Can We Save the Suburbs? A Look at NSP’s Living Streets

As of recently, a good deal of attention has been given to re-examining the way we perceive the design of our suburban streets.  While this idea of ‘retro-fitting’ our sprawled cities has come about for various reasons, in particular, the notion of storm water management has become of rising concern in Minnesota’s land of lakes.

To combat these issues, the city of North Saint Paul (NSP) is among the Twin Cities’ suburbs to create a Living Streets ordinance. NSP’s mission in creating Living Streets, also known as complete streets, or green streetsis to, “preserve the important function of accommodating traffic, parking, and underground utilities, but additionally improves accommodations for pedestrians, bicycles and nature in the form of street trees and rainwater gardens.” To alleviate the effects that NSP’s development’s has on the Phalen Chain of Lakes (particularly Kohlman Lake, listed on Minnesota’s PCA list of impaired lakes), on-street vegetation is particularly important for living streets in creating measurable impacts. One of the most popular ways of including street vegetation, to withstand stormwater, is through rainwater gardens. Raingardens are intended to divert water running from the driveway to the street, and filter it naturally, as it is soaked into the ground. In addition to providing a natural water purification system to the built environment, these gardens also add aesthetic value to the community, creating diverse landscapes within a neighborhood (as seen in the image below).

North Saint Paul Rain garden

NSP’s rain gardens serve as a natural water purification system and a neighborhood commodity.

Will this be enough? Will adding connecting pedestrian-ways and gardens to help combat the environmental issues associated with suburbs justify their growth in the future?  Although it is clear that the automobile is still the center point in these type of developments, as seen in the declaration to preserve the important function of automobile traffic, its crucial to note that the Living Streets ordinance, and similar policy work around the country, is part of some of the first planning work in the last half-century to consider both the role of both ecology and pedestrians in their community.  As the image below clearly displays, this is a step in the right direction, and begs us to question, where can innovative policy and design work led us next? 

Screen shot 2014-01-29 at 11.06.53 PM

Comparison of existing street scape and proposed design, including on-street vegetation and pedestrian ways.

Images by the City of North Saint Paul’s Living Streets Plan. Data linked to sources. 

Abbey Seitz

About Abbey Seitz

Abbey Seitz, Minnesota native, is a professional urban and regional planner based in Honolulu. Her experience in planning and community organizing in Hawai’i has played a distinct role in her writing, leading her to question why and how places, cities, and regions came to be as they are. She recently released her first book, Perseverance Flooded the Streets.

16 thoughts on “Can We Save the Suburbs? A Look at NSP’s Living Streets

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post Abbey. If I remember correctly this was a fairly comprehensive plan for the entire city. Do you know how far along they are on implementation? Projected timelines? When I go through NSP it still seems as uninviting as ever.

    1. Abbey SeitzAbbey Seitz Post author

      Thanks Walker! I’m not exactly sure where they are at in terms of implementation. As far as I know their hoping to begin the first phases in the Casey and Silver Lake Area. Defiantly a lot of work to be done, but there are defiantly areas of the city that have good neighborhood backbones. I am conducting research with the area and the Living Streets Plan for a class I am taking this semester, so I’m anticipating doing a follow up post when I’ve done more investigation into this proposal.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    How is accommodating traffic an important function of a street? It should be “accommodating traffic” insofar as it is possible after the street has been properly designed as a framework for the creation and capture of value.

    I’m glad NSP is taking a look at this, but the way in which we view our streets is a life and death issue.

    A few months ago, an elderly man died on 7th Avenue in NSP as he walked from the traditional-development-pattern downtown two blocks away to his residence. It’s a street designed as a rural county road: Ditches, wide traffic lanes, shoulders, a clear zone. No sidewalks or paths. No side friction. It’s a highway design (not a street design) that encourages drivers to go 40-50 MPH.

    But the speed limit is 30 MPH. There’s transit service on this street. Nearly every block has a skewed intersection. And the street doesn’t even serve a regional function – TH 36 is a few blocks to the north and will soon be a full access-controlled freeway with interchanges serving each end of the traditional-development-pattern core of NSP.

    The reality is that highway design standards on streets was the primary cause of that man’s death. I hope NSP planners think twice before they think a primary function of their streets is to accommodate (vehicular) traffic.

    1. Froggie

      More like RURAL backroad design standards, not highway design standards. One thing that a lot of people forget is that North St. Paul is a “legacy town” (for lack of a better term). Like Hopkins, Osseo, and Excelsior, it’s a town that has existed for decades but has been swallowed by suburbia. The old street design is likely a reflection of its decades of existence that just never bothered to be updated.

    2. Abbey SeitzAbbey Seitz Post author

      Thanks for the input Matt. It was interesting to me as well that they would put “accommodating traffic” as a crucial element of the mission, when much of the rest of the plan is defining how to create pedestrian oriented communities. NSP’s main street, institutional spaces, and lake and park districts show elements of complete streets, however like you said, are faced with challenging obstacles in hwy 36, and the influences of 694 on the north end of town.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The images are interesting, because they’re the same ones used in Maplewood’s Living Streets plan. (Perhaps unsurprising, since it’s a Ramsey County authority that’s helping the cities with these.) I was very impressed with Maplewood’s plan, and in general approve of the changes — although it is troubling that we continue to build expensive features like continuous curb and gutter and stormsewer, even as we find less-expensive, more environmentally friendly solutions for stormwater. (In general, the designs are “belt-and-suspenders” — there is a curb cut for the rain garden, but if it reaches capacity, the stormsewer becomes a backup.)

    I have a lot of hope for cities like North St. Paul, West St. Paul, etc that are relatively high-density suburbs built on a relatively intact grid. In those cities, simple changes like installing sidewalks on every street and allowing neighborhood-serving commercial can make a dramatic difference in improving livability. For the Eden Prairies of the world, there are also solutions to be found, but they’re considerably more invasive and radical. The prewar and immediate postwar suburbs are truly the low-hanging fruit.

    1. Jessica Schaum

      Sean- every city has to consider stormwater on every road project. It is an inescapable reality. Most cities probably consider all the options for treatment. I’ve heard cities say that handling stormwater management is nearly as expensive as the pavement portion of the road. Many residents have no idea how expensive these BMPs can be to engineer, install, and maintain. Cities themselves are still coming to realize this with pond dredging costs from the last generation of stormwater infrastructure.

      Curbcut raingardens are a great option (in right soils + locations) but can try the most excited environmental educator to get the residents to comprehend why, how, and then determine maintenance responsibilities. (And dare I say enforcement of maintenance thanks to new MS4 permits?).

      Groups like BlueThumb and MetroBlooms have worked really hard to usher in sexy raingardens and it is catching on – which I couldn’t be happier about.

      Sure, we all could do more- with plans, road designs, policies, or more education. Let’s keep these successful projects/programs in the news, but not forget that every city faces a million stormwater challenges and has to deal with and pay for them – whether they are a big city, small city, suburb… if you have designs that are less expensive and more environmentally friendly – we would welcome them!

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Yes, Jessica, but my complaint is simply that we’re coming up with gold-plated solutions for something that really is not that complicated. Large tracts of Bloomington and Edina simply don’t have curbs. Sometimes there are small ditches for the water to go into, and other times it just soaks into the boulevard at the edge of the pavement. Sometimes there are puddles, but given the low speed of traffic on minor residential streets, hydroplaning etc are not really risks.

        So while it’s great to see solutions that keep stormwater out of stormsewers, it seems a little ridiculous to take the simple, classic version of that solution and replace it with an expensive stormsewer trapping device (curbs) and then provide another solution (curb cuts / rain gardens) for the problem that’s just been created.

        Why not keep it simple?

        1. Jessica Schaum

          Do they not have curbs because they haven’t been reconstructed in decades? Once they are it will trigger adequate stormwater management. To my knowledge, uncontrolled sheet flow off of flat pavement into adjoining properties is not allowed by watershed districts or the MPCA when creating/improving impervious surfaces.

          Residents here finally getting a new street want to be sure that the water doesn’t end up in their yards or flood out their homes. We are tasked with making the effort to avoid that with the best infrastructure and engineering available without an astronomical cost. We try innovative things where applicable, but in suburbs curbs (of varying styles) are the expectation. Maybe we should invent a Living Curb, yes?? 🙂

          1. Cliff Aichinger

            Jessica is correct. Streets without curb (rural section) are only on streets that were constructed in the 50s and not rebuilt yet. Curbing is a way to control runoff and stabilize the edge of pavement. It has been proven to extend the life of the pavement and it make the roadway easier to maintain. A narrowed street (less imperviouness) and the provision of infiltration BMPs (raingardens, infitlration basins, filtration systems, etc.) provide for a significant reduction in overall runoff volume. This moves us toward restoring the natural hydrology that we have changed due to urban development. The modern street design is costly, but when doe correctly, it can last for 40-50 years and provide for better control of localized flooding.

            1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              If it extends the life of pavement and makes it easier to maintain, why isn’t curbing (or at least flat curbing) used in rural areas?

              If it’s an environmental issue, why are agencies permitted to build alleys and MUPs (even ones about as wide as narrow streets — think Midtown Greenway) that don’t have any curb and gutter?

              1. Nathanael

                Money. Rural areas like to build roads “on the cheap” and maintain them poorly. Bluntly speaking. It also makes it easier for snowplows if there are no curbs.

    2. Abbey SeitzAbbey Seitz Post author

      Yes I believe NSP and Maplewood’s plan are very similar as well, and with Maplewood being a few years ahead of NSP, they will most likely take some similar steps as Maplewood. Because the two areas are somewhat similar in terms of population, age, income, geography, etc, they are hoping for similar support for implementation.

      1. Cliff Aichinger

        The Maplewood and NSP Living Streets Plan/Policy are similar because Maplewood used the NSP plan as a model. Maplewood is far ahead of NSP because the Maplewood City Council recognized the city-wide benefits. Maplewood is also ahead of NSP because they agreed to construct a demonstration project using grant and matching funds from the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. NSP refused to construct a demonstration project and the District offered the funds to Maplewood. Everyone needs to understand that not all residents are or ever will be enthraled with all the Living Streets design elements. There will always be a vocal group that oppose sidewalks for a number of reasons (don’t want to shovel, never had them before, feel they are an intrusion on their yard, etc.), but if cities want to be truthful about encourage a more walkable, bikeable environment, that is also safer for children and elderly, we need sidewalks on streets or at least on primary pedestrian corridors and to provide safe routes to schools. Raingardens are also opposed by some, becaue they feel they are unsightly or difficult to maintain. We are solving these early issues by changes in design and more understanding about proper location, construction and maintenance needs. A key element of implementing this policy is to be committed to public education. These are new concepts and not understood by the current city residents. Information needs to be provided on the benefits to residents and the city. Some residents “get it” and need to be involved in these projects to get the city staff and council to understand that it is a desireable project. Don’t let the vocal minority hold back needed progress.

  4. Sanciai

    I think that adding pedestrian-ways and gardens are not enough to reduce environmental issues, some further measures, such as promoting the benefits of physical activity.

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