@Strib: Twin Cities Gearing Up for Greenways

Minneapolis Concept Routes

In mid-July last summer, gas prices peaked, remaining in the range above $3.50 per gallon until late September, 2008. One consequence of the spike was a boom in interest in commuter bicycling. July traffic on the Midtown Greenway, the principal bike commuter infrastructure in the Twin Cities, was 30% higher in 2008 than the previous year. An average of over 4,100 cyclists per day used the Greenway at Hennepin Avenue.

Greenway traffic diminished slightly this summer, thanks largely to a 40% drop in the price of gasoline. But interest in establishing a network of greenways has continued to rise. Two new efforts – the Twin Cities Greenways Initiative and the St. Paul Greenway Committee – suggest that the many interests who stand to benefit from an effective bike commuter system are joining together to move it forward.

The Twin Cities Greenways Initiative, inspired by the combination of ridership and development in Midtown, is working with neighbors to explore conversion of residential streets to greenways, linked together eventually in a network to link neighborhoods, schools, open space and commercial areas. “As we talk to neighbors,” said advocate Matthew Hendricks, “we find that 90% of them respond very positively to the idea of converting their streets to greenways.” Auto access would remain to homes via the alleys, as illustrated above.

Greenway Base Model 1B

The St. Paul Greenway Committee is stimulating interest east of the river in a facility akin to the Midtown Greenway – to which many in St. Paul have long sought a connection. Led by transit advocates St. Paul Smart Trips, the committee intends to begin planning with neighborhoods, to determine which connections will link high-priority destinations most effectively.

Greenways play a key role in a transportation system where implemented. They also enhance property values – a case proven by numerous studies of comparable cities. Gas prices will rise from current levels in the future, and providing affordable choices for getting around is key to our region’s competitiveness and quality of life.

Greenway Base Model 1D

Note: This post is also available at the Star Tribune, with fewer images. 

All images courtesy of Michael Nelson and Twin Cities Greenways Initiative.

Quantifying Open Space Benefits: Donjek Presentation at MRPA Conference

Today, I am presenting to the annual conference of the Minnesota Recreation and Park Association on the costs and benefits of open space, with Jenna Fletcher, project coordinator of Embrace Open Space. View my part of the presentation here, and see Jenna's presentation here.

Intuitively, we all agree that parks, open spaces, greenways and natural areas have economic value. The real estate marketplace recognizes this: Studies consistently indicate that residential property owners pay up to a 30% premium to live within walking distance of a park. Similarly, access to bike and pedestrian infrastructure such as greenways also boosts property values.


Despite a surge in academic and practitioner analysis of open space premiums, many policy makers continue to view parks as cost centers, as opposed to stable assets that consistently support social and economic activity, as well as tax base, located nearby.

The case for identifying the benefits of open space more effectively is important. In addition to its relationship to residential and commercial property values, local policy stands to be improved by better information about the economic value of the physical activity, non-motor transportation, stormwater management and other benefits.

We have the tools in the form of property data sets and GIS analytics. We have the need to respond to overwhelming budget pressure. And we need urban design that helps rather than hinders our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Each of these factors call for a change in the way we understand, talk and make decisions about the role of open space in our cities and towns.

Learning Land Use Lessons at the Minnesota State Fair

The Fair works.

This year, 1.8 million visitors attended the Minnesota State Fair, breaking the previous record for annual attendance. Our enthusiasm for the Fair is both cause and result of a single fact: For two weeks every year, it’s an incredibly successful place. 

I know the Fair is a seasonal event, a carnival, and that not everything that makes the Fair successful can be applied to Main Street. At the same time, the Fair achieves what those of us involved in redevelopment seek to do with places: Make them economically and socially viable for the long term, and make them work for the people who live, work and visit there. 

3877060792_c2bcbfe0a7_m After 150 years in operation and 125 years at its current location, the Fair is more than viable – it’s vital. What’s to learn?

New and old each have value. The Fair as an institution dates to 1859, and it’s occupied its current site since 1885. Over the last 125 years, we’ve built open spaces, barns, the Grandstand and other permanent structures. Vendor stalls and exhibits have come and gone, changed or remained as timepieces. Others are new this year. In between are incidental spaces to put up feet away from the crowd. We connect to redeveloped spaces with a relationship to their past; they convey authenticity.

Mix it up. Who can imagine the Grandstand without its hosting evening shows while serving as a forum for small merchants below? Placing the Eco-Experience Center adjacent to the petroleum-oriented Machinery Hill challenges us to see the Fair as truly a big-tent event. The land use blends food preparation with political exchange, exhibits for children with crop art, places of religion with bandshells. It also provides an experience for patrons who arrive with a roll of bills, and those who visit on a tighter budget. But the core element of success is its vital (even chaotic) mix, a combination that many of today’s zoning ordinances would discourage on Main Street or in commercial districts.

Reinvest. The Fair’s private and public roles are mixed, too. In my limited experience working food stands at the Fair, the pace – of people and dollars changing hands – can reach a fever pitch. That’s possible because the infrastructure at and around the Fair can sustain nearly two million visits in less than two weeks. State Fair revenues fund operation and maintenance of the streets and the Grandstand, and private investment provides for much of the vending infrastructure. It's all closely located and maximizes the existing systems, meaning that gate receipts can support reinvestment in what's there, as opposed to funding wayward and costly expansion.

As a consultant interested in making places more effective, it’s impossible for me not to take notice of the durable place that is the Minnesota State Fair.

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Keliher.