Northfield Wins the Silver Medal

Ames Mill and Cannon River, Northfield (Photo David Levinson)

We’re number 2! Northfield ranked second on’s Top 10 list of Most Livable Small Cities (the top spot went to Los Alamos, NM).  It’s fun to win something unexpectedly and gratifying to have an unexpected voice tell the world what a great town Northfield is. Add the additional media coverage around the region spawned by the ranking and Northfield is feeling pretty happy with itself.

But readers shouldn’t be surprised by’s recognition since you could read a post about Northfield more than a year ago noting many of the same assets considered significant in its ranking like Northfield’s colleges, industry, scenic Cannon River, events, historic main street, and proximity to the Twin Cities. readers also advocated for Northfield when Stillwater won’s 2012 poll noting that Northfield was more than “visitable,” but livable.’s 2014 ranking criteria (2013’s criteria are here) seem almost tailor-made for Northfield: amenities like farmers markets, parks, weather, and the role of arts in the community as well as proximity to healthcare (Northfield is about equidistant from Twin Cities’s medical resources and Rochester’s Destination Medical Center), good schools, community involvement, river, downtown, etc. are valued for attracting businesses, investment, residents, and visitors all of which put dollars into the local economy.

From “growth” to “place”

The’s Top 10 list is particularly satisfying because it emphasizes how the conversation has changed in the last decade or so and how this benefits a place like Northfield.  When I joined the Northfield Planning Commission in 2001, the loudest voices shouted about “growth.”  Northfield’s new Target store, additional development along MN 3, suburban-style residential development, the new hospital in the cornfields, the new middle school in the other cornfields, and planning for more edge development were the priorities. Thoughtful voices questioning the impact (economic or environmental) of the low density, high infrastructure development pattern were dismissed as anti-business, anti-development, college liberals who didn’t understand economics.

Since then, the public conversation has been shifting from “growth” to “place.”  More than that, the shift can be characterized as moving from seeking generic growth to valuing particular places.  “Place” has even been described recently as the new American dream.  Northfield with its historic downtown, colleges, and rural edges is particularly rich in distinctive “Northfieldishness” so we should be able to dream big with the increasing recognition that “place” is not just pleasant, but economically valuable in multiple ways.’s ranking reflects the interdependence of distinctive attributes and economic value:

  • Downtowns like Northfield’s, with multi-story, mixed use, zero-lot line development pattern use land and infrastructure efficiently and pack more value on less land as well as being visually distinctive. Distinctive downtowns are desirable, too, and Northfield is held up as a role model.
  • Carleton and St. Olaf, criticized as non-property tax paying entities in the “growth” conversation, are recognized as huge contributors to Northfield as a place.  Colleges are large, stable, high quality employers; provide cultural offerings which help Northfield punch way above its weight, add a much more diverse mix of voices to the community conversation, bring thousands of people to town as students, parents, and visitors and sends them out as alumni who may return with their families or businesses.
  • Natural advantages like Northfield’s rural edge Cannon River, Carleton’s Arb and St. Olaf’s natural lands (colleges, again!) are taken for granted under the “growth” scenario or considered as ripe for development, but are valuable to attract visitors and sustain residents, contribute to the environmental and physical health of Northfield (and its connected watersheds and wildlife corridors).  Businesses build on these assets, too, from kayak rental to our own pizza barn.  The Mill Towns Trail has been working to connect Northfield to both the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail and the Cannon Valley Trail to ride from Mankato to Red Wing.
  • Events both huge (like the Defeat of Jesse James Days – come to Northfield September 5-7) and smaller (but more frequent Riverwalk Market Fair each weekend) bring community members together, readers to Northfield, and pump dollars into the local economy.

Why rankings matter

Northfield seems to have it all, but small cities like Northfield need the kind of recognition and reward the ranking provides and provides without the placemaking jargon, too.  Northfield has its place-rich center and colleges, but still has lots of room to sprawl (as well as the usual regulatory and financial incentives to encourage this development pattern).  Close to downtown, WalkScores are near perfect (my address scores 98), but the edges of town are car-dependent.  Interest in connections newer, low-density development to schools and downtown with sidewalks, bike friendly streets, and trails costs money and often faces citizen opposition.  Economic development conversations reveal tension between the “growth” mentality and the lower cost, place-based, locally grown initiatives. Northfield is a wonderfully livable place, but sometimes struggles to build on its success.

Media recognition of the value of being Northfield and not Faribault, Lakeville, St. Paul or even Stillwater helps build the critical mass needed to support policy and decision-making which reinforce the distinctiveness of the city and gives a vote of confidence for continuing to advocate for public investment in Northfield’s low cost, high performing assets.

6 thoughts on “Northfield Wins the Silver Medal

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I agree with what you’ve written, but I’m troubled in seeing that the political reality of Northfield city government (especially since the last election cycle) does not seem to reflect it. As we discussed in person last Friday, Northfield has not really had a good public or quasipublic building in decades. To this unfamiliar, this trend can be seen most recently in the new police station, in a sidewalkless industrial park, and a new YMCA, which in both location and site plan seems to be designed to discourage kids from walking and biking there. The 2000s saw massive capital un-improvement projects with the downtown Middle School moving to a rapidly suburbanizing cornfield, and the hospital moving from a traditional neighborhood to a different, more permanent cornfield.

    So in a town that cares deeply about its downtown, that cares about conversations like this, why do we continue to accept (and sometimes build ourselves!) low-quality, low-value spaces on the fringe of town?

    As a related thought: if you were to poll the current council, how many would say that Target/Cub, the Middle School, or the hospital were a mistake?

  2. Betsey BuckheitBetsey Buckheit Post author

    Perhaps because the people who care about conversations like this are not always participating in discussions beyond or the local coffeehouse or they don’t get beyond talk? I’m still looking for ways to engage the people who celebrate the new hospital and middle school to discuss some of the impacts. Hoping all you younger folks who grew up in disconnected suburbs who care about places you can walk and bike (and not just around the cul de sacs but TO places) will help.

  3. Nathanael

    That cornfield hospital is a complete disaster. Apparently it absolutely requires a car to visit someone in the hospital.

    NOT COOL in a college town where most of the students don’t have cars.

    1. Nathanael

      By the way, I recently scheduled a Carleton club reunion event in the Twin Cities rather than Northfield. One of the major reasons:

      – there is no way to visit Carleton without a car (no hotels except the Archer House are really walkable, and that’s not handicapped-accessible)
      – Carleton cannot accomodate an influx of a whole lot of cars

      So the event goes to the Twin Cities. Along with the visitor spending money.

      This was avoidable. But there’s been a fundamental disconnect between Carleton’s “discourage cars” policies and Northfield’s “force everyone into cars” policies which created this.

    2. Nathanael

      (So, if a college student goes to the hospital, now their friends basically can’t visit them. Honestly I’m a bit surprised Northfield hasn’t been hit with a lawsuit over this. The city needs to make that hospital accessible by foot, and it needs to do it now, with whatever funding is in hand. Honestly, they should lay off policemen if necessary, this is more important.)

    3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      The hospital is actually located on the St. Olaf campus (although northern parcels that the college leases). It’s an easy walk from Manitou/New Ytterboe Hall via the service road that goes up to North Avenue.

      It’s also about a fifteen-minute walk from the bus line. And there is a sidewalk/MUP, although for some inexplicable reason it does not actually connect into the hospital, even though it was built solely for the hospital. Not great, not close to great, but it is possible to access the place by foot.

      There were reasons why the city wanted to place the hospital in “metro” Dakota County. But I’m not sure why they didn’t pursue the site at North Avenue & Cedar, which would nearly be on the bus line, and would at least be adjacent to existing development. The city owns a small bit of the corner, which is a pump station. St. Olaf (who leased the land for the hospital) owns the rest. Would have been working with the exact same property owners.

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