Then & Now: Downtown Duluth

I just spent the weekend in Duluth, which is a fascinating city for anyone interested in urban design and Minnesota history. Walking along the riverfront always makes me wonder how to better connect the city to the lake. It turns out I’m not the first person to have thought about that topic. The history of how we designed and built a freeway through downtown Duluth is long and compelling.

Here’s an excerpt from a wonderful chapter on the Duluth I-35 process from a planning grad student in Texas:

The moral of the Duluth freeway story is that the urban freeway does not have to be a destructive influence on the inner city. In fact, it can have the exact opposite effect. Says Duluth I-35 Citizens Advisory Panel member Bill Abalan, “I-35 led to a renaissance of Duluth’s downtown.” This is because the city and its citizens took the opportunity to turn something potentially destructive into something that added value to and improved the quality of life of the entire community. Says Worley of his creation (Lake Place) “I like going down to the lakefront and seeing people enjoy it” (Rekela 1995: 5-9).

The Duluth story in many ways typifies the dynamics of the urban freeway in America, and there is a lot from the Duluth experience that can be learned. Architects, city planners, engineers, politicians and anyone else who are concerned about the urban environment must see to it that solutions such as those reached in Duluth – cooperative methods of planning and such “pro-urban” methods of freeway design – are commonplace, so that the conflicts and delays experienced by Duluth before the freeway’s construction are avoided. As Kent Worley states, the design of freeways is a “people problem – not a car or highway problem. We are not treating the real problem – only putting on bandages” (Worley 1998).







In my opinion, the way the freeway was built had good and bad effects. On one hand, it created a connection to the lake from the East (North) part of the city. On the other hand, many buildings were torn down to complete the extension. Duluth has a lot of geographic and demographic challenges, but is Minnesota’s most unique and beautiful city.




Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.

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