Looking closer: the downtown Des Moines River narratives

Date
2004-01-01
Authors
Soo, Wai-Kin
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Landscape Architecture
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Abstract

Incorporated in 1851, Des Moines, Iowa's etymology can be traced back to the longest waterbody in Iowa, the Des Moines River. For decades, retail shops grew on every major arterial east and west of the river, sustaining a thriving neighborhood at the downtown fringes. Downtown Des Moines underwent numerous facelifts during the City Beautiful movement and later through the Works Progress Administration in the name of civility and progress. Similarly, the Downtown Des Moines River was cleaned, channeled, groomed, and dammed for greater civic utilization and aesthetic appeal. The movement of large-scale commercial development westwards marked a gradual transition towards Des Moines' current state of affairs. With the residential fabric destroyed, neighborhoods were carved up into apartments, transformed into businesses or demolished. Likewise the downtown river suffered disenchantment and neglect in the process. Hitherto, the Downtown Des Moines River has become a metonymy of sorts for Des Moines' past inequities, present contradictions, and future dictums. As the city attempts to revitalize downtown again through the Principal Riverwalk Project, the intervention will forever alter, append, or even erase historical and existing narratives implicit in the downtown river. As these narratives encode histories, memories and a sense of place, their propagation is an initiative to engage Des Moines in a phenomenological dialogue with its origins. Correspondingly, downtown Des Moines' future interventions should proliferate these narratives for its own sustenance. Looking Closer hopes to demonstrate how the act of narrative propagation can be a valid form of landscape intervention. Employing historical and literary sources, interviews, photography, film and the film language as inventory and analysis tools, collected landscape narratives were synthesized into a landscape film. The film production process in its essence mirrors the spatial design process in many forms. Looking Closer does not provide solutions nor does it propose physical design interventions. It provides a discourse for designers who wish to engage in film production as a spatial design process. Through this discussion and the presentation of the film, the study hopes to reveal the sense of place and identity of downtown Des Moines to cultivate place attachment, and voluntary stewardship.

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Landscape architecture
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