Building Beloved Community: An EcoDistricts AP Considers Her Work

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A large bur oak graces my front yard:  with a double trunk, about 35 feet tall, she casts a shady and cooling radius all around.  My tree is 115 years old, as old as my house.  Her inner rings mark both environmental and human time.  Think of what has happened in her lifetime: seasons of drought and deluge; the advent of social media; the invention of the electron microscope, the traffic light, and the iPhone; two world wars; two global pandemics; a man on the moon; and a woman running for vice president (again).

Bur oaks are known for their resistance to fire, and the scars of those events are evident in the growth rings, too.  I have been thinking a lot about scars and regrowth this summer, as I live and work in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the epicenter of our nation’s grief and devastation, of protest and fiery retribution, the place where George Floyd was killed.

Human heartache is on full display in my hometown.  Given the glaring inequities we face and the urgency, I wonder:  as a placemaker, is my work relevant when the place I love is undergoing such upheaval?  Do street trees matter when a man has died?  Do decarbonization and stormwater management count for much when we struggle to define our democracy and ourselves?  Will anyone care about walkability, or community engagement, when there is so much distrust of the “other”?

In the exact moment of trauma and reckoning, no.  But the placemaker’s work is not about the quick fix.  Like politics, placemaking is about proximate solutions, not absolute ones.  Our work for people and the planet is incremental, broader in some years than in others, and we mark progress one project, one street front, one public gathering space at a time.  Placemakers, those guided by Equity, Resilience, and Climate Protection, are bound by community to adjust as knowledge evolves, and the needs of neighbors shift.

Work

I run Towerside Innovation District, a 370-acre neighborhood that is resident- and stakeholder-driven. The new Green Line Light Rail runs through it, connecting Towerside to the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  The Mississippi River is a short walk away.  Anchored on one end by the University of Minnesota (with 50,000 students), and an industrial and transportation hub (rail, trucking, warehouses) on the other, Towerside emerges as residents seek variety in housing options; commerce invites investment, talent, and technical innovation; and climate change demands city-building with ecological regeneration in mind.

As an EcoDistricts Accredited Professional (AP), I look through the lens of equity and sustainability in each partnership and project I seek, and in developing metrics to measure success and opportunities for growth.  Towerside, a 501 (c) 3 organization, is a collaboration of public, private, nonprofit, and civic partners overseeing the asset-rich and underdeveloped geography of the Towerside Innovation District.  My goal as Towerside’s President and an EcoDistricts AP, is to hasten a new brand of 21st-century development, providing District solutions to the challenges the Twin Cities and its citizens must solve.

Towerside focuses on innovations that “move the market” in Energy, Water, and Place.  With EcoDistricts Imperatives in mind – Equity, Resilience, and Climate Protection – our work centers on making life better for both people and the planet.  Here is some of what Towerside is doing:

District Energy

In partnership between a private developer, a renewable energy nonprofit, a Minnesota Foundation, and the City of Minneapolis, Towerside has proposed an Aquifer Thermal Energy System (ATES) to heat and cool buildings in Towerside, beginning in 2021.  The first 3 building

s of mixed-use development (market-rate and affordable housing, retail, office) will pilot a District Energy System (DES) that will heat and cool new and existing buildings in Towerside.  The DES will be community-owned and will be governed by a Board of Directors representing energy customers, the City of Minneapolis, and Towerside Innovation District.

  • Equity – By providing a more reliable and cheaper source of energy (ATES versus natural gas), energy customers will be better able to manage monthly costs.  Natural gas prices are highly variable, and as new carbon taxes come into play, ATES will be the cheaper option, especially desirable for those in Towerside’s affordable, senior, student, and public housing.  Governance of the DES will allow proceeds from energy sales to return to the community, benefiting neighbors who are DES customers and those who would like to be.
  • Resilience – With a geology that is perfect for this purpose, the ATES will flatten fluctuations in energy costs for customers and prices will not be subject to the whims of a commodity as volatile and remotely procured as natural gas.  The DES decentralizes control and shares profits with local customers.  And while this technology is not new (it is used in over 100 European cities), this system presents a replicable model that can be adapted in other neighborhoods and demonstrates what is possible in a cold climate city.
  • Climate Protection – Data show the greatest contributor to Minneapolis’ carbon footprint is natural gas combustion to heat and cool buildings in our extremely cold winters and hot, humid summers.  The Minneapolis 2040 Plan sets an ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gases in the city by 80% by 2050.  Towerside’s proposed District Energy System, if initiated and replicated, will be crucial to achieve that goal.

District Stormwater Management 

Towerside has partnered with the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization – a joint-powers government unit – to slow the rate of rainfall and snowmelt entering the Mississippi River, carrying nutrient-rich topsoil away, polluting points downriver, and contributing to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.  Phase I of Towerside’s District Stormwater Management (DSM) is complete and collects water from 8 acres of private, new development, conveys it through a system of swales and pipes to a large stormwater basin “park” where the water is filtered and stored in a 200,000 gallon underground tank for reuse.  A Phase II feasibility study on a near-by parcel (projected to drain 20 acres) was just funded by the City of Minneapolis via a Transit Oriented Development / Livable Communities grant.

  • Equity – The water from the DSM (Phase I) is collected, cleaned, and reused to irrigate adjacent Prospect Park Community Gardens, a garden site available to local residents at a low cost of $15/year, per plot.  This partnership fosters urban agriculture in Towerside, with gardeners coming from local public housing, senior housing, and family-centered affordable housing.  The stormwater basin “park” is an active play place for children.
  • Resilience – By providing green “buffers” and native plants along surrounding streets and within the stormwater park, we keep an estimated 1.2 million gallons of water annually from rushing into the Mississippi River.  Soils remain healthy for growing trees and flowers, and the abundance of pollinator-friendly plants integrated into the basin restores greenspace and an ecological balance needed in a densifying area.
  • Climate Protection – Stormwater and snowmelt remain in the area it falls, stabilizing local soils and the watershed, irrigating urban agriculture, flowers and trees, and mitigating the urban heat island effect.

Vital Public Realm 

A great equalizer for diverse residents is the design and programming of public spaces.  Jane Jacobs said, “Streets and their sidewalks – the main public places of a city – are its most vital organs.”  Towerside combines funding and expertise from multiple stakeholders to green up public thoroughfares, add energy-efficient lighting and public art, boost cycling safety, and “stack” functionality for recreation, stormwater management, “smart city” communication, transit, public health, and great people-watching along its public streets.  One inaugural project – Green 4th Street – connects 6 blocks of residential, commercial, recreational, and transit spaces in the heart of Towerside.

  • Equity – Along Green 4th Street, new high rise housing appeals to all price ranges and life stages:  students from the University of Minnesota; young families seeking affordable rents; market rate townhomes with accessible front patios; senior housing with independent, assisted living and memory care.  The new stormwater basin park has 1 acre of public space, a covered pavilion, picnic tables, community gardens, and new trees.  Included in street upgrades:  a wide and blooming boulevard; designated biking lanes; a community stage; benches, tables, and public art, all chosen by a community.
  • Resilience – The green space offers room to breathe in a neighborhood where buildings and density are rising.  Stormwater capture and conveyance are built into the street design, and a management council of landowners and residents along Green 4th Street will oversee maintenance “above city standards” as a newly established 501(c) 6 corporation.   The area is guided by local“Transit Oriented Development” and “Livable Community” ideals, making walking, biking, and transit the healthy and easy choices.
  • Climate Protection – A green canopy, pollinator gardens, stormwater swales, engineered soils, and native plantings establish Green 4th Street as a stewardship model.  Adjacent community gardens foster urban agriculture and community connection for neighbors.

Community

Towerside is succeeding in some areas of placemaking and falling sorely short in others.

Minneapolis and St. Paul, like other US cities, share a traumatic history of racial inequities across housing, education, health outcomes, policing, and economic opportunity due to redlining, restrictive racial covenants, and other forms of systemic racism.  Those patterns still divide us.  Minnesota has the largest achievement gap between white students and black, indigenous, and of-color students.  In Minneapolis, the rate of black homeownership is the lowest of any US city with a population of over 1 million residents.  And as a white woman, a descendent of European immigrants, I recognize that my privilege in this place is predicated on genocide against indigenous people and an economic system founded on stolen land, enslaved labor, and a too-long-running narrative of white domination.

So how do I help Minneapolis and St. Paul heal?  How do I city-build and place make so that increasing diversity leads to inclusion, tolerance yields to authentic representation, citizen engagement invites joy, and my privilege makes way for prosperity for more people?

We have a long way to go to accomplish Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community,” a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings.  My training as an EcoDistricts Accredited Professional guides me, the work of Towerside propels me, and the bur oak tree in my front yard inspires me:  she reminds me that resilience leads to longevity; she teaches me to stand tall in the sunlight of truth, to safeguard and comfort others, to honor the scars we hold, to partner broadly, and keep going.

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