Last month I came across the Chanhassen St. Patty's Day Half Marathon race in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The race timed nicely with my training plan and offered a technical zip up and beer glass for entering so I signed up. I also thought it would be a good opportunity to explore one of the Metro areas second ring suburbs.
It took just under half an hour to drive from my house in the northern Metro, to the race in the southwestern suburb. The striking contrast between the first and second ring suburbs was all the available space. About half way there, the landscape began to change. Driving along Highway 100 in the north was similar to a roofless tunnel. The sound barriers protecting the dense urban neighborhoods on either side blocked any views. After transitioning to a highway to take me out west, the barriers were replaced by large commercial buildings, slowly giving way to fields dotted with new residential developments.
Chanhassen has an estimated population of 25,332 (2015) and a density of 1,122.9 people per square mile. Columbia Heights, the first ring suburb I live in, has an estimated population of 19,715 (2015) and a density of 5,717.3 people per square mile. That is more than five times the amount of people per square mile, which is very noticeable as you drive from one city to the other. Imagine if they had the density of Columbia Heights or even Minneapolis (7,485 people per square mile).
As I mentioned, the race began at the high school and wound east and then north, doubling back, overshooting the high school to double back once more to the finish. The map showing the route appeared to run along highways and city streets, however the actual route was nestled among the numerous residential developments recently constructed or currently underway.
The trails I ran on were bordered on one side by massive single family homes and the other by beautiful wetlands. It was easy to see why these developments were selling out given the serene views they provided. I pondered the thought of how much of the wetlands were removed to make way for these developments. While programs are in place to provide for wetland protection and programs to install wetlands elsewhere or pay into a fund if they are removed, the mere removal of the wetlands alters the landscape greatly. If some were removed from these residential projects, they did a good job of maintaining a large area of wetlands to provide a glimpse of the native habitat. The wetlands will likely protect the houses from flooding issues like those that attack homes in Minneapolis along Minnehaha Creek each year.
I couldn't help but notice all the grass within these residential yards. The trail provided a clear division between native and man made. The fertilizers placed on some of the yards had clearly washed over the trail, leaving behind a stain before moving on into the wetlands. As a Master Water Steward in training, I imagined all the ways these property owners could better manage the stormwater on site. A beautiful rain garden, some rain barrels with decorative chains to capture and irrigate the large swath of lawn, or even a vegetable garden to supplement their food consumption in the summer. These installations would reduce runoff, lowering the chemicals needed to keep these large yards dark green year round (that was the striking observation, green yards in March when most Minnesota lawns look dead), entering the wetland.
After 1 hour and 49 minutes of wandering through the low density suburb, I felt like I had a better understanding of the outer suburbs. Planners like to talk about density because it makes efficient use of city infrastructure such as roads, sewer and water lines, and transit, but density doesn't work everywhere. In the inner ring, more density could be accommodated an is preferential. More apartments in Minneapolis and St. Paul makes sense. But to take the existing density of Chanhassen and multiply it to match the density of not even Minneapolis, but Columbia Heights would mean a population of 128,979 people for this suburban city. In these outer suburbs, planners and city officials should focus on well thought out and sympathetic developments that offer views, beauty, and flood control by maintaining natural wetlands and rivers. Planners in the core can focus on density.