Urban Economies: Going with the Flow

River1j Reading Ed Glaeser's Triumph of the City (which I mentioned in this post on transfer of ideas in cities), I learned that in the year 1816, transporting goods across land in early America cost an equivalent amount to shipping it from Boston to London. The comparative relationship tilted settlement and trade distinctly toward our waterways; construction of the Erie Canal and the Illinois and Michigan Canal completed a loop that connected four corners of the developing country. Between 1850 and 1970, at least five of the ten largest U.S. cities were located on this trade circuit.

Waterways remained critical as arteries to transport commodities and other inputs for trade and commerce; they also provided the doorway through which most entered frontier towns like my place, St. Paul. Over time, comparative pricing and relationships to rivers changed – railroads, then cars and trucks, airplanes, and digital thoroughfares provided radically cheaper modes of overland movement. 

Ports facilitate accumulation of value through transfer of material from one transportation mode to another. In the past, the fact that river ports fronted riverways was only significant in that barge transportation was cost-effective. As freight rail (for long runs) and trucks (for shorter runs) compete with river navigation, many river ports have declined. Minneapolis' Upper Harbor Terminal, for example, has managed falling volumes in recent years, the region's barge traffic dominated by the St. Paul (downriver) harbor.

Today, the relationships of "prices" continue to shift. In particular, the pressure to attract and retain talent is familiar to American mayors and business operators across the country.  In addition to creating recreation amenities, urban riverfronts also create collective open space that draws the eye through the city landscape. When perceived as safe and clean, access to river frontages creates substantial property value and economic potential. In addition to moving things in and out, the role of some riverfronts has expanded to focus on use as open space magnets that  make places more distinct and attractive. 

Our river, the Mississippi, formed and shapes both Minneapolis and St. Paul in important ways. Earlier this year, a team to which I served as regional advisor won the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, now evolved into the Minneapolis Riverfront Development Initiative. I've been engaged for several months managing a project focused on strengthening the connection of downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi via the Gateway. Comparable efforts have been underway in St. Paul over the last twenty years, including the Great River Park master plan developed in the last year. This subject, conveniently, presents an opportunity for field work: I'm looking forward to August visits to Roman river towns Maastricht, Ghent, and London.

Open space and riverfronts cannot by themselves replace key economic functions such as port activities. Still, as larger forces transform cities, the prominence and role of rivers continue to be key in distinguishing prosperous regions.

Photo courtesy of pmarkham/Flickr.

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