Asked to appraise downtown Minneapolis during his first visit a decade ago, Dan Biederman, the godfather of New York’s highly acclaimed Bryant Park, got it just right: “Far too much hardscape and not nearly enough softscape.”
Translation? Impressive architecture but almost none of the natural texture that makes a downtown attractive for humans. He was talking about the canopy of trees and other green elements that downtown Minneapolis, unlike its peers, had somehow left out.
Since then, the city has responded with ambitious plans for a number of downtown parks and plazas as well as a woodsy redo of Nicollet Mall. All of that is needed but doesn’t quite get to Biederman’s point. He was talking less about destinations than about the experience of being downtown. He was calling attention to the absence of green along nearly all of downtown’s harsh, sterile and less-than-ordinary sidewalks.
Finally, this week, the city and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board unveiled a joint planning effort aimed at building and maintaining a network of enhanced streetscapes that would add significant greening along selected streets. “Pathways to Places” would provide a template for, among other things, consistent green walkways, whether funded by public or private sources.
Steve Cramer, president of the Downtown Council, said the effort wasn’t just about aesthetics but about sustaining the current construction boom. Attracting residents, workers and visitors requires the “consistently compelling” pedestrian atmosphere that greener sidewalks would bring, Cramer said. City Council Member Jacob Frey, meanwhile, said the city should move quickly on greening to maximize public benefit from the boom. “I want to bring this down out of the clouds,” Frey said.
That will require money that the city doesn’t yet have. But lack of funding has been only one of many obstacles that, over the years, have prevented a greener downtown. Bicyclists have lobbied for curbside space that might otherwise have gone for plantings. Parking operators have succeeded in keeping surface lots as ugly as possible. Underground utilities have blocked tree planting along many streets.
City crews have objected to aboveground planters because they hinder snow removal — and those same crews continue to pile salt-encrusted snow around the base of struggling trees that die when the snow melts. Jurisdictional conflicts among the city, Park Board and private interests also have undermined several creative solutions.
But resistance to green sidewalks appears to be fading. With each new tower crane on the skyline comes the realization that downtown is changing fundamentally. The old model based on cars, parking ramps and skyways is giving way to new preferences for walking, biking and transit-riding. It’s a generational shift that demands more attractive public spaces. It’s especially good news that the city and Park Board are cooperating on this effort. It will be better news when plants are in the ground and when they’re maintained with the care and expertise that allows them to survive.