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A Lake with a View

Glenn Kreag with Survey on wooded trail

Glenn Kreag holds a copy of the open space survey.Photo by Renee Knoeber, reprinted by permission of the Duluth News Tribune.

"My dad said there were two things that kept him from a life of crime: free boxing lessons at the YMCA and fishing on Miller Creek," recalls Mike Furtman, outdoors writer and Duluth author. "My dad grew up during the depression along Duluth's Central Hillside. Even in the 30s it was a rough neighborhood but he was able to hike over the hill, escape the city and his troubles, and spend the day trout fishing rather than making mischief. He became a good productive citizen, in part because of Duluth's open space."

Regarding his own youth, Furtman continues, "I grew up in Duluth's woods. I remember packing a haversack with orange Nesbit and food, and disappearing all day in the forests with my best friend. Duluth's woodlands are an integral part of my history and still influence my life and career."

The city of Duluth, MN, has a relatively large amount of open space compared to many other cities. Roughly 10,000 acres, or 25% of its area, is publicly-owned, undeveloped land. City officials are guided by a vision that states, in part, Our people will work together…to ensure that development is consistent with Duluth's future as an urban wilderness, and are working with Minnesota Sea Grant to objectively examine how residents use and value open spaces.

"Most people say positive things about open space but I was surprised by the intensity of feeling," said Glenn Kreag, Minnesota Sea Grant tourism specialist. Kreag directed a scientifically-rigorous survey for the city to find out how Duluthians perceive open space. The mail survey was conducted by the Minnesota Center for Survey Research at the University of Minnesota.

"I thought more people might say, 'We need additional development,' but we found very few responses supporting building," said Kreag. "In fact, residents thought recreational areas and the preservation of natural open spaces were more important government functions than economic development. A majority were even willing to consider financing the protection of open space through bonding."

Kreag was so determined to produce a quality report for the Natural Resources Inventory Committee, a subcommittee of Duluth's Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), which commissioned the work, that he volunteered to pick up completed surveys himself from people's homes. Although no one tested his sincerity, the media attention generated by such an unusual offer prompted a 42% response rate with the return of 399 completed surveys.

Open space was broken into two categories in the survey: natural and developed. Natural open space included places where native vegetation grows without significant alteration; developed open space included places where the land or vegetation is controlled. With almost unilateral and unanimous support, residents from across Duluth indicated that they value and want to preserve both types of open space.

view of Duluth including open space

96 percent of Duluthians responding to a recent survey agree that views overlooking Lake Superior and the St. Louis River are important and must be protected.

"The results of this survey give direction to the kind of open space that is important here," said Kreag. "It's not just ball-parks and tot-lots. It's also woods and creeks and the natural spaces that people identify with."

The Natural Resources Inventory Committee was organized to generate accurate information to aid city planning. "The city of Duluth considers this work valuable and is committed to finishing this process of evaluating open spaces," said Brian Fredrickson, vice-chair of the EAC. "Duluth is very fortunate to have ten trout streams running within the city limits. There aren't many cities in the country that can claim they have ten trout streams."

There aren't many cities that can claim they are an urban wilderness set along the shores of one of the world's largest lakes, either. Including Duluth, there are only ten cities that Outside Magazine lauded as "dream towns" in 2001. Duluth owes a large part of its magnificence to Lake Superior, a huge open space that can be enjoyed from much of the city. Ninety-six percent of survey respondents agreed that views overlooking Lake Superior and the St. Louis River are an important part of the character of Duluth and must be protected and managed.

Other interesting results of the survey include:

  • 85% of respondents favored an open space system linked with wildlife corridors and paths;

  • 61% felt that Duluth has a reasonable amount of natural open space but

  • 32% thought it needs more; and

  • 84% felt that converting some natural open space to developed land would damage the city's image, character, and appeal.

Echoing the sentiments of many other respondents, one resident succinctly wrote, "Cities with more concrete than chlorophyll bother me."

"Our immediate challenge is to interpret the information that's been generated," said Kyle Deming of the city's Department of Planning and Development and an ex-officio member of the EAC. "We have the survey, which indicates the community's impressions about Duluth's open space, and geographic information systems maps of different types of open space. Now we need to tie it all together. Duluth residents clearly indicated that they believe open space is important, even ranking it more highly with respect to government funding than social services and transit. The survey results will be an important tool in our comprehensive planning efforts."

The survey was funded by a grant from the Northeast Minnesota Sustainable Development Partnership. Results were released to the public during a press conference held in Duluth in early March.

For more information, view Duluth Values Open Space.

By Sharon Moen
March 2002

Return to March 2002 Seiche

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