What is the North Shore to You?

By Annamarie Rutledge

March 16, 2020

Northern Minnesota communities are deeply dependent on water resources for tourism, recreation, and industrial uses. Water and other natural resources in this region are changing because of shifts in climate and land management in ways that may affect the resilience of communities and the resources they depend upon. Funded by Minnesota Sea Grant and supported by the Natural Capital Project, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Center for Changing Landscapes, and Great Lakes Design Lab, this project sought to integrate biophysical, social, and economic data with partnerships including local units of government, regional resource managers, recreation and tourism professionals, and local business owners to meet the needs of key stakeholders.

Generating Stakeholder Values Through Design

How can we assess which water-related concerns and values are most important to stakeholders on Minnesota’s North Shore? Which priorities should be targeted to address the most pressing threats and to create resilient freshwater social-ecological systems? We looked to address these questions by using a multidisciplinary approach to bring stakeholders together in a series of community design charrettes and Q sort assessments.

Example stakeholder collages and associated themes from Duluth community design charrette on May 5, 2019.

A design charrette is a fast, intensive, and creative method that works with designers and specific stakeholders to identify collaborative solutions to a planning issue. This method was selected as a way to generate stakeholder values and provide an open space for free-flowing discussion and expressive mapping. The use of collage in the community charrettes was inspired by landscape architecture, allowing participants to visualize water-related values and start to think about how these issues take on space.

“It represents a method of sharing beyond verbal words,” commented Karen Lutsky, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Director of the Great Lakes Design Lab. “Instead, participants are able to share aspects of values and places that may be difficult to present and understand in a verbal setting.” Lutsky also noted that collaging encourages participants to mash-up scales, which is often absent from traditional mapping methods.

We identified and invited local planners and decision-makers from environmental organizations and governmental agencies, regional tribal and non-tribal resource managers, recreation and tourism professionals, and local business owners to two design charrettes. Primary themes from the collage exercises included fish and wildlife habitat, future generations, regional interdependence, community, water quality, uncertainty, connectivity, and the North Shore as “home.”

Unlocking Perspectives With Q Sort Assessments

We implemented Q sort assessments as a unique approach to investigate the same water values presented in a previous statewide survey. Q-methodology is a technique for prioritizing different value statements and identifying shared value clusters among participants (1).

Example of a Completed Q Sort Assessment

We delivered the Q sort to individuals and then again in small groups following an opportunity for deliberation. Deliberation has been shown to increase participants’ knowledge and shift attitudes in regards to decision-making (2). The method requires participants to rank statements from least to most valued, revealing opinion clusters among study groups (3). After these narratives are identified, quantitative methods can be employed to determine their prevalence in the larger population.

Determining Water-related Priorities in Minnesota

The results of the Q sort generated narratives and typologies informing where water values lie among the study group. “By having participants rank value statements rather than consider each statement individually, the Q-sort gave us a clear picture of how Minnesotans prioritize different water-related issues in the state,” explained Nathan Vikeras, first-year MS-STEP student and Research Assistant in the Keeler Lab. “Q-methodology elicits viewpoints held within a group and establishes patterns across individuals. We were able to identify three distinct viewpoints within the group and uncovered consensus points on clean water priorities.”

Figure 1. Lutsen individual (N=25) and group (N=6) average Q sort values for statements 1-18 (below) organized by altruistic, biospheric, egoistic, & hedonic human values. Error bars represent minimum & maximum values.

1. Equitable access to public waters for all Minnesotans

2. Future generations

3. Ricers to be able to harvest in historically abundant wild rice waters

4. The heritage & identity of Minnesota

5. Minnesota not to send water pollution downstream to other states or nations

6. Habitat for native fish and wildlife to survive

7. Natural systems & processes to be sustained

8. Drinking water that is safe & clean

9. Consistent water supply to water-dependent industries like energy production & agriculture

10. Recreation & tourism businesses across Minnesota to continue to thrive

11. Healthful & natural foods for people

12. Consistent water supply for watering lawns & landscaping around my neighborhood

13. Towns & cities to avoid costly water treatment expenses

14. Beaches & lakes that are safe for swimming & playing

15. Anglers to be able to fish for preferred species

16. High quality recreation opportunities for my or my family’s use

17. Lakeshore landowners to maintain their property values

18. Protection of the scenic beauty of high quality lakes & rivers

The Q sort statements revealed that biospheric (concern for the environment) was the highest priority value category in both individual and group settings, followed by altruistic (concern for others), egoistic (concern for personal resources), then hedonic (concern for pleasure and comfort) (Figure 1). Biospheric and altruistic typologies both had positive mean averages among individuals and groups (more valued), while egoistic and hedonic typologies both had negative mean averages (less valued).

Learning Lessons Through Value Elicitation

This project served as a unique scoping opportunity to try out different methods of value elicitation and engagement. We learned about what Minnesota stakeholders care about and how we may apply similar methods in future research initiatives. Since the community design charrettes, we have conducted additional Q sort assessments with the Clean Water Council and Freshwater Society Board. We have plans to implement assessments in different regions of Minnesota and with different groups of individuals as part of a larger research agenda aimed at understanding clean water values across Minnesota and building awareness and capacity for the protection and restoration of clean water.

The approaches used in this study also lead to questions about how to apply valuation methodologies and interpret valuation studies, as well as how to integrate a range of findings from diverse methods into policy applications. For example, how do “traditional” econometric approaches compare to insights from “alternative” valuation methodologies (e.g. Q sort assessments, qualitative surveys, focus groups)? How does this lead to a different prioritization of water quality objectives? What is the appropriate interpretation of valuation studies? How can we integrate evidence from diverse social science approaches into policy applications?

As the Project Manager, I oversaw this project from start to finish. It incorporated approaches I had never heard of—Q sorts, collage exercises in the environmental policy realm. I saw it as a unique opportunity to integrate biophysical and social sciences. Community charrette participants were engaged and inspired as they dug their hands into arts and crafts to create a personal reflection of what the North Shore means to them. Conversations around the room justified the ranking of certain water values over others during the Q sort exercise. In the end, we were able to identify top stakeholder concerns and values and determine potential priority areas for investment. This work not only advanced value elicitation approaches in an environmental setting, but also strengthened relationships between Minnesota stakeholders through the use of design and group deliberation.

For more information about the Sea Grant project, please contact Annamarie Rutledge at rutle055@umn.edu.


  1. Zabala, A., Sandbrook, C., & Mukherjee, N. (2018). When and how to use Q methodology to understand perspectives in conservation research. Conservation biology, 32(5), 1185-1194.

  2. Berglund, C., & Matti, S. (2006). Citizen and consumer: the dual role of individuals in environmental policy. Environmental politics, 15(4), 550-571.

  3. Valenta, A. L., & Wigger, U. (1997). Q-methodology: Definition and application in health care informatics. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 4(6), 501-510.