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Case Studies 

Division Street/Downtown Northfield




Contributed by 
Kathy Phillipsen
Project for Public Spaces
May 10, 2002
December 14, 2017

With parks, water, sidewalks, historic buildings, local businesses, art and more, this place has all the hallmarks of greatness that PPS discusses.

What makes it Great?

Why it doesn't work?

Northfield's downtown area has all the charm and warmth of cozying up to the fireplace with a good book in late autumn, from the historic buildings to the sidewalks lined with lamp posts to the store owners bringing their merchandise out to the walkways. From the post office (which has maintained its look of yesteryear but been updated to function for the 21st century) to the parks that surround it and the riverfront area, the downtown district encompasses approximately a 10-square-block area along the Cannon River in southeastern Minnesota.

The town has more than 17,000 residents, including those who attend the local colleges of St. Olaf and Carelton. Downtown is the perfect setting for business-sponsored activities, including the holiday shopping event which includes caroling, horsedrawn sleigh rides and lots of "Minnesota nice." There are coffee houses where "everyone" knows your name, and friends and neighbors meet regularly. The Archer House is still used as a hotel and restaurant, and is one of the most popular attractions with its white-rail porch front.

The downtown layout is not just a straight strip of street lined with buildings. Roads curve off here and there, with more business tucked around the corners. There are many variances to the downtown area, and one could spend an entire day checking it out. The Cannon River jogs through downtown and is surounded by walking paths, bridges and parks along its waterfront. In summer, local preforming arts groups put on shows on a regular basis and draw many people. Residents really enjoy the pace of life so many of the activities provide, allowing them to slow down and get together with friends and family. The downtown area really makes you feel as though life doesn't have to be run at high speed every moment. It has kept its sense of history amid the 21st century moving in around it.

Access & Linkages

It blends in well with the period residential homes that surround it and nearby Carleton College. Although a main highway runs two blocks away, it doesn't take away from downtown. It is a popular area for everyone. Northfield does boast a Target store and other modern facilities, but there has been great consideration to preserve the downtown area. If you can walk, jog, bike, or drive, you can get there. There are many paved sidewalks which link to the city and throughout downtown. There is a two-hour weekday parking limit to encourage patrons to walk the area. From the main roads through town, you can certianally tell where downtown is.

Comfort & Image

There is a mix of people in all respects. Old, young, men, women, racially diverse. Downtown is kept very clean, with very little litter or debris. It is an open area in a small town, and I feel safe at any time of day or night. Local police do traffic the area to enforce the two-hour parking regulation. There is vehicle parking on both sides of the street, although limited.

Uses & Activities

The area is always bustling with activity, and many people shop, eat, live, and do business there. Nearly every storefront is occupied. There are the interest groups that meet at their favorite coffee house, but won't mind you putting in your two cents worth. There are activities for families, children, and individuals of any age, gender or race. The park areas are open to group functions or community sponsored events. Park and Recreation can let someone know if the park is available for a group event.


Great warm and friendly place to meet your friends or make new ones. Store owners are friendly and always seem to have time to chat. Meet someone for coffee, a meal, to shop of just hang out. People on the street are usually unhurried and friendly. It is like a little sampling of the greater community.

How Light?

How Quick?

How Cheap?

History & Background

Downtown Northfield, Minnesota is the town most noted for the "last stand" of the Jesse James gang in the 1800s. The street intersections mentioned in the many tales of the stand still exist, along with most of the historic downtown buildings that make this community so attractive. Although most famous for the defeat of the James/Younger gang, there is history of commerce and business too. Tours are available to the public through the Chamber of Commerce - either self-guided or with a guide.

Related Links & Sources

Division Street/Downtown Northfield
Division Street/Downtown Northfield
Division Street/Downtown Northfield
Division Street/Downtown Northfield
Division Street/Downtown Northfield
Division Street/Downtown Northfield
Division Street/Downtown Northfield
Division Street/Downtown Northfield

*Please note that these Hall of Shame nominations were written in a moment in time (most over a decade ago) and likely have since changed or even been transformed. If the above entry is now great, or still not so great, go ahead and comment below on how it has evolved or nominate it as a great place.


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