Banking on Success: St. Paul, Minn.'s River Plan - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Banking on Success: St. Paul, Minn.'s River Plan

flickr user dan (cc)

St. Paul, Minn. has created a plan for their stretch of the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River is an integral part of the St. Paul, Minn. community, which has a population of 297,640. Located along the northern stretch of the Mississippi, St. Paul is one of the first major cities that interacts with the major river both recreationally and economically. Due to this close connection with the river, the City of St. Paul created and approved a comprehensive river development plan in 2013 titled Great River Passage: A Master Plan for Saint Paul’s 17 Miles of Mississippi River Parklands.

Nuts and Bolts of the Plan

The Great River Passage Master Plan was initially conceived by the city of St. Paul in 2010 due to the decline in industry along the river. The City saw this change as a time to reinvent and improve the river’s identity by making it a fully functioning healthy community with  diverse uses and opportunities. The St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department led the  plan committee, which included leaders from many other city government departments and the nonprofit Riverfront Corporation. A consultant team led by Wenk Associates and Hoisington Koegler Group helped to create the project plans and implementation processes presented in the master plan.

Prior to the master plan, the Great River Passage was a city park system that encompassed a variety of parks and recreation areas along the 17 miles of the Mississippi in St. Paul. This 17-mile stretch of the river contains a variety of unique natural ecosystems. Each park within these ecosystems was managed as a separate, unconnected entity. The river’s industrial past also resulted in negative environmental impacts and unattractive landscapes, which in turn led the city to ignore the riverfront.

To elevate these issues, the Great River Passage Master Plan focused on integrating and managing these parks into a single ecosystem through natural, urban, economic and sustainable projects, thereby bringing positive attention to the many ecosystems that encompass the river system.

The three major goals of the Great River Passage Master Plan are to make the river “more natural,” “more urban” and “more connected.”  Within each major goal the plan outlined specific goals as follows:

“More Natural”

  • protect natural resources
  • restore streams
  • improve stormwater quality
  • preserve natural areas
  • increase nature-based recreation

 “More Urban”

  • create gathering places along river
  • increase tourism and recreation opportunities
  • promote redevelopment that improves neighborhood livability and river access
  • balance the "working river" with environmental and recreation needs of the community

 “More Connected”

  • link the in place city network with the river
  • improve river and park access
  • integrate history, culture and art with the "Great River Passage"

Planning Process

This plan builds off of previous plans implemented in St. Paul, including the Mississippi Development Framework in 1997 and the Great River chapter in a 2007 updated development report from the original 1997 report. These plans and the intact system of smaller parks represents the historical commitment to the river and the community it supports. The current plan consistently acknowledges the cultural, industrial and natural history of the river.   

Throughout the planning process many stakeholders and public comments and opinions were taken into account before creating the final plan. More than 60 local community leaders, businesses, local groups, non-profits and organizations were able to provide input and recommendations on the plan through project and consultant meetings. Site interviews and visits were also conducted to allow input from community members that are unlikely to attend public meetings. Three public meetings, three design forums and multiple special interest focus groups were held at different stages of the planning process to receive feedback on the plan and its goals. Many of these comments and feedback summaries are provided at the end of the plan.

After revising the plan using public and stakeholder comments, the plan committee created a final comprehensive master plan document, outlining the major goals mentioned above, plan recommendations and ideas on how to implement the plan. Throughout the document the City presented specific plans and designs for projects such as parks, roadways, marinas, recreation areas and natural areas. This final draft was approved by the City Council of St. Paul in April 2013.

Overall, throughout the planning process the social and political feedback seemed fairly positive. A large section of the public already appreciate and use the river and welcome appropriate improvements. The large undertaking of 17 miles of riverfront did leave some members of the public questioning how much would get accomplished from the plan, though they reacted positively to the ideas. Politically, since the project was spearheaded by the city Parks and Recreation Department along with other government departments, the local politicians were generally in favor of it but now need to acquire the funds to complete the projects suggested. The plan does suggest potential revenue sources, including general city funding, grants, sponsorships, real estate revenue from city-owned land and programming fees from venues within the Great River Passage.

After the Plan

The plan discusses how a new division of the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Dept. will be created to oversee the Great River Passage as one park as opposed to many small parks in place before the plan. This new division will implement the master plan, manage the land within the Great River Passage, and develop revenue for the projects. The Great River Passage Division will lead other government agencies and private organizations during implementation to ensure consistency. To date the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Dept. is in the process of securing funds through the state Legacy Amendment funds to create the Great River Passage Division. The St. Paul plan is also missing measureable metrics to assess the implementation completed by the new division.

Since the release of the original plan document in 2012, an updated version was released in 2013 with the addition of details on planning process and specific ideas on implementation from the Metropolitan Council, a regional government agency of the Twin Cities and the surrounding metropolitan area. There is also a website about the plan where the public can comment on a variety of topics. The website provides brief overviews of the plan and access to the complete plan but it does not seem to have been updated since 2013, limiting its continued use. The page has many informative comments posted during the process of creating the plan but limited to no detail on the current status of implementation of the plan.

Presently, the St. Paul Parks and Recreation department has made some progress on implementing the plan without the creation of the operating division. An interpretive plan has been created to kick start the implementation of the projects within the master plan. Grants and state and federal money have been received to start constructing a nature center, a trail system, and regional parks along the river. Other projects outlined in the plan are more uncertain due to limited funding and resources. Since the plan is only two years old most of the progress is focused on acquiring the funds to implement the master plan with specific project planning and construction to come soon.  

Lessons for Chicago


  • built upon and improved already existing projects and properties
  • sought out public and stakeholder input throughout the process from the idea stage to the final document


  • identified few to no metrics for evaluating progress of the plan once implemented

Implementation Strategy

  • managed river property and parks as one continuous system
  • planned projects for the long term over the next 50 years


  • delayed creation of the Great River Passage managing division



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