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River Life

Inclusive and Sustainable Rivers

The University of Minnesota is a world-class comprehensive teaching and research university located in a National Park—the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area—overlooking one of the great rivers of the world. Yet the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities is a landscape that is both widely loved and highly stressed.

We see rivers and we love rivers but we don’t really understand them. Our knowledge of what rivers mean is dependent on recollected passages from famous books. Our understanding of how we use rivers depends on there being sufficient water so that those practices are not threatened. Changing climate and social patterns are calling both the ways we use rivers and express our love for rivers into question.

We work to understand the ways we stress the river, how we have expressed our love for it, and what we can do to safeguard its future. Taking strategic advantage of our location along one of the great rivers of the world, we seek to create learning, research, and engagement opportunities that will help establish inclusive and sustainable rivers.

The River Life research project is undertaken in association with the HfE Project on Community Mapping. Our research in Mapping Meaning examines how places that are set aside as representing a community’s value, such as historic sites and parks, can be locations for this ongoing conversation about the meaning of living “here”.

Our contribution to these conversations will take the form of spatial explorations of relations between perhaps dissimilar phenomenon. In the next decades two trends, a changing climate and changing population profiles are likely to cause a broad re-examination of what it means to live well in a particular place. We think that these conversations, which will take place in institutions, small groups, on particular blocks, neighborhoods, parks, and schools are likely to involve water, and they are likely to face directly the fact that the population will become more diverse as time passes.

River Life and the Institute for Advanced Study are convening an interdisciplinary Sawyer Seminar, “Making the Mississippi: Formulating new water narratives for the 21st century and beyond,” to develop a new intellectual framework and supporting narratives to theorize new ways of thinking about water systems. The faculty seminar and parallel public lecture series will take place during 2014-15, with bi-weekly seminar speakers-both local experts and visiting scholars- representing a diversity of disciplinary backgrounds and geographical specializations.

River Life uses social media, a digital atlas, and case studies to define the discussions and practices that will create inclusive, sustainable rivers. The program is open to students from any major, faculty from a host of disciplines, and community partners who are focused on river sustainability and inclusive planning.

We initiate and support research projects, engage student learning both in the classroom and in co-curricular settings, as well as develop programs that reach campus and community partners.

Just as rivers cut across countries, boundaries, disciplines, practices and fields of knowledge, our River Atlas will contain information about rivers all over the world. The River Atlas is organized into a series of curated collections associated with the work and projects of River Life and our partners.