Why haven’t The Lakes inspired imitation?

The quality of life we tout here in Southwest can be summed up in two words: The Lakes.

Where's the first place you take out-of-town guests to see the best Minneapolis has to offer? The Lakes.

Where do you go when you want to celebrate? The Lakes.

Where do high school prom dates go to cruise and have their photos taken? The Lakes.

If it weren't for The Lakes, Minneapolis would be, as the saying goes, a cold Omaha. The lure of The Lakes kept enough middle-class citizens in the city to avoid the white suburban flight that devastated Chicago, Detroit and most other northern cities during the 1960s.

The astounding vision a century ago by a small group of citizens created an amenity that keeps Minneapolis stable and healthy today. Their vision was simple: take the greatest good Minneapolis has to offer -- a series of lakes within the city limits -- and offer them to the greatest number of people.

So they ringed Lake Nokomis, Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles with public parks laced with public paths. Any citizen can enjoy their splendor. Private residences don't squat right on the lakeshore, but are pulled back across the street, facing the lake over a continuous strip of public park, open to all.

These early city planners also understood a key bit of human psychology: it's both fun and satisfying to traverse all the way around something. Think of how enjoyable it is to walk all the way around Lake of the Isles, for instance, versus how frustrating it is to only be able to walk part way around Cedar Lake, where the path is blocked by a few private homes directly on the lake.

Minneapolis's Chain of Lakes isn't the way development usually works. Usually the greatest good -- like lakeshore property -- is sold to the highest bidder. This might be called the "I got mine" development model. Every lake in the communities surrounding Minneapolis (with the exception of St. Paul's Lake Como) is ringed with private property. Yes, there may be a token public park or a public access point somewhere on the lake, but typically, only those who live directly on the lake are allowed to enjoy its splendor. Try walking around Medicine Lake in Plymouth or Lake Owasso in Roseville and see how far you get.

And those communities suffer as a result. While lakeshore property is enormously valuable and forms a solid tax base, houses even a block away don't benefit. Either you live on the lake, or you might as well take the bus to Lake Calhoun.

In Minneapolis, by contrast, entire neighborhoods benefit from proximity to The Lakes. The lake effect on property values extends in all directions, creating a strong and stable tax base for the city. Minneapolis has done well by doing good.

All of which begs the question: why hasn't this idea of public lakes inspired more imitation?

The concept couldn't be simpler: ring a lake with public park, open it to all, and surrounding neighborhoods will enjoy high property values. Any developer can understand that formula. The added value should more than offset the costs of creating and maintaining the park itself.

And this is hardly an abstract, untested idea. We have a full-scale mock-up of this "doing well by doing good" development model working beautifully in Minneapolis. Any developer, mayor, or county commissioner can walk The Lakes and SEE the benefits to both the quality of life and the tax base.

Yet it isn't happening. New development throughout the metro area continues to follow the old "I got mine" formula. Whether it's a lack of vision, a lack of will or just the strength of American individualism is hard to say. But the result is a sad paucity of communal outdoor space.

Maybe I'll go walk around the lake.

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects in Linden Hills. He can be reached at [email protected]