New Urbanism? Think Watershed

By Louis N. Smith and B. Aaron Parker

In Minnesota, the phrase "quality of life" has for decades signified a successful mix of the economic and cultural progress of our nation's large urban centers with an equally passionate attachment to life at "the Lake."

As urban planners strive to maintain this balance between economic growth and preservation of our natural environment, the buzzword is "New Urbanism," the idea that we can develop or recreate vital neighborhoods that maximize concentrations of residential and commercial uses, while still preserving open, natural spaces within those neighborhoods. The key to success with this approach is to restore a vital sense of connection between the land and the water – in a word, to think "watershed."

There is good reason to worry about whether the Twin Cities metropolitan area can maintain the quality of our natural environment. The Metropolitan Council predicts that there will be 650,000 more of us living within the metro area in 25 years. We will need some 330,000 new dwelling units to accommodate this expanded population.

The traditional approach for delivering new housing, workplaces, transportation, and service infrastructure to accommodate such growth is expansion of automobile-oriented development, sprawling into agricultural areas. The metro area has sprawled into its current form one small piece at a time. We have grown through a myriad of small developments, each insignificant in itself, but profound in their aggregate effect, to the point that our current path is no longer sustainable.

The economics of capital and maintenance costs for infrastructure, the elimination of productive agricultural land, the decline of the urban core and inner ring areas, and the destruction of our natural systems are prices too high for us to pay going forward. The arithmetic of growth through the year 2020 means that affording the real costs of accommodating our increased population while sustaining any sense of our "quality of life" will require a "New Urbanism" approach. We must concentrate development within the current growth boundary, and at the same time restore, preserve and enhance our natural systems.

Merely maintaining the existing acreage of natural and open spaces will not be sufficient to accommodate our increased population. A cohesive, integrated expansion plan for our natural systems must be in place ahead of the development demands from competing uses. And this is where we must reconnect land and water.

For the past 150 years, the development of the metro area has degraded our lakes, streams, and wetlands. More pavement and other hard surfaces has meant more stormwater runoff that collects more phosphorus-laden sediments that drain into our lakes and streams through storm pipes, rather than filter through the ground. This "non-point" source of pollution, stormwater, is now the leading source of water pollution in the United States.

The global decline of water quality due to urban development is a profound preoccupation locally. Residents in numerous local surveys identify water quality as the number one concern for improving the quality of their neighborhoods. The lakes, rivers, creeks, and wetlands that abut our residential areas are vital amenities in our pursuit of Minnesotan "quality of life." Simply put, clean water – along with the natural ecosystems and wildlife is supports – is a critical component of a healthy neighborhood.

Restoring water quality involves a new public understanding of the connection between our activities on the land and their impact on the water. We must consider ourselves not only residents of our particular municipality, but also citizens of our watershed. We can take pride that the essential framework for this watershed approach was crafted by the Minnesota Legislature in the 1950s. The Watershed Act recognized that water does not adhere to political boundaries and, thus, allowed for the establishment of "watershed districts" as local government units bounded by hydrologic divides as opposed to political borders. As a result, lakes and streams and the land draining into them can be regulated by one local entity with a central comprehensive vision for managing the entire water resource.

The Watershed Act also recognized that regulation of land use within a watershed is an essential component in protecting and preserving the water resources within the watershed. Watershed districts supplement municipal land use regulation with an exclusive focus on water quality and flood control in a manner designed to avoid the problem of pushing the detrimental effects of development downstream.

Watershed districts provide a more workable and rational means of financing improvements for water resources. Typically, local municipal jurisdictions lack the necessary resources to fund critical improvements designed to restore water quality or provide flood control for local lakes and streams. Assessing the costs across the entire watershed that contributes drainage to these lakes and streams provides a more equitable and effective approach.

Watershed districts, as local entities with boards comprised of local citizens, provide an effective means of engaging citizen ownership and management of valued local water resources. "Watershed" constituencies also provide the opportunity to set aside urban-suburban divisions, and unify interests that are found within the same hydrological boundary.

While only about one-third of the state is presently organized into watershed districts, the Minnesota "watershed approach" is now the national model and new hope for effective management of water resources. As James Fisher of the National Watershed Coalition has said, the intimacy of small watersheds is the key to their restoration, because at this local watershed level every individual can make an impact – we replace Big Brother with Joe and Jane down the creek.

One visible demonstration of the watershed approach can be found as we recreate and restore wetlands to treat stormwater runoff before it enters our lakes or streams. In St. Paul, an exciting restoration is underway to convert Phalen Center to the Ames Lake Wetland, providing a new natural amenity to connect Phalen Village and Phalen Park while filtering urban stormwater. The Minneapolis Clean Water Partnership has restored one wetland system near Cedar Lake, and is now planning to create a wetland system for Lake Calhoun. Other examples can be found in the effort to "daylight" streams that previously were diverted into underground storm sewers. Several initiatives currently underway in Swede Hollow would re-establish the historical daylighted course of Phalen Creek through the Hollow, enhancing water quality as it provides a beautiful park amenity. Bridal Veil Creek, Bassett Creek, and Shingle Creek all provide similar opportunities in the Twin Cities.

A watershed approach is not simply a matter of restoring and protecting our "quality of life." Thinking "watershed" is also about dollars and cents. Restored lakes, streams, and wetlands bring a marked increase in property values. More importantly, if we arrive at the year 2020 without an enhanced, integrated system of waterways, greenways, and open space within the metro area, we will have sacrificed what Jacob Riis called the "lungs of our city." And as our "lungs" decline, so too will our attractiveness as an urban center to the best and the brightest, rendering our region less economically competitive in the global marketplace.

We can accommodate our projected growth and thrive economically in the decades ahead if we re-kindle our sense of connection between land and water. We will succeed if we can begin thinking of ourselves as residents and active citizens of our watersheds.

—Louis Smith is a water resources and land use attorney with Smith Parker, PLLP. Aaron Parker is a principal of Metropeligo, an architecture and urban design.