Friday, May 13, 2011

Living Downtown in River Cities

I have now had the privilege of living downtown in two of the Mississippi River’s defining cities, St. Louis and Minneapolis. Both cities are shaped by their relationships with the rivers. Both sit at the intersection of the Mississippi and a major tributary (the Minnesota and the Missouri Rivers). Both have just held a major design competition with international participation. and And both are looking to make themselves more livable to attract new residents.

I have grown to appreciate both cities, but the connections each one has with its riverfront are very different. The river in St. Louis is still defined by the barriers between it and the city. Massive highways, industrial complexes, and poor connections for pedestrians and bikers have kept in mostly inaccessible and unattractive for people.

While Minneapolis has its own issues with the river, its successes are much more significant than its barriers. Beautiful parkways line both banks along with trails for walking and biking and connecting a string of greenspaces along the water to the city street network. Many major institutions are located close to the river, and as Minneapolis’s downtown has experienced growth in recent years, it has also incorporated numerous cultural attractions into the urban waterfront districts. For instance, the Guthrie Theater and Mill City Museum now anchor an area alongside the historic Stone Arch Bridge ( that carries people and bikers across the river.

St. Louis is also going through a downtown resurgence right now, although some years behind Minneapolis. They have recently opened a new baseball stadium, the fantastic CityGarden, added more restaurants to Laclede’s Landing, and worked with the National Park Service to create an “attraction district," the Core of Discovery to promote the qualities of the downtown area. While almost every one of these sites is only blocks from the river, they do not allow people to eaily move between the sites and the water. Their own historic bridge, the Eads Bridge, provides a 5-foot pedestrian crossing, but is poorly connected to downtown, making it significantly underused and less of a connection than something to look at from the top of the Arch.

In many ways, these problems arise because St. Louis is still treating the riverfront as the extent of the land that comprises the Gateway Arch grounds. The Arch grounds create a magnificent urban park, but extend only about 10 blocks along the river. By treating the riverfront as a singular destination, rather than a continuous amenity like Minneapolis is doing, the attraction of the entire waterfront and the various destinations in the area lose a lot of the potential for creating a people-filled city. St. Louis needs to look beyond river-adjacent sites to consider connections across the river and to other parts of the city, both along the river and further inland. While some trails do exist that travel along the river  St. Louis Riverfront Trail the connections to the urban fabric of the city are poor and inconsistent. Without more effort to consider this urban riverfront as a connected, citywide feature, the small-scale progress being made will not contribute to a vibrant waterfront.

For further work being done to “Reopen the Door to the River” in downtown St. Louis, check out the City to River website.