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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2004 Issue

Revisioning a River
A paddle-wheel extravaganza highlights waterfront enhancements on the Mississippi.

By Adam Regn Arvidson, ASLA

Revisioning a River
Courtesy Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation

Dubuque, Iowa, has a new riverfront. Red Wing, Minnesota, is remaking its 100-year-old riverfront park. The Quad Cities metropolitan area (Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa) is implementing an intergovernmental framework plan that spans 18 municipalities. Saint Paul, Minnesota, is attracting new residents to and redesigning parks along its downtown riverfront. Besides being the next riders of the nationwide wave of waterfront renaissance, these cities have something else in common: They are all Grand Excursion cities.

A "big event" is a centuries-old ploy to draw visitors, rebuild or create infrastructure, and jolt an economic landscape to life. Such big events as Olympic Games, Super Bowls, and World’s Fairs also spur the design community to action, inspiring landscape architects, architects, planners, and artists to create appropriately grandiose works. The Grand Excursion of 1854 was a big event that attempted to bring new settlers to the upper Mississippi by showcasing the region’s economic and aesthetic richness. In midsummer of that year, a flotilla of paddle wheelers left the Quad Cities and steamed upriver, eventually ending up in Saint Paul. The cities along the route decked themselves out for the occasion, organizing parades, preparing fireworks displays, cleaning up their docking areas, and orchestrating tours of local landmarks.

This summer, the Grand Excursion was reenacted. A flotilla of riverboats left the Quad Cities on June 25 and stopped at several communities on its way to Saint Paul, arriving on July 3 and staying for two days before heading back downstream. The marketing blitz returned, with the media circus in full force. Books were published, e-mail distribution lists sent weekly updates, almost every local paper and arts circular on the upper Mississippi had a rah-rah article about its town’s planned activities, and the governor of Minnesota challenged his river-state counterparts to a steamboat race (Wisconsin’s governor was the lone taker. The race finished in an official tie—before Wisconsin’s governor graciously conceded the "broom" to his western neighbor). The hype was at a fever pitch. But hype leading up to a big event can leave ghost towns in its wake.

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