Before the area that is now Minneapolis was fully built out, landscape architect Horace W.S. Cleveland designed the city’s award-winning parks system and parkways in the late 1800’s. His visionary plan hinged on a connected system that linked both sides of the Mississippi River to parks, lakes and parkways across and around the city. Then, in the 1950’s, I-94 was built, skewering several neighborhoods in its path. In North Minneapolis, the corridor cut the community off from the river that the rest of the city still gets to enjoy.
The RiverFirst project has set out to rectify that in a way that brings the community to the table in its mission to transform 11 miles of once-industrial riverfront along North America’s largest river. A piece of its earliest construction is the Great Northern Greenway RiverLink that will connect downtown Minneapolis to North Minneapolis along the river and lead to a new 40-mile trail loop that will eventually extend across the river to the city’s Northeast neighborhood. The very first part of that process is an overlook, slated to be completed later this summer and designed to reacquaint the neighborhood with the beautiful natural resources it’s been detached from for so long.
Located at the eastern terminus of 26th Avenue North — one of the only ways to cross I-94 in North Minneapolis — the overlook is situated along a riverside bike trail that connects to a major local park.
“This is an opportunity to really get folks from North Minneapolis connected to the river, something that’s always been there but has been disconnected by the interstate,” says Paul Bauknight, the project’s implementation director with the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. Partly because of the pollution coming from the interstate, North Minneapolis has some of the highest rates of asthma in the state.
The Minneapolis Parks Foundation is the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s primary philanthropic partner. But “[o]ur role isn’t just about bringing money to projects,” says Tom Evers, the executive director of the foundation. “The foundation’s role is to be an implementation partner. Money is important, but that doesn’t always get projects done. More and more, it’s critical and necessary that you bring the community’s vision and desires and aspirations into these projects.”
One way the foundation did that for RiverLink was to work with local neighborhoods and other organizations like Juxtaposition Arts, a non-profit focused on art and design education for youth, to get input on what the overlook would look like through biking and kayaking around the area. The Juxta students came up with the idea for using the railing that wraps around the overlook as an opportunity to tell the story of the history of the river in Minneapolis, starting with the Native American uses through the industry that helped build the city to modern day.
“I was able to attend a walk with students that Juxtaposition put together. It was cool to see them given the opportunity,” says Andrew Bornhoft, the housing administrator for the Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, a North Minneapolis neighborhood organization started in 1980. “I’ve always encouraged our community to think big. In North Minneapolis, people think out of desperation because every moment of your day is often a new desperate situation… I’ve always pushed this project, [advocating for the idea] that we can talk about the river as much as we want, but there’s still a highway we have to cross. I-94 isn’t going anywhere and it’s a big cause of pollution in the city.”
Youth apprentices with Juxtaposition Arts have provided insight and engagement around the RiverFirst vision and how neighborhoods better connect to the Mississippi River. (Photo courtesy Minneapolis Parks Foundation)
“I think first and foremost this [project] is about equity, about the fact that residents of North Minneapolis have not had the same access to the river that other parts of the city have,” Bauknight says. While the overlook is just the very beginning, there’s a reason why it was done first. “It starts to change the dynamic between the community and the river and that’s really crucial as we think about our world and the environment and the importance of nature.”
The overlook is loop-like in form, intended to inspire bikers, walkers, and other visitors to take in river vistas while children play on a blue play net surrounding the monumental white column at its center that will serve as an inviting beacon to the community.
The RiverFirst project as a whole started ten years ago with an international design competition, says Evers. The winning RiverFirst proposal envisioned a transformation of park board and city-owned land as well as some privately held property as well.
As the project has moved along, Bauknight has been sure to keep communication with the community open. “We go through the design process, but then in the public’s eye [the project] goes away while we go through bidding and get ready for construction, so it’s good to go back and talk to community members, remaining them that we’re still on board and this is what we’re doing and maybe we’ve had to tweak this or that,” he says.
As with any major development project, gentrification is certainly a concern. “A space that’s inviting to the current community is most important. Then there’s the economic part. We know that land development creates wealth, so who gets to benefit from that wealth creation — there are big societal questions at play in the use of this land,” Evers says.
“As we talk about equity and value given what we are going through now in our city and as a country, the connection between how land is used and who benefits is so critical in terms of how people feel, not only socially but how, really, their lives are impacted,” Bauknight adds. He notes that the park board has been closely considering the impacts of gentrification, even more so in the wake of George Floyd’s killing with the awareness that parks are amenities that often draw people to certain areas. “We are all very aware of the impacts parks can have as far as gentrification. Being able to think about that early is important, not thinking about it after the park is done and real estate has already zeroed in on the amenity.”
This story is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.