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American Society of Landscape Architects


November 2007 Issue

Where History and Nature Collide
Can historic preservation and ecological constituencies find common ground in Minnesota?

By Adam Regn Arvidson, ASLA, and Frank Edgerton Martin

Where History and Nature Collide

When change is in the air, controversy is likely to follow. Public debate is especially intense when change comes to beloved landscapes endowed with idealized notions of “what they should be.” Enter well-meaning single-issue groups such as neighborhood organizations, departments of natural resources, watershed districts, and state historic preservation offices, and the stage is set for a showdown. These agencies and stakeholder groups often claim ownership of what the authentic “history” and “Firm_Focus” really are. Over the past 10 years, the most loved and most historically important landscape in Minneapolis has been at the center of such a controversy—and landscape architects have been at the center of the controversial redesign.

Today’s fashion for ecological “restoration” to pre-European settlement patterns threatens many of America’s designed historic landscapes (often filled with exotic species, open lawns, and period features such as dams and ornamental gardens). And today’s environmental issues—namely increased urban runoff—require solutions not considered when historic landscapes were originally built. In Minneapolis, landscape architects and the communities they serve are slowly learning that “history” and “ecological process” can both be respected by implementing innovative solutions to regulatory concerns and educating the public.

 The Minneapolis Grand Rounds is a 50-mile system of parkways, trails, and watercourses that is, quite literally, the city’s backyard, ball field, lake cabin, and storm sewer system. It is the work of generations of leading landscape architects, including H. W. S. Cleveland, who persuaded civic leaders to buy the land in the 19th century; Theodore Wirth, who as superintendent built much of the park infrastructure in the first half of the 20th century; and Roger Martin, FASLA (with the modernist pioneer Garrett Eckbo), who updated the system in the 1970s. Yet, by the mid-1990s, the quality of the waters themselves (six interconnected lakes and six miles of Minnehaha Creek) was severely degraded due to increasing urban runoff (which is, in most cases, piped directly into the creek and lakes) and erosion of unstable shorelines.

Beaches closed, yearly algae blooms grew larger, flooding of lakeside pathways increased, and fish species dramatically changed from the game fish that Minnesotans love to catch to rough fish (like carp and bullheads) more tolerant of poor water quality. Visibility in some lakes was down to between one and three feet. Since 1995, landscape architects have been balancing improving water quality through riparian restoration and protecting the historic character of the overall park environment.

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