and functional. And pedestrians no longer need to run to make the lights anymore. But the project didn’t include the biggest challenge for the Bottleneck: rethinking the massive and pedestrian-unfriendly “spaghetti junction” to the south (between Douglas and Franklin) and restoring what was once a landmark setting.

The city has yet to address how future planning for the entire Bottleneck can help to reintegrate the city after a generation of evisceration by freeways.

The Bottleneck, now more than a century old, is a living example of the evolution of urban planning, or lack thereof. In 1883, landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland developed a visionary plan for Minneapolis’ parks that designated Hennepin and Lyndale as parkways — verdant, wide avenues suitable for strolling or carriage rides. But with a growing population and an increase in streetcars, Hennepin and Lyndale soon became commercial thoroughfares south to Lake Street.

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caption: The Hennepin-Lyndale intersection looking north to the Basilica, circa 1930. From the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society

Around 1900, the junction of these two avenues and nearby Loring Park became the cultural heart of the city. Here, at the foot of Lowry Hill, the archdiocese built the Basilica of St. Mary, Episcopalians constructed St. Mark’s on Loring Park and just to the south, the majestic Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church rose.

In 1927, the Walker Art Gallery opened on Vineland Place. These institutions, along with 510 Groveland and the Armory Gardens (now the site of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden), created a cultural district that evoked the civility of European cities.


caption: The Bottleneck looking to the southeast. Circa 1945. From the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

But by the late 1940s, the Bottleneck had turned into a cacophony of streetcars, pedestrians, trucks and a rising tide of cars. Traffic and honored cultural institutions grew up as neighbors side by side.

And then came the freeway.

Looking back, many wonder why city leaders, planners and traffic engineers in the 1960s routed Interstate 94 through this crowded junction, which had already acquired its Bottleneck moniker. Through a tangle of underpasses, elevated flyovers and a daunting merge point, they bluntly layered freeway speeds and scale onto old city streets. Several blocks of commercial and residential buildings were demolished to create what urbanist Jane Jacobs called a “border vacuum.”

Ever since then, this pivotal city space has looked less like a cultural hub and more like a freeway on-ramp.

Room for New Thinking

In 1956, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act funded freeways to connect cities, but not to slice through them. Yet soon, nearly every U.S. city began to build freeways straight into their downtowns, and often in a tight loop around them.

That’s how downtown Minneapolis came to be surrounded by a sunken trench of freeways and the Mississippi River. The old graceful transitions between neighborhoods, like Whittier and Phillips, and downtown vanished. And downtown itself became an island.

It’s time to build a new kind of bridge — a civic bridge. Given its great architecture and central location, the Bottleneck is one the best locations to start.

Today, planners and transportation advocates nationwide are reconsidering historic precedents long dismissed as impractical, such a return to two-way streets, traffic circles and smaller blocks. They are challenging the conventional wisdom and creating data-driven alternatives for how to update freeways, reconnect historic districts and provide a range of transportation options.

For areas like the Bottleneck and other “border vacuums” across the Twin Cities, here are four urban design strategies we should consider:

Re-create the grid: One of the best ways to mitigate the impact of urban freeways is to rebuild the city grid around them. At the Bottleneck, rather than long exit ramps and merge lanes onto city streets, traffic exiting the freeway should be slowed as quickly as possible, preferably coming up to traffic lights. There, drivers can opt to turn left or right or go forward as in traditional grid intersections. Returning to the grid creates clearly defined crosswalks for pedestrians and slows traffic entering local streets.

Frame the streets: As the grid is rebuilt, the footprints of old freeway ramps and right-of-ways can be filled in with new taxpaying development. Streets such as Hennepin and Lyndale can become distinct public spaces again, linear outdoor rooms framed by building facades that come up to the sidewalk, with trees to blunt the sun and noise from the traffic.

Develop a seamless pedestrian experience: Unobstructed vistas down the streets framed by buildings can help to create a sense of connection for several blocks. Currently, in many locations, freeways create a visual gap or obstruction that severs neighborhoods.

Create mixed uses along the way: Once it’s easier to walk along Hennepin and Lyndale avenues, and from Loring Park to the Walker Art Center, small-scale businesses and attractions such as coffee shops and pocket dog parks can spring up. They help create a sense of variety and engagement.

These strategies are now being tested as cities such as Boston and San Francisco try to redress their freeway-centric pasts. Can Minneapolis embrace such new thinking?

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.