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? 

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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.