Landscape Advocacy for Duluth’s Urban Waterfront

by Jordan van der Hagen, Associate ASLA

A freeway cap in Duluth
Gichi-Ode’ Akiing, formerly Lake Place, is a freeway cap connecting the eastern part of Duluth’s downtown to the Lake Superior waterfront. / image: Jordan van der Hagen

How advocates for landscape architecture have shaped and are continuing to shape the waterfront of Duluth, Minnesota

Landscape architects are uniquely equipped to take on the challenges of the 21st century, but these challenges won’t always fall on our desks. We can easily point out problems in the built environment of our cities; we care about these issues and are trained to solve them; but more often than not, it takes somebody with a check to get us moving in any meaningful way. As problems in our cities continue mounting, we as landscape architects and designers can show the public our capabilities and commitment to the health of our communities by becoming landscape advocates, something which has proven successful in my city of Duluth, Minnesota.

A Bad Idea

The city of Duluth lies where the Great Lakes begin. Lake Superior stretches out from its shores towards an infinite horizon, while the city’s downtown straddles steep hills abutting the waterfront, creating a sort of urban amphitheater with the lake taking center stage. In spite of this visual relationship, the city and the waterfront have been historically disconnected from each other in the physical capacity. Industrialists were quick to develop the city into the world’s farthest inland port, and with this development came the privatization, and then pollution, of much of the city’s waterfront. Eventually economic tides turned and the port began to retract into the harbor, leaving a shoreline of scrapyards and dirty water, the perfect place to build an interstate highway—perfect according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) planners, at least.

By 1971, Interstate 35 had blasted its way through the western portion of Duluth, demolishing hundreds of homes and businesses before ending at the far edge of downtown, but the route’s planners weren’t finished yet. Plans were released showing the freeway continuing through downtown, across the east side of the city, and up the shore of the lake. While the idea of any extension of I-35 was itself controversial, the plans they released to the public created an uproar within the community that would last for decades.

Early plans for I-35’s eastern section in Duluth showed the freeway continuing up the shore on an elevated breakwater to be built in the water itself, creating a massive concrete wall between the city and the lake. Given the current condition of the waterfront, MnDOT planners and a fair portion of the public figured the city wouldn’t miss out on much, but many recognized how devastating this could be to the future of the city, including local landscape architect Kent Worley, ASLA.

Interstate 35 travels under four separate freeway caps as it travels through Duluth’s east side. / image: Jordan van der Hagen

Grassroots

After seeing MnDOT’s concept for I-35, Kent quickly wrote an impassioned letter to the city mayor, Ben Boo, speaking about “the loss of knowing and experiencing Duluth’s rocky Lake Superior shoreline at a personal and human scale” while asking for alternatives to be considered. All the while, the freeway became a major concern for the public at large, and more people began to recognize the potential of Duluth’s waterfront (and the way the I-35 plans ruined that potential). These people came together around Kent’s alternative vision for the freeway. He formed the “Citizens for Integration of Highway and Environment” (CIHE), a grassroots collective of locals who sought to pool their skills and resources to find and advocate for an alternative solution for the freeway, mostly as volunteers. Weeks had been poured into design, advocacy, and research in order to find a way to preserve access between the city and its waterfront, when a relatively new idea came into play.

Aerial view showing Duluth’s downtown and Canal Park separated by I-35. / image: Google Earth
Interstate 35 is much harder to locate on Downtown Duluth’s east side thanks to a series of freeway caps. / image: Google Earth

During the late 70s, freeway capping wasn’t nearly as commonplace as it is today, with only a few examples existing around the United States. Recognizing the success of the few freeway caps that did exist (Seattle’s Freeway Park in particular), the CIHE’s solution called for the creation of four freeway caps along Duluth’s east side, allowing for the freeway to extend eastward while also maintaining a level of waterfront access and preserving a number of historic buildings and public spaces along the way. It also called for creating a new public space on top of the freeway, Lake Place, which was to be a grand public park for the city and its people to connect with the lake. They successfully advocated for a “multiple-use study,” one of the first examples of a freeway being planned and evaluated based on more than just its ability to handle traffic flow. This cleared the way for the CIHE’s concept to become a reality, and for the most part it did.

An Incomplete Solution

The new and improved design of I-35 won awards, spurred new development, and created a sense of accomplishment for the community at large. The process and design of the project became a case study for countless other cities exploring ways to overcome infrastructure barriers within their communities. The excavated rock from the freeway caps and tunnels would be used to create a public beach along the city’s Canal Park neighborhood, reclaiming the space for public enjoyment. Along this new beach a multi-use path was built, creating the Lakewalk, one of the most widely-used public amenities in the city. This also led to the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood. Warehouses were converted to shops and restaurants, scrapyards to hotels, and an unfriendly place became one of the most visited spots in the state of Minnesota.

As the neighborhood grew and thrived, the absence of a few notable “missing links” from the original design would become more evident.

The original plans called for five freeway caps to be built along the I-35 corridor in Duluth. Only four of those caps ended up being built, and one of the four only partially. The not-quite-completed Gichi-Ode’ Akiing (formerly Lake Place) was built without its intended connection to Duluth’s main drag, Superior Street, creating, in Kent’s words, “a park without a front door.” Today, a series of less-than-direct boardwalks serve as the only means of accessing the park from the downtown side. Further west, the fifth cap which was to connect the densest part of Duluth’s downtown to the city’s convention center and waterfront was omitted entirely. These missing links have created a situation in which the primary means of traversing between the downtown and Canal Park areas is via two dangerous freeway off-ramps at Lake and 5th Avenues, where one day while trying to brainstorm ideas for my design thesis I was nearly hit by a vehicle.

History Repeats

A problem that personally interrupts your life can have a strong instigating effect on getting a person to find a solution. When I was nearly hit by that vehicle, I recognized the problem instantly. The freeway on- and off-ramps of downtown Duluth were built for a specific period of the city which has since past. The modern growth of activity along the waterfront and Canal Park areas is not reflected in the 1980s-era design of the freeway infrastructure, yet because of the connections omitted from the original design, it serves as the most direct and clear path between these spaces and the city’s downtown, putting countless people in harm’s way as vehicles, bikers, and pedestrians are all funneled into this bottleneck where lanes overlap sidewalks and drivers think they’re still on a freeway.

The solution is simple: fix the bridge, right? But what if the downtown waterfront doesn’t even need the bridge? What if the downtown waterfront doesn’t even need the interstate?

Today, I-35 hasn’t lived up to the expectations placed upon it. The city’s population dropped off considerably from the time the freeway was planned to when it was built, leveling off around 85,000 people. Nearly 40,000 people had left the city since the initial proposal for the route was released, and that drop is reflected in the freeway itself. While I-35 and associated infrastructure occupies 20% of all the space within the outline of Duluth’s downtown, it doesn’t even handle 50% of the traffic volume it was built for. Meanwhile, older parts of the freeway are reaching the end of their useful life, and replacement projects have gone considerably over budget. The picture being painted by local planning organizations speaks of “limited resources” and the need to “right-size” our infrastructure. It seemed many stars were aligning for the city to reconsider the necessity of its downtown interstate, so an opportunity to show what the city could look like sans-freeway emerged.

A rendering highlighting the abundance of green space and new development opportunities that become available by converting the interstate to a parkway. / image: Duluth Waterfront Collective

After completing my thesis and moving to Duluth, I formed the Duluth Waterfront Collective, a grassroots group of locals who seek to pool our skills and resources to find and advocate for an alternative solution for the freeway, mostly as volunteers (sound familiar?). While our city is full of documents which state exactly what we are advocating for, none of them have gone the extra step to show people what the things they’re proposing could actually look like. Our “seeing is believing” approach to community engagement has proven successful. We created an initial concept internally, put it out to the public fully knowing it wasn’t perfect, and then asked the public to help us get it right. The “living concept” maintains a cycle of putting out concept graphics, encouraging people to get involved, utilizing new perspectives to tweak the concept, and repeat. Our monthly meetings, which are open to anybody, started out as a few people from the planning and design fields. It has since grown to include environmentalists, artists, accessibility advocates, transportation nerds, business owners, economic developers, college students, and various stakeholders, including the City of Duluth, the local metropolitan planning office, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation. It’s not just landscape architects who care about landscapes; the average person just doesn’t realize yet why they care.

Pedestrian overpasses will be utilized in areas of high traffic. / image: Duluth Waterfront Collective

Landscape Advocacy

The growth of groups like the Duluth Waterfront Collective and the Citizens for Integration of Highway and Environment are not unique to Duluth, but provide a good example of how landscape architects can create change within their communities outside of traditional office roles. We are trained to recognize issues in our environments, make them relatable and important to the community, and engage with them to find solutions. This is not so different from any other form of advocacy, and is just as important.

By removing the freeway, Duluth can inject the north woods into the heart of the city. / image: Duluth Waterfront Collective

In a time when people have been especially separated, whether by social distance, political division, or any other means, public spaces can help us break down divides and bring people together again. The ability of a landscape to bring together people of diverse backgrounds is clear to us as landscape architects, but only by acting as landscape advocates can we make it apparent to the general public and the leaders of our cities who have the power to make the changes we seek. This means writing letters, forming coalitions, and using our skills to show people the value of investing in public spaces. In Duluth, it will take much more time, effort, and resources to create these sorts of spaces where today Interstate 35 lies, but just by meeting as a broad collective to discuss and advocate for a shared vision for our city, a sense of community healing has already begun to emerge.

Overhead view of the space between Duluth’s downtown and Canal Park. / image: Duluth Waterfront Collective

The current iteration of the Duluth Waterfront Collective’s concept, entitled Highway 61 Revisited, can be viewed at www.highway61duluth.com.

Jordan van der Hagen, Associate ASLA, is a Designer at ARI (Architectural Resources Inc.) and the founder of the Duluth Waterfront Collective. He also serves as an officer for ASLA’s Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN) and is a member of the Emerging Professionals Committee.

One thought on “Landscape Advocacy for Duluth’s Urban Waterfront

  1. Kent G. Worley March 15, 2021 / 1:16 pm

    This article is so timely and so well done that its grandfather originator from 1970 is speechless. KGW Duluth 1967-2007.

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