Snowmobiles on the Greenway

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been thinking about some kind of paper, article, or intervention involving the area known as The Greenway in my hometown of Grand Forks, ND.

The Greenway came into its current form in the aftermath of the 1997 flood when the Army Corps of Engineers removed the housing and other buildings close to the Red River of the North to create a flood zone. This work paralleled the construction of a massive flood wall and a vastly improved pumping system designed to upgrade the structures installed in the 1950s and 1970s to keep the Red River at bay during its unruly springtime floods. This intervention has been spectacularly successful even as the annual floods have increased in magnitude and frequency (6 of the highest flood levels recorded in Grand Forks have occurred since the 1997 flood).

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The construction of this Greenway created a massive park system which the city proudly proclaims is larger than Central Park in New York. The Greenway is set off from the city of Grand Forks (and East Grand Forks) by earthen and concrete flood walls complete with a gates that drop into place when flood waters exceed a certain stage. As denizens of the Northern Plains will immediately recognize the system of earthen walls evokes earlier forms of boundary marking in the region: namely the Plain Village sites such as Double Ditch which featured earthen fortifications. The concrete walls deliberate evokes coursed masonry vaguely reminiscent of those from around the Roman world. 

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There is little doubt that the evocation of military fortifications serves to remind denizens of Grand Forks and visitors to the Greenway alike of the role of the Army Corps of Engineers in protecting the city from the wild waters of the Red River. As a result, the boundary between the settled neighborhoods of the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and the banks of the Red River is, at least symbolically, militarized.

The decision to militarize the boundary between the town and river also reminds the residents of the cities of the role that the National Guard played during and after the 1997 Flood. In this way, it echoes the increasing militarization of national borders which serve to mark out the “civilized” space of the nation from the uncontrolled lands beyond. In fact, much like the formalities of national borders, the flood walls do more than protect the cities from floods. They also serve to tame the Red River by delineating its course through town. Despite the term “Red River Valley,” the Red does not flow through a valley, but meanders along the bottom of a glacial lake bed creating new channels wherever it wants unless some authority external to the local topography brings brings it to heel. Just as our world is created through national boundaries, so concrete and earthen walls create the Red River.

The Greenway, then, is a manifestation of our desire to create order upon which we can construct the foundations for our settlement and community. The capacity of the Greenway to define the Red River’s course and to absorb its unruly waters reifies our efforts to create a clearly delimited space for nature (or space of nature) in clear relation to the space for and of human settlement. This is all the more significant in a region characterized by landscapes devoid of the kinds of stable features — mountains, hills, forests, and even predictable river valleys — that European settlers historically found meaningful for describing (and thereby controlling) their surroundings. The border between Minnesota and North Dakota has moved significantly over the past century owing to the untamed character of the Red River and required legislative intervention.

What the hell does this have to do with snowmobiles?

Well, recently some snow mobile club has asked for permission to create snow mobile tracks in the Greenway. Folks seem generally opposed to this for a series of predictable if poorly considered reasons. 

Some have argued that there shouldn’t be motorized traffic on the Greenway, despite the fact that there are literally roads and parking lots on the Greenway not to mention a golf course with golf carts. In other words, this involves a silly selectivity in how folks understand the use of this space even in the present.

Some have argued that snowmobiles are noisy and this would be a nuisance to folks whose homes back onto the Greenway. This is fair, I suppose, but right now, the snowmobiles zip up and down the Red River on a regular basis (and in the summer months, fishing boats zip up and down the Red River). Maybe snowmobile paths will cause more snowmobilers to use the Greenway creating more noise? This seems possible. 

More interesting, however, is the argument that parks are places set aside for nature. This is undoubtedly true, even if the goal of Greenway is control or even create the natural world or, perhaps better, to protect our desire for stability and predictability from the vagaries of the river. There is no doubt that the Greenway serves as a wildlife corridor and it may be that snowmobiles would upset the deer who bed down along the river’s wooded banks and maybe fluster the fishers, foxes, bunnies, beavers, mice, owls, eagles, hawks, and various other critters that make the Greenway home. On this matter, I remain a bit skeptical mostly because I figure these animals are as drawn to the opportunities of living close to town as they are protected from its vices by the constructed nature of the Greenway itself. 

A bit more interesting still is the idea that people like the idea of the Greenway as natural. The 1997 flood walls created a bit of nature in our backyards. But it’s the GOOD kind of nature. It’s tame, it’s largely peaceful and non-violent, and, most importantly, it is predictable. It’s close to home, but also outside the walls.

(In fact, it’s a bit like parking. We all want parking, but we want the Good Kind of Parking. And no one wants parking lots. We want the Good Kind of Nature. Not the kind of nature that involves floods that trash the entire town.)

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the Greenway provides some of the benefits of nature, especially the kind of nature that European settlers brought with them from more densely populated areas further east. There are trees, for example, marking the course of the river and evoking arborist fantasies of primordial European woods. Like many enclosed parks frequented by leisure seeking settlers, there are also well-kept lawns and enough landscaping to let folks know that this area is safe for children and pets. The lawns and woods are a nice reminder that there are opportunities for chance encounters with a range of critters, but also clearly established rules. Similarly, paths, groomed trails, and pavement pierce the reconstituted patches of prairie grasses and the tangles of riverine undergrowth making it possible to encounter some vestige of the earlier landscape, but even this is safely contained behind the formidable floodwalls.  

Is it reasonable to want to preserve the illusion of nature along the Greenway by maintaining a set of rules and policies that conform to our Romantic expectation?

Yes, it is.

In fact, the Greenway represents in both practical and ideational an effort to bring order to our lived space. This means both defining where were live from places where we don’t or can’t live and ensuring that the places where we don’t or can’t live are available to absorb the vagaries of a world that we cannot (or chose not to control). The Greenway represents the anti-city and despite the sometimes clumsy or exaggerated arguments for its bucolic character, the need to define the city and to preserve civility will always result in the creation of the anti-city.  

Do I care whether there are snowmobiles on the Greenway?

No. I do not.

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