Northfield MN


Northfield, Minnesota, possessing some 20,000 people about a 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities, is a small town that has it all together. But for a fabulous playground, Northfield even has it over Stillwater in the battle of the nearby Main Streets, despite it not winning the Streets.MN poll in 2012. My photos are here.

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What it has:

Can every town be more like Northfield? Probably not. It is the absence of Northfield-ish-ness in all the other towns in Minnesota that enable Northfield to be what it is. If every town had a cleverly titled new and used bookstore, Northfield’s would get somewhat less traffic.

If every town had two colleges, they would all be very small and no one would attend Carleton. But even if every town cannot be quite as nice as Northfield, many probably can get a lot closer.

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To adapt the economist’s words, there is the spatial improvement equivalent of $10 bills lying on the street. (In the rational expectations world of economics, there are no $10 bills lying on the street, because someone would have picked them up already). I think we know better, that there are lots of improvements that can be made whose benefits do outweigh their costs, that are not taken up for lack of thought or attention.

Most towns have rivers or waterfronts, how many take advantage of them as well as the best places you have seen? (Minneapolis misses opportunities, and St. Paul misses them by the boatload).

Many towns have colleges, how many are as well integrated into the community as Carleton College?

Every place around here has the traditional Midwest Grid with some curvilinear streets and new construction on the outskirts. How many are as attractive as Northfield?

Now, Northfield is successful despite not presently having rail transit or direct interstate access. The Dan Patch line has long been proposed (and official discussion censored), which would connect Northfield to Minneapolis via Lakeville, Savage, Bloomington, Edina, and St. Louis Park. While I don’t know whether this would be a successful route (it depends on costs and benefits of course), the point is that passenger rail is neither (a) a necessary condition for successful exurban communities, nor (b) a sufficient condition (judging from some towns on the Northstar line). However, the existence of Northfield is in part due to it once having passenger rail service, from the 1910s until the 1940s, which did shape the urban form it has retained to this day.

When we talk about accessibility, enabling movement is important, but just as important is having some place you want to go to. Northfield excels in the latter.

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11 thoughts on “Northfield

  1. Matt Steele

    Agreed, Northfield is awesome. I was married just outside of town last fall, and I’m in a band out of Northfield that frequently plays in town. Nothing quite like a nice warm night of sipping a beer and playing music on the Contented Cow patio. Northfield truly is a Strong Town.

    Regarding passenger rail, it would also help if we placed rail stations where people actually want to go. Northstar botched this by placing stations in corn fields (Big Lake, Elk River, etc) rather than in walkable downtown nodes that already existed.

    I’d like to see true regional DMU service on the UP Spine Line at some point, especially if it could connect to Des Moines. This could serve Minneapolis, SPUD, Northfield, Faribault, Owatonna, Albert Lea, Mason City, Ames and Des Moines.

  2. Ann Gross

    In fact, Northfield had passenger rail service at least into the 1960s. I chose to attend Carleton in part because I could take the train from my home in St. Louis directly to Northfield (via, among other stops, Faribault, Owatonna, Albert Lea, Davenport, etc.)–other colleges that I considered required changing not only trains but also train stations in Chicago, and I knew I would not be happy trekking across town with several suitcases and book bags! The disadvantage was the schedule; we arrived in Northfield at 6:30 a.m. and were required to attend classes on the first day back–even if they started at 8.

    The only regular transportation to the cities was a rather poky bus–no cars allowed for students.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    As a native Northfielder, I’m pleased to see this article, but I think a more critical eye to the whole of Northfield would have been more interesting. What has new development meant for the older neighborhoods? (Less occupancy, more neglectful landlords buying up older homes.) What has it meant for the main commercial corridor to switch from Division Street to Highway 3? (Jury’s out on this one for me.)

    There’s both a positive and negative in this. On the one hand, I think Northfield made a lot of bad decisions in managing new development poorly, and annexing too much land for sprawl. On the other, it’s interesting that there’s been so much of that, and yet the downtown is still quite vital. This is in contrast to other (former) small towns like Lakeville or even Faribault, where the downtown has suffered more.

  4. Eric SaathoffVagueperson

    Is there an existing article that outlines what thought is about better planning regarding rivers in the cities?
    I agree that St. Paul could do a better job making the river attractive to people more than businesses, but I haven’t seen the proposals.


  5. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    I really like Northfield, and I agree that Northfield would beat Stillwater in a fight any day. The elephant in the room when discussion Northfield for me is always TH3. Everything I love about Northfield stands in complete opposition to TH3, which seems to only distract from the Northfield experience.

    I am curious about people’s thoughts about the Northfield Multimodal Integration Project (beyond the fact that it has a dumb name):

    Full Disclosure: I authored the PM for this project.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I’m glad you bring this up, Reuben. The recent reconstruction of TH 3/Water Street in downtown Northfield a few years ago was a particular loss. It gained some beneficial features (continuous sidewalks and bike lanes), but for the most part, it widened curb radii and added turn lanes and additional free right turns at one of the main pedestrian crossing points. The southern portion is even worse, which was widened in the 90s from a two-lane highway to a 4-lane divided highway. Despite being fully developed until Dundas, it has no sidewalks or even street lighting for most of the length.

      The original Multimodal study included some things that I thought were pretty ridiculous and unhelpful, including a pedestrian bridge at 3rd Street and TH 3 and grade separation of the railroad and W 5th St/TH 19. Pedestrian bridges make the downtown portion even more highway-like than it already is; using one on a four-lane street with a 30 mph speed limit and <20k ADT seems ridiculous. Arguably the TIGER Trail (that you link to) has a similar effect, but I feel more tolerant of this, since it takes advantage of an existing grade separation. My preferred solution would have been traffic signals at St. Olaf Avenue and Greenvale Avenue, but I do think this gives more of an impression of safety to the people who are most excluded now: older folks to want to walk or bike across TH 3, children, and their parents.

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