Monday, February 17, 2014

The Resilient Communities Project Revisits a Living Streets Approach in North St. Paul

By Sage Passi

A door that "closed" in 2012 has reopened.

In 2011 to 2012, the Watershed District and Barr Engineering worked with North St. Paul in an effort to implement a living streets project on 15th Avenue with funds appropriated through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. But after a year and a half the North St. Paul City Council chose to not approve the project.

A theoretical look at a street before (actual) and after (computerized) a proposed Living Streets project.

This year, University of Minnesota faculty, graduate and upper-level undergraduate students are collaborating with North St. Paul’s local government staff, community stakeholders, Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District and Valley Branch Watershed District to reexamine this approach to street design and are investigating the economic, health, environmental, and design/experiential impacts of Living Streets approaches.

The concept of Living Streets (sometimes referred to as Green Streets or Complete Streets) addresses livability and environmental needs of a community by incorporating a design approach to rebuilding streets that balances convenience for motorists with bike and pedestrian safety, water-quality protection, and the value and beauty of street trees.

The Resilient Communities Project (RCP) is an initiative of the Sustainability Faculty Network at the University of Minnesota with funding and support from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) and the Institute on the Environment. RCP works with one partner community a year to develop projects based on community-identified sustainability issues and needs. This year-long partnership with North St. Paul is engaging fourteen University of Minnesota departments in these areas of study: stormwater management, water and energy conservation, density and housing options, transportation and neighborhood identities.

Watershed District staff and North St. Paul city staff/consultants with the coordination of RCP’s program manager, Mike Greco have been meeting with faculty and students in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the Department of Architecture (School of Design) and the School of Public Health to provide background and support for this semester’s Living Streets projects.

An example of a Living Streets project completed in Maplewood.

During this semester a team of University of Minnesota graduate and upper undergraduate students in the courses (“Making Sustainable Transportation Work,” “Topics in Environmental Health: Urban Ecosystems” and “Architecture: Community-Based Projects” will work to

  • document the environmental, health, economic, and design/experiential impacts of living streets approaches 
  • identify a neighborhood input process for future street reconstruction and living streets projects that can be developed as a prototype to create public understanding and buy-in 
  • develop design concepts and strategies that illustrate living streets approaches for key priority intersections, corridors and connector streets 
  • provide policy, planning and other recommendations for implementing capital improvement projects and Living Streets plans during the next 20 years.

I talked to several Public Health graduate students in Elizabeth Watenberg’s Environmental Health class on Urban Ecosystems and a student in James Wheeler’s Architecture course and asked them why they chose this course. A strong affirmation for the values of “service learning” emerged. 
Here are a few responses:

“I chose to participate in the Resilient Communities Project because it provides me with the unique opportunity to gain experience in directly applying my academic studies to improve the environmental health of communities.”

- Emily Yang, U of MN Public Health graduate student

"I signed up for this class because I was excited by the opportunity it afforded for real world, hands on, application of my graduate coursework [Public Health]. It is my hope that this collaboration demonstrates the positive impact public health can have on a community."

-Liz Narten, Translational Therapy Lab Manager, Masonic Cancer Center, U of MN

"I can see that the profession of architecture is currently going through a significant shift toward a focus on community engagement and sustainable design. In school we are taught to focus on the experience of a space, but above all we are taught to design spaces that foster human interaction. In order to learn how to design such spaces, engaging with the public is an essential component of the profession. I am taking part in this course because I want to be at the forefront of the change, leading my fellow designers into a more sustainable future."

-Rebekah Trad, U of MN architecture student
Elizabeth Watenberg's Environmental Health class on Urban Ecosystems
met with Watershed District staff to learn more about Living Streets.

In John Gulliver’s stormwater hydrology course in another Resilient Communities Project related to stormwater management in North St. Paul, civil engineering students are working with the two Watershed Districts to model pollutant loadings and evaluate the cost effectiveness of different BMPs (Best Management Practices) to reduce these loads in the downstream impaired Kohlman Lake and in Silver Lake in Valley Branch Watershed.

These projects provide a dynamic opportunity to interact and partner with University students and North St. Paul city staff in a research and community engagement initiative that picks up where the District left off in advocating for a Living Street approach and water quality friendly stormwater practices in North St. Paul. I think it’s fair to say that a steep learning curve was encountered during our efforts to make that Living Streets project come “alive.” I am glad to see that interest and energy continues to grow in exploring this approach to street design. It’s a positive direction that the city has opened the doors for University of Minnesota faculty and students to create real life learning opportunities for all involved that can help guide the city in making sustainable change in its stormwater and street redesign approaches.

North St. Paul adopted a living streets plan in 2011 to make streets more livable and accessible as the city proceeds with street reconstruction efforts during the next 20 years. The plan includes design recommendations for pavement street width, stormwater treatment, underground utilities, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and boulevard plantings. It also identifies specific street routes that should be targeted for improvements, linking major pedestrian, recreational, and other assets and amenities in the community. Let’s hope that the city can reopen that door, navigate through the process and integrate key elements of this plan in its future street projects. 

We thank the University of Minnesota for their support in helping North St. Paul investigate and make recommendations for taking this route to sustainable street and stormwater management.

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