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River Life: Place, Water, Community

January 24, 2017IASForum0

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Over the past few months, River Life has found its focus shifting a bit. Since 2005, we have worked to raise the visibility of the Mississippi River, particularly on the campus of the University of Minnesota, which is bisected by the river in Minneapolis. We have written about the river, essentially, as a physical spatial phenomenon, raising and exploring issues arising from its “materiality” as our scholarly colleagues put it. People, programs, projects; if they were about the Mississippi, we included them.

More recently, we have found ourselves concentrating on matters affecting the river’s future, particularly how that future can be driven by more sustainable and inclusive planning. Examples that our community partners could learn from are all over the country; our role is to bring those to light and make them available to our collaborators, who are too busy doing their primary jobs to have time for this kind of broad-field research. We want to contribute perspectives and news that our partners haven’t got time or space for.

Our program hasn’t got resource management responsibilities, nor are we charged with public programming. Instead, we work with people in organizations such as the National Park ServiceMinneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Minnesota Humanities Center, and Minnesota Historical Society, who do have statutory responsibilities for public space and public programs. Together with community-based partners such as Works Progress, the Healing Place Collaborative, and the Mississippi River Network, we provide new ideas, access to innovative insights, and perspectives that are grounded in the immediate and also reach forward into the possible. We want our readers and participants to come away from our work thinking “I had not thought of that before. Will have to consider that more.”

Our job got a lot harder Friday.

Unless you have just returned from Mars or some place, you know that the United States has a new President, one who seemingly is focused on undoing much of the work of the previous Administration. Together with our community partners and campus collaborators, we work on matters of water, place, and community, with an emphasis on efforts that increase inclusion, equity, and sustainability. The inauguration marks a clear change for all of us, particularly our federal colleagues. We will have to address this change, respond to it, but make our comments as little about partisanship and individual people as possible. Here are our thoughts, offered as a series of comments, each of which merits further research and elaboration, beyond the limits of this one post.

We are concerned by the new administration’s celebration of the private sphere over the public, seemingly in all areas of our society. The infrastructures of water—everything from drinking water pipes to inland waterway navigation structures, to sewer systems and everything else we have engineered to move water—is aging rapidly and nearing the end of its functional life in many respects. The new administration touts plans for infrastructure investment; we must be vigilant that these plans do not rely on private investment only, and the handing over of control and pricing of water to the highest private sector bidder. Privatization of urban water systems is still relatively rare in this country; further moves in this direction are to be viewed with caution.

The administration’s potential to erode the public sphere of our society shows itself also in immediate threats to programs such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. These programs in particular, which don’t cost much as federal programs go, provide an essential function of “jump starting” new ideas and innovations, the fruits of which come to light in succeeding years and decades.

As our friends at the Penn Environmental Humanities Lab have demonstrated so dramatically, the new administration poses a direct threat to the importance of science in the public sphere. “Data rescue” operations are vital, but the ongoing de-emphasis of science in agencies such as the EPA, NOAA, and the National Park Service poses a broad-based threat to our ability to combat climate change, develop responses to water pollution, or devise innovative ways to increase agricultural yields.

Our work at River Life is grounded in a conviction that public space has to be public for all, and that the right of all of the people to peaceably assemble and address their grievances (to use Constitution-era language for “gather and protest”) is fundamental. Many of our iconic public spaces, in the Twin Cities and beyond, are associated with water; think of the Mississippi Riverfront and the pathways around the various lakes and creeks in the cities. Now imagine those spaces privatized, sold to the highest bidder and restricted to public use, or on days when the public can use them, seeing restricted uses. The new “park” around the Vikings stadium in Minneapolis already points in this direction, of “privatized public space.” We fear that more of this is coming.  We are further concerned that discussions about the importance of the river, or parks, lakes and creeks, just involve the “usual suspects,” namely, generally affluent, readily self-identified “environmentalists.”  Public spaces are often fraught for communities of color and Indigenous people, and the “meaning” of water has many dimensions that go beyond our usual reckoning.  These concepts must be part of our ongoing considerations.

Our work on questions at the nexus of place, water, and community means we will continue to attend to issues and matters that may not appear directly to be associated with the Mississippi River. The river, though, is a system that reflects our human systems in many ways, some of which are less evident than others. We know that the Mississippi is a “river of history,” and a “river of nature.” Shall it be seen as a “river of money”? A “river of colonization”? Other people have addressed these complexities; we need to find them and learn from their experiences.

Mississippi River, looking downstream from St. Paul, Minnesota. Image circa 1870’s.
Image from the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Finally, the recent administrative changes at both the federal and state levels (Minnesota’s legislature saw partisan rearrangements as a result of November’s election as well) emphasize our roles and responsibilities as a public educational institution. To put matters simply: our “.edu” digital environment imposes on us the responsibility to “get it right,” to produce and share knowledge that is reliable and verifiable. Knowledge, we all know, is becoming increasingly contested. We owe our partners, and ourselves, our best efforts to share knowledge that solves problems, addresses community needs, and shapes the future that we envision.

Network diagram of the Healing Place Collaborative, courtesy of Mona Smith.

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