The mayor on Duluth’s unique blend of built and natural environment—and on efforts to expand the city’s ongoing revitalization

Interview by Joel Hoekstra

Emily Larson was five years old when she first dipped a toe in Lake Superior and fell in love with Duluth. It was the summer of 1978, and her family had traveled north via passenger train from their home in St. Paul to spend a few days’ vacation in the famed port city. Larson collected rocks on the beach and recalls getting ice cream at a soda fountain. “Duluth, at the time, was not an inspiring city—it was gritty and industrial,” says Larson, now in her mid-40s. “But a kid doesn’t notice that stuff. I was swimming in a hotel pool! I was staying up late! Duluth was a magical place.”

Her enchantment with Minnesota’s fourth-largest city never wore off. Larson later attended the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota Duluth, earning degrees in social work. She married Duluth architect Doug Zaun, AIA, and worked for several years at nonprofits serving individuals experiencing homelessness. In 2011, Larson won an at-large seat on the Duluth City Council, and just five years later, in January 2016, she was sworn in as the city’s first female mayor, having won more than 70 percent of the vote.

As the city’s top administrator, Larson serves as Duluth’s champion-in-chief, promoting new developments and other changes to the built environment that she believes will position the city for continued success. But she knows that preserving the city’s natural resources is key to Duluth’s future as well. “I stayed because of that lake,” she says. “That’s not an unusual story in Duluth. Lake Superior is its own best advertising.” Here Larson answers some questions about city projects, environmental initiatives, and a neighborhood set to make some big strides.

How has Duluth’s built environment changed since you took office in 2016?
There were two projects that I inherited as mayor that are truly reflective of the transformation and future of Duluth. The first was the NorShor Theatre. Our community committed to putting $30 million into renovating this beautiful 1910 building as a centerpiece for downtown. It wasn’t being utilized in a way that brought value: Before its most recent closing, it was a strip club. So, the City of Duluth purchased the structure a few years ago, and this past February it reopened as a venue focused on the creative arts and music. Now it’s the anchor for our growing Historic Arts and Theater District. It has all the grandeur of an old theater—the murals, the grand entrance, the mezzanine—plus all the comforts of a contemporary venue. During an event, it’s a thrill to watch hundreds of people having an amazing time.

Much of downtown is under construction. What’s going on?
We’re moving forward now with reconstruction on that side of Superior Street. We’re redoing downtown’s central avenue in much the same way that Minneapolis just went through its Nicollet Mall renovation. It’s not just a street project; it’s also infrastructure changes. We’ll have quite a bit of street art, and ideally the changes will create a stronger connection to Lake Superior. Sometimes, when you’re downtown, you don’t quite know the lake is right there. Or if you’re on the lake walk, you don’t know that downtown is nearby. The reconstruction will add more corridors for visual connections.

The second big project you inherited was revitalizing the St. Louis River Corridor.
Yes. Duluth is about 25 miles long, and about 12 miles runs along the St. Louis River estuary. We’re investing about $50 million in new housing and projects that promote connectivity to the natural world along that corridor—things like cross-country ski trails and footpaths that connect neighborhoods or provide access to the waterfront. There are roughly 20 different projects going on. It’s an area that the EPA once cited for industrial pollution, but we’re slowly changing that. We’re pouring a lot of resources into bringing the river area back to health.

As a trail runner, you’ve promoted that project heavily.
Duluth is very focused on the natural world. We have 42 creeks that run through the city. About 30 percent of our land is devoted to parks. Some mayors would see that as a detriment, because you can’t tax it or build on it. But I think those parks are one of the best things about Duluth: You have all these green fingers that lead down to the lake.

Duluth has a wonderful and important industrial history, too. I think about that whenever I look at the Aerial Lift Bridge. It’s this beautiful structure, and it’s completely functional. It’s the most iconic thing in Duluth; it’s what people want to photograph when they go down to the harbor. But it’s also very reflective of this community, because while, yes, it’s visually stunning, it’s also about engineering and mechanics.

You’re married to an architect. How has that changed you?
I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the fact that the design of a space can dramatically change what happens inside. Design has a huge influence on people’s emotional connections to their city, and when people have a stronger emotional connection to their city, they take better care of it. They’re more invested in it; they’re better caretakers and stewards.

Practicing architecture, I think, is a little bit like political leadership. You want to set an aspiration out there, but then you also want to move out of the way and let it happen. You know? You can’t be too rigid in that first design. It’s a dynamic process.

As mayor, you’ve also focused on affordable housing.
Over the last two years, Duluth has increased its housing stock by 700 to 800 units, and an additional 180 units will be coming online over the next 18 months or so. Many of those units, however, are attainable only if you have a higher income.

Last year, at my State of the City Address, I announced a priority to invest in a housing strategy that allows us to serve people who earn $50,000 a year or less. That is a big need here, and I think it fits well with Minnesota’s statewide effort to address the issue of affordable housing. Our focus needs to be on creating density and affordability. We’re also challenged by the fact that much of our housing stock is old and requires a significant investment to bring it up to date.

The Lincoln Park neighborhood has been getting some buzz lately. It’s also got your attention. Why?
It’s the geographic center of Duluth. It has everything: an industrial port, an incredible park, and a charming commercial district that has organically begun to attract new businesses like Bent Paddle Brewing Co., OMC Smokehouse, and Frost River outfitters. But Lincoln Park got carved up when the highway went through it decades ago. It has the highest rate of poverty and the lowest life expectancy in Duluth. On average, if somebody is born in that neighborhood, he or she will live 11 years less than someone born in another neighborhood in the city. There are incredibly high rates of asthma. The housing is mostly rental.

It’s a fascinating neighborhood, because it has so much potential and so many challenges. I recently designated Lincoln Park as Duluth’s first Innovation Zone, a neighborhood where we can incubate ideas about connectivity, about the built environment, and about natural-world experiences. It’s a place that would be attractive to companies that are interested in creativity. And as a city, we can give it a boost by promoting public art, creative crosswalks, and community engagement. I want us to invest in affordable housing—perhaps using AmeriCorps volunteers to rehabilitate it—and expand on our energy investments. We’ve already reframed our loan funds for small businesses and storefront renovations to heavily incentivize physical improvements in that neighborhood.

We have to use the tools we have at hand to tell local residents and business owners, “We believe in you!” When a city makes investments—even if it’s just new street signs—it’s a sign that the city has faith in what local folks are doing. I really believe that if Lincoln Park is doing okay, the rest of Duluth will be fine.