The proposal to force drivers to divert from Minnehaha Parkway to city streets (“Mpls. set to force cars off parkway,” June 7) is contrary to the historical idea of parkways in both intent and purpose. On June 2, 1883, nationally renowned landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland’s proposal “Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis” was presented to Minneapolis park commissioners. In it, Cleveland set forth the concept and details for establishing the parks and parkways we treasure today. He described the parkways as an extensive and continuous “driving park.” Continuity is a defining element of this historic driving park. Building the forced diversions would do violence to continuity and, arguably, to the historical integrity of the parkway.

At the root of the diversion proposal is the idea that the parkway should be divided into two halves. East of Portland Avenue, continuity of travel would be maintained because of its necessary function for cross-city travel; west of Portland, the parkway does not serve that purpose, so it would be OK to interrupt continuity. This thinking misconceives the idea and purpose of the driving portion of Cleveland’s “driving parks” by focusing on the roadway as a utilitarian element separate from the driving experience through which it passes. The focus on managing traffic ignores the main purpose of parkway space, of which the roadway is a part. It isn’t just a walking and biking park. A principal role was, and ought to continue to be, a continuous driving park.

Cleveland described his scheme further. “The general system … would comprise more than 20 miles of parkways. More than three-fourths would be within two miles of the business center of the city.” He went on to describe a continuous belt of green driving park forming an outer ring easily accessible from downtown and connective to future neighborhoods built on the farmlands around the ring. In 1883, Minnehaha Creek flowed through farmland.

Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted further explained the idea and role of parkways in his Oct. 6, 1886, letter to park commissioners. He was a nationally highly respected expert who produced plans for historic parks and parkways all across the nation. Among them, Central Park in New York and the “Emerald Necklace” of parks and parkways in Boston.

In his letter, Olmsted pointed out that parkways are intended to “become the stems of systems of streets which will be the framework of the permanent residence quarters of our cities in the future.” (W. 50th Street is a stem.) He asserted that a chief purpose of establishing parkways is “to make the means of communication between the new semi-rural residence quarters of a city, and its business quarters of such a character that passage along them shall be a pleasing and refreshing element of daily life.” Our tree-lined neighborhood streets extend that experience.

The parkway is green infrastructure that integrates the fabric of the city. The totality of that parkway space is necessary to give everyone something previously available only to the wealthy with rural estates: an environment restorative from the busyness of commerce as at least a part of their daily travel between home and workplace. We need that now more than ever for our mental health.

The proposed forced right turns would be maddeningly frustrating to those who choose to travel the parkways west of Portland Avenue, avoiding W. 50th Street for part of their travel. The continuity is important to allowing people to choose where they start travel on the parkway and where to leave it to complete their individual commutes or any travel. Forcing destroys any pleasing, restorative experience, making way for feelings of frustration.

The segment of parkway west of Portland to W. 50th should not be subjected to these “fixes.” Once this small segment is interrupted, the historical integrity of the parkway system is damaged. Continuity to Lake Harriet is interrupted.

The intersections of the parkway at W. 50th and at Portland need redesign. We protect the integrity of historic buildings. It is important to protect the integrity of the parkway system.

It’s worth reading “Minneapolis Park System 1883 to 1944” by Theodore Wirth, republished in 2006. In it, Cleveland’s proposal and Olmsted’s letter are reprinted in full.


Robert Sykes, of Hopkins, is a retired associate professor of landscape architecture, University of Minnesota.