Redevelopment in the Age of the Anthropocene
The term ‘Anthropocene’ was born out of a proposal by Paul J. Crutzen, Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist, to rename the current geological epoch in light of finding evidence of human activity in the earth’s geological record. The Anthropocene is an acknowledgment of the force that humans, along with technology and capitalist structures, have enacted in transforming the earth beyond natural earth processes and systems. Put simply, it calls attention to the ways — destructive or not — that humans have altered the natural environment, accelerated by the Industrial Revolution, and it considers the environmental crisis a direct result of human activity.
Drawing from Bill McKibben, Ursula Heise, and Jennifer Fay, the Anthropocene has been interpreted in various ways. This paper is interested in exploring two main responses to the idea of the Anthropocene: does the Anthropocene, as a cultural concept, prompt humans to renegotiate and re-imagine our relationship with the environment and species? Or, does the Anthropocene allow you to simply recognize and acknowledge human-caused environmental degradation, and in just doing that, it relieves you of any responsibility to try to fix it?
To better understand the Anthropocene, I analyze it within the context of a major private redevelopment project currently underway in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Supported by the City of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, this project seeks to transform the Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT) from an assortment of abandoned industrial structures existing along the Mississippi River to a 48-plus-acre recreational site. To the extent that this UHT project attempts to incorporate the industrial sites into the new design and neglect the environmental impact of the UHT, I contend that this project helps us understand the Anthropocene as a way for humans to be complicit in the environmental degradation.
The UHT is located primarily between 33rd and 40th avenues in Minneapolis, and it is composed of various industrial structures: docks, a warehouse, storage domes, a grain elevator, conveyor system, office buildings, and support structures; these industrial structures helped to support the UHT as a barge shipping terminal for many decades and eventually, in 2014, as a storehouse for commodities (upperharbormpls.com).
This area has not always been in use for industrial or commercial purposes. The land originally belonged to the Dakota First Nation, but through a treaty in 1851, the area transferred from indigenous ownership to various businesses, and finally, to the City of Minneapolis.
From a historical survey of the Upper Mississippi Harbor in 2007, the UHT was deemed eligible to be listed both in the National Register of Historic Places and as a Minneapolis landmark (upperharbormpls.com). The historical significance of the UHT stems from “the role the site played in the City of Minneapolis’ decades-long effort to have two new river locks built that would make Minneapolis, not St. Paul, the head of navigation on the Mississippi River” (upperharbormpls.com). In other words, the significance of the UHT is not the extensive management and manipulation that humans have subjected the Mississippi River to, nor is it the documentation of the environmental degradation that industrialization has caused in this area, but the legacy of industrialization.
The UHT project’s desire to privilege the industrial history rather than raise awareness of the impacts it has on the environment suggests that the Anthropocene, in this context, is not a re-imagination of humans’ relationship with the environment, as proposed by McKibben. In McKibben’s interpretation of the Anthropocene, humans are constructed as central agents in the renegotiation or re-imagination of humans’ relationship with the environment. It invites us to consider the current moment, how we got here, and where to go next. It opens up the possibility for a shift in power dynamics, where the environment or nature can reassert domination and authority. The UHT project, however, does not re-imagine humans’ relationship with the environment. By choosing to highlight the industrial history of the site, the UHT project reaffirms the hierarchy of humans as masters of the earth. A redevelopment project of this scale necessitates invasive environmental management and intervention. If the UHT project embodied McKibben’s understanding of the Anthropocene, the redevelopers would focus on minimizing environmental effects, thus allowing the environment to reassert authority. This is clearly not a priority for the UHT project.
According to the City of Minneapolis, the overarching goals for the redevelopment project are to create a unique regional park and recreational space for community members and to preserve the history of the UHT. The City of Minneapolis is working with private developers and seeking community input to carry out this project. Plans for redesigning the site attempt to preserve and adapt the industrial structures into deindustrialized sites. For instance, a few ideas for reconstruction are: “Beer fermentation tanks in the grain elevators, with an adjacent taproom; Aquaponics in the warehouse or possibly parking for a major riverfront destination; an indoor recreation center and climbing wall in a dome, leading up to a zipline that would follow the existing conveyors” (upperharbormpls.com).
Another goal of the UHT project is to “showcase ‘green,’ sustainable approaches and features” (upperharbormpls.com); however, the proposed plans and preparation phase suggest that environmental sustainability is at best an embellishment to the project rather than a central goal. The reconstruction ideas discussed above promote consumerist and capitalist behaviors (which are ultimately anti-environmental), and although the zipline would facilitate interaction with nature, it could instead be invasive to the environment. The plans do not mention whether trees will need to be cleared for the zipline to be implemented. Instead, the private developers spearheading this project (United Properties, Inc., THOR Development, and First Avenue Productions) have investigated the site for any environmental conditions — such as presence of hazardous materials or groundwater contamination — which would act as major challenges or barriers to redevelopment (upperharbormpls.com). On the other hand, it appears that no studies were done on the negative effects that redevelopment would have on the environment itself.
This again helps us understand the type of response that the Anthropocene generates in the context of the UHT project. The acknowledgement of humans’ mastery over nature could, as suggested by Heise, further prompt an increase in environmental management and surveillance. In fact, this could be an accurate description of the UHT project, as it has prompted testing and documentation of environmental conditions. However, drawing from Heise and Fay, the intention of this type of intervention would be purely for the benefit of the environment, to study the environmental crisis and how earth systems have been affected. In this understanding, then, “the Anthropocene confronts us with the fact that we need to learn how to live and die in an unpredictable and increasingly inhospitable world” (Fay 11). In accepting the destruction that humans have caused, one response, as described by Heise and Fay, is to apply the same tools and technology that have contributed to the destruction to figuring out how to adapt and possibly even reverse some of these inhospitable conditions. Yet, the UHT project does not express concern for the effects of industrialization on the Mississippi River. If it did — if Heise and Fay’s interpretation of the Anthropocene would apply — then the redevelopment plan might include rewilding or de-extinction efforts, where technology would be implemented to reshape ecological systems in such a way that would allow the environment to better thrive in the age of the Anthropocene (Heise 212).
Instead, the redevelopment of the UHT appears to be a gentrification project to enhance the appeal of North Minneapolis, where the UHT is primarily located. In addition to beer fermentation tanks and a zipline, the proposed plans also include “a themed restaurant, photo studio, planetarium or other use that could take advantage of the large open space in a dome” (upperharbormpls.com) and an “8,000 to 10,000-seat riverfront amphitheater” (uproperties.com).
It is important to note that the primary private developer involved in this project, United Properties, Inc., does industrial, office, retail, healthcare, and senior living development projects.
While the City of Minneapolis recognizes the racial and economic inequalities of North Minneapolis, the UHT project’s plan to alleviate them is not convincing: “Given its size and key riverfront location, the redevelopment of the UHT site offers the opportunity to positively impact North Minneapolis through the provision of a major new regional park amenity as well as adjacent private development that will benefit the community” (upperharbormpls.com). Besides discussing affordable housing, the UHT project points to Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge and Betty Danger’s Country Club, among others, as similar redevelopment projects in North and Northeast Minneapolis that supposedly have had positive impacts on the residents (upperharbormpls.com).
Given that the UHT project aspires to preserve the legacy of industrialization and that the proposed amenities seem inaccessible to a majority of the residents living near the UHT, it has implications for which audience the redevelopment project is meant. It does not appear to be solely in the interests of the residents of North Minneapolis, and it is clearly not attempting to emphasize the environmental effects of industrialization on the Mississippi River. This raises broader implications for understanding the idea of the Anthropocene.
If we accept Crutzen’s claim that we are living in the age of the Anthropocene, which implies that humans have caused extreme environmental degradation, then, drawing from McKibben, anything not actively being done to address and reverse the environmental crisis is thus considered a complicit acceptance of human-caused destruction. As the UHT project is not focused on the environmental impact of the redevelopment, it supports the interpretation of the Anthropocene as an opportunity to recognize the negative impact that humans have had on the environment — and not take any substantial action to address the environmental crisis.
My critique of the UHT project extends even further. From analyzing the process, goals, and proposed amenities, it does not seem that the City of Minneapolis or the private developers even recognize the negative effects that human intervention has had on the land surrounding the area or the Mississippi River. Instead of creating beer fermentation tanks and an indoor recreational facility as a way to preserve the industrial history of the UHT, the goal of the project should be to raise awareness of both the industrial and environmental impacts of this 48-plus-acre site.
Crutzen, Paul J. and Schwägerl, Christian. “Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos.” Yale Environment 360, 2011. Retrieved fromhttps://e360.yale.edu/features/living_in_the_anthropocene_toward_a_new_globa_ethos
Fay, Jennifer. Inhospitable World: cinema in the time of the anthropocene. Oxford University Press, New York, 2018.
Heise, Ursula. Imagining Extinction: the cultural meanings of endangered species. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016.
Madrigal, Alexis, C. “What We’ve Done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer.” The Atlantic, May 2011. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/what-weve-done-to-themississippi-river-an-explainer/239058/
McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: making a life on a tough new planet. Times Books, New York, 2010.