Lessons from the collapse

New book explores impact of I-35W bridge disaster and rebuilding process

Several University of Minnesota faculty members have collaborated on a new book, “The City, the River, the Bridge,” examining the impact of the I-35W bridge from a variety of different perspectives.

Experts in history, architecture, community planning and journalism, among other fields, offered insights for the project edited by Patrick Nunnally, coordinator of the River Life Program in the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. The program connects university resources with people working on river sustainability.

As for key lessons from the collapse and construction of the new bridge, Nunnally said: “We’re good at doing things that are fairly short term and urgent. The process by which decisions were made for rebuilding the new bridge, I though was pretty good. … What we haven’t done so well, is think longer term. We responded to the emergency, but we haven’t really rethought how our city might look, if the river was central to it.”

One promising step in the right direction, however, is the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, a contest organized by city parks officials, the University of Minnesota College of Design and the Walker Art Center. A design team from California and Massachusetts recently won the competition, which means they have the chance to work with community leaders on a new plan for 5.5 miles of the city’s riverfront.

The team’s winning design vision calls for wetlands, an aquatic garden south of the Lowry Avenue Bridge and an urban beach near the Plymouth Avenue. A funding plan for the project has yet to be determined.

“We’re better than we’ve ever been [at planning],” Nunnally said, but added there’s room for improvement. “We still don’t really design and build our cities as [if] one of the great rivers of the world is at our heart.”

The book was a follow-up to a 2008 University of Minnesota symposium on the Aug. 1, 2007 bridge collapse and the construction of the new bridge.

Judith Martin, an urban studies and geography professor at the university, noted in the book that the bridge collapse raised the visibility of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area’s presence in the city. Many people didn’t know it existed before the tragedy.

“The I-35W bridge collapse and rebuilding experience is a stark reminder that too often we all stay in our travel ruts,” said Martin, who lives in the Nicollet Island/Marcy-Holmes area and served as president of the Minneapolis Planning Commission for eight years. “We do not normally consider unfamiliar parts of the city to explore. The lenses that we bring to our thinking about cities are formed by our own personal experiences.”

The bridge disaster also provided the university with several teaching opportunities for students.

Nunnally taught a class in 2008 where students studied the community’s response to the collapse. They developed “river stories” for the course, taking unique looks at the Mississippi. He also has a blog called “River Talk” at blog.lib.umn.edu/ione/rivertalk where he muses about all kinds of things related to the river.

As for what he hopes people get out of the book, Nunnally said he’d like more people to take the long view when thinking about the importance of the river’s role in our region. He also noted that Minneapolis really should be known as the “city of water” rather than just the “city of lakes” to acknowledge the importance of the Mississippi.

“I hope they see that if we really take care of the river and make it a really important part of where we are, then it has the capacity to take care of us over a long time,” he said.