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Boomtown 101: University of Pennsylvania students visit ND to study Bakken from a planning perspective

Press Photo by Katherine Lymn Members of Vision West North Dakota meet Friday at the Dickinson State University Strom Center. Earlier in the day, they heard from University of Pennsylvania students who are studying the Bakken as part of a graduate planning class.

As legislators, city commissioners and consultants debate how western North Dakota can best grow with the oil boom, a small group of East Coast graduate students gave their two cents on Friday.

Halfway through their semester-long course on Bakken boomtowns, 11 students from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design visited Minot, Williston and Dickinson — and some small towns in between — this past week to inform their research. They presented preliminary ideas to Vision West ND members at the consortium’s meeting Friday in Dickinson.

Some misconceptions were corrected when the students set foot in the Oil Patch, they told chuckling locals — the Williston Walmart wasn’t all that scary, they said. And the towns were strong, with a sense of community.

Dickinson State University President D.C. Coston discussed the students’ trip with them before their presentation, and said their misconceptions show his concern: that most of the North Dakota stories that go national are about the most unfortunate parts of the boom.

The students saw each boomtown they visited as having its own identity — Minot as a Nordic culture capital, Williston as the “Boomtown USA” for multiple industries and Dickinson as a hub for many of Ukrainian descent.

Much of what the students presented — for example, about railroad delays, the oil corridor Highway 85 and demands on the water supply —was old news to the members of Vision West, a group created to help tackle problems just like those. But because they offer a fresh perspective, never having been to North Dakota and perhaps not jaded by the age-old boomtown frustrations, the students’ opinions are a commodity, Vision West members said later Friday at their monthly meeting.

“They saw things differently than we do,” said Deb Nelson, administrator of Vision West and president of DLN Consulting Inc.

With plans stretching out to 2040, Vision West Chair Daryl Dukart said, the students took a longer-term look at planning than consortium members like him, a Dunn County commissioner dealing with day-to-day challenges.

Quality of life, to the design students, means being able to go a whole day without starting a car, with cities planned in a way that allows walking between residential and commercial properties, they said. But for the western North Dakota natives, quality of life could mean having a health care center within a 40-mile drive, Dukart said.

Student Amanda Mazie said that in Minot she saw a new apartment 500 feet from a commercial development but with no pedestrian-friendly connection between them.

While North Dakotans in attendance said the state simply has a driving culture because of its expansiveness, students said they may have to rethink that to keep up with the times. To attract new families to the area, Ian Lazzara said, cities may want to be more pedestrian-friendly.

The students presented a long list of ideas for urban development, public-private partnerships and other facets of planning as rapid growth is occurring. Restrict development in floodplains to allow more green space, they encouraged, and leverage public-private partnerships so the private sector can fill in where public resources are scarce.

Nando Micale, a Philadelphia designer and architect who taught the course, said he teaches a spring studio about housing at the design school every year.

“The housing crisis and the development pressures in the Bakken have attracted national attention,” he said, “so I thought it would be a good experience for the students to explore the growth strategies in the area.”

Realizing the value of a group of students devoting a semester to studying North Dakota’s hometown issues, Vision West members debated how best to utilize the students’ work. Some may travel to Philadelphia in May to see the student’s final presentation, which will incorporate feedback from their trip.

Lymn is a reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-456-1211.