Monday, February 11, 2013

Heritage Trail of Public Health


At the eastern edge of downtown Minneapolis, the Mississippi River Heritage Trail leads past some of the most important historical structures in Minnesota. At strategic points along the path, informational kiosks are provided to point out these structures and to highlight some of the significant events that occurred in the area. As I walked part of the Heritage Trail this weekend, I was struck by the numerous evolutionary (and sometimes revolutionary) changes that have occurred along this short stretch of river. Hiking the Heritage Trail was like taking a short course in the socioeconomic history of Minnesota.

The crown jewel of the Trail is the beautiful Stone Arch Bridge which was built by James J. Hill to allow expansion of his railroad empire into new territories. However, with the declining importance of the railroad in the country’s transportation system, the bridge became superfluous and stood idle and unused for many years. Twenty years ago it was refurbished to provide bicyclists and pedestrians access to both sides of the river and the historical treasures located there.

The rise and decline of the lumber industry is chronicled along the east side of the river. Spurred on by a bountiful supply of timber from the north woods and the easily accessible energy created by St. Anthony Falls, the Minneapolis lumber industry flourished and great fortunes were made until the supply of trees was depleted. In a relatively short period of time, Minneapolis went from being the leading producer of wood products to being a mere historical note in the evolution of the forest products industry.

The kiosks on the west bank of the river record the evolution of the flour industry in the area. They point out the flour mills of Pillsbury, General Mills, and the Washburn Crosby Company that made Minneapolis the center of flour trade in this county. They particularly note the building that, at one point in time, was the world’s largest producer of wooden flour barrels. Also noted is the fact that the barrel company went out of business four years after reaching that pinnacle; cloth flour sacks were invented and the market for flour barrels disappeared almost overnight. 

The final link in the Heritage Trail is the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. While providing thousands of cars daily access to the state’s largest city, the bridge also provides pedestrian access to the city’s earliest history. Because of the bridge, someone can travel from the oldest to the newest buildings in the city in just a few hundred paces. As I took those paces, I paused to watch the water of the Mississippi River flow under the bridge. The constantly flowing and ever-changing river reinforced the message that I had slowly assimilated during my brief walk along the Heritage Trail - the message that change is an integral and unavoidable part of our existence.  It is part of our history, it is part of our present, and it will be a part of our future.

Nowhere is that change more evident than in the field of public health where, on a daily basis, we see the emergence of new problems like fungal meningitis, ehrlichiosis, type 2 diabetes in children, and Alzheimer’s disease among others. At the same time, we are faced with budget deficits, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and discussions about the role of government in health; all of which greatly impact and change what we do.  

As we work our way through the 2013 legislative session, I wonder how we, as a state, will respond to these challenges. Will we be like the Stone Arch Bridge - a symbol of a vision limited to being a “railroad” and not a “transportation” industry? Will we be like the lumber industry that uses up all existing resources, leaving ourselves no support for the future? Will we be like the flour barrel company that couldn’t meet the challenge of a better and more efficient way of delivering a product? Or will we be like the Hennepin Avenue Bridge with a longer term vision that links the past with the present and is periodically refurbished so that it can continue doing important tasks well into the future? And can we be like the Mississippi River which fluidly responds to all the forces on all sides while continuing to set its own steady course to the sea? 

Long range planning and having a vision for the future we would like to create is vitally important but how we prepare ourselves to respond to the unpredictable and immediate outside forces is just as important. Although many of these forces are beyond our control, our responses are not.  How we respond will be part of our Heritage Trail linking our present with both our past and future. I am confident that at MDH we can embrace and integrate both a short and long-term vision of public health and effectively articulate that vision to state policy makers. Because of that, I look forward to walking with you down that Heritage Trail of Public Health with smiles on our faces while creating smiles on the faces of all Minnesotans as we go.


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