Student: John van der Linden ’10
Major: Biology/Environmental Studies concentration
Program: Independent Project
Project: Public meetings about proposed land annexation
Please describe your project.
In 2007 St. Olaf started planning the future of 700 acres of farmland and forest surrounding its core campus. Also, since 2007 the City of Northfield has sought to annex about 1000 acres of land near (and sometimes including) St. Olaf property, part of its plan to provide new space for businesses and industries. I've tried to help students navigate and influence this planning. With other members of Environmental Coalition, I organized 2 public meetings about proposed land annexations. I also helped students respond to the Board of Regents’ 2007 recommendation on how to use St. Olaf’s “non-core” land. Finally, I’ve been a part of St. Olaf “delegations” to city meetings about local land use. At one such meeting, Oles helped eliminate a road realignment proposal that would’ve fragmented the college’s natural lands.
How did you have an impact? What was your greatest contribution?
I would like to think my biggest contribution has been to help “materialize” this issue in students’ minds, to help students (including myself!) think of local land use planning not as some foggy, distant process, but as a vibrant, concrete element of civic life in which we all have a stake. We might not know it at first, but land use decisions directly affect St. Olaf’s endowment, its natural lands, and Northfield’s economic health – which, in turn, affect our quality of life while we’re here. And the decision-makers involved are, of course, not nameless suits, but wonderfully complex and colorful people, including you and I. Hopefully what I’ve done has helped spur debates in the caf, conversations between students and city councilors, thoughts about the value of land – little things that collectively transform how people perceive, approach, and participate in local land use planning.
How did this experience impact you?
I used to be scared of civic life, because it looked and sounded so formal: well-dressed mayors, City Councils, zoning regulations. This formality still makes me nervous in some situations, but the neat thing about Northfield and St. Olaf is they allow you to break through it occasionally, to see that hey, this is a small college town after all, you can go to a contra dance organized by a Planning Commissioner, have coffee with a City Councilor, pull buckthorn with the professors who helped restore St. Olaf’s core land from corn to coneflowers. I have also learned that there are lots of different ways to value land; that people respect you when you speak your mind and let them speak theirs; that politics is always, somehow, a player. But most of all I have come to believe that land use planning is only one of many delightful conversations we may jump into as citizens, a conversation not simply about boundaries and buildings, but about how we move ourselves forward.