It’s an age-old American mistake to conflate green grass with “the environment,” and a tall building with its destruction. The country was founded on such ideological banality, most notably Thomas Jefferson’s glorification of the so-called gentleman farmer. He once wrote that cities were “pestilential to morals,” and did all he could to ensure that the American form of government remained a rural enterprise. It was a common sentiment then and now, conflating single-family homes surrounded by lawn with social progress.
In that light, it’s perhaps understandable that the Minneapolis anti-2040 lawsuit maintained its inertia in the court system. A recent ruling by Hennepin County District Court Judge Joseph Klein upheld an earlier decision to suspend the city’s latest comprehensive plan, a decadal process of changing zoning and city goals, under the guise of protecting the environment. The move is a short-term travesty, but means little in the face of a broad consensus that increasing density helps biodiversity and our climate.
Urban density is good for the environment
Scientific approaches to studying climate impacts of urban form are pretty clear about how urban density benefits nearly every environmental outcome. It requires naïveté or extreme myopia — caring, for example, only about birds colliding with glass windows — to fail to see this point. Here are two sweeping examples.
First, there’s the question of carbon emissions. Climate change is a huge driver of destruction to biodiversity at nearly any scale you can study. It’s led to what’s been called the “sixth great extinction,” apocalyptic damage to the earth’s plants and animals on par with the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.
As such, reducing carbon emissions is paramount. At the local level, there’s no better path forward than increasing density in already urbanized areas. Five years ago, University of California researchers completed the most thorough study on this matter, looking at a dozen different types of local government interventions. Because of the energy savings around multi-family buildings and having the option to walk or take transit, “urban infill” was by far the most effective carbon reduction policy.
The second involves the loss of wildlife habitat. If there’s any “Hobson’s choice” involved with the question of density, it’s that growth is going to happen somewhere. The question is not “should the Twin cities densify or not,” but rather “where should new people moving to our economically robust metro area live?”
If regional newcomers can’t live in Minneapolis, they’ll live in Carver, Dakota and Anoka counties, and the difference between those urbanization patterns is huge. If Minneapolis makes it impossible to build housing, the direct result will be habitat loss and the erasure of agricultural land in the exurbs, creating impervious surface and heat island intensification at a much larger scale.
The unfortunate facts of the case
The cynical Minneapolis 2040 lawsuit, filed following the 12-1 passage of Minneapolis’ most recent comprehensive plan, fits with a national trend of anti-urban activists abusing what ought to be useful environmental laws. Notably, this has been happening in California, ground zero for fights over density, housing and local control.
Most notoriously, an astroturf group in Berkeley, the traditionally leftist Bay Area bastion, sued under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to block students from attending the University of California (located within city limits) by equating more students with pollution. (This was alleged, even if they all had majored in environmental science.) The lawsuit was proceeding through the court system until state lawmakers intervened, but it put a spotlight on deployment of environmental tools to block housing.
The Minneapolis example mirrors California, where so-called environmental concerns serve as a fig leaf for long-standing battles about the U.S. built environment. Rather than citing apartments, traffic and perceptions of livability, litigants now use the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) to stop housing from being built, placing a last-ditch barrier before the prospect of dreaded mixed-income neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office bungled this particular case. As I wrote a year ago, the attorneys failed to contest the “findings of fact” put forward by the litigant, opting instead to contest the suit’s legitimacy on more technical grounds. This meant that, moving forward, the Hennepin County District Court judge has literally no choice but to accept those findings “as fact.”
For now, there’s no legal dispute over whether density harms the environment, an absurd situation. Barring appeal or legislative intervention, the only real path forward is for the city of Minneapolis to complete an expensive and tedious environmental review that will cost time and money, both for city staff, and for anyone trying to do business with the city’s zoning code. If you care about urgent environmental action, that’s a shame.
Missing the forest for the tree in someone’s yard
These days, it often seems that Minneapolis’ road forward is paved with bad intentions. What essentially amounts to a centuries-long ideological battle over “cities” has transformed today into the kind of legal delay tactic that prolongs both the housing and climate crises, all in name of a false environmentalism.
The only legitimate environmental organization, the Minneapolis chapter of the Audubon Society, once co-sponsored the lawsuit but changed part of its leadership team earlier this year, and dropped support. The other legitimate appellant, Citizens Concerned for Migratory Birds, represents a Facebook group that popped up valiantly in 2014 to try to get the Minnesota Vikings to use bird-safe glass on their stadium. (I wrote about this issue myself, nine years ago; unfortunately for warblers, the glass activists did not win.)
For media covering this case, the very least we can do is to not treat it as a legitimate environmental grievance. Actual environmental groups like the local Sierra Club, Minnesota 350 or Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy have nothing to do with this suit. National “smart growth” advocacy organizations have disavowed the use of their name in this effort by the litigants.
Next up, Minneapolis 2050
For fans of climate action, habitat preservation and density, they can rest assured that common sense will eventually prevail. The city’s planning staff marches on, and the changes to the zoning map are going to return. In fact, the process to write the upcoming Minneapolis 2050 comprehensive plan update will likely start soon, using the 2040 vision and changes as their starting point.
The sad irony of this whole affair is that Minneapolis, by any global standard, is not a densely populated place. If Minneapolis had the per-acre density of Malmö, Sweden, we’d boast another hundred thousand people. If it was as dense as Melbourne, Australia, or Montreal, Canada, the city proper would have twice its current number within its borders. If we were as dense as Seoul, South Korea, a place with very high quality of life and comparable income levels, Minneapolis’ population would be over 2 million, all with carbon footprints a fraction of the current average.
(Obviously, we’d have to invest more into our transit system.)
All this is to say that we are fighting over marginal changes in a town with a lot of under-taxed surface parking lots.
Unfortunately, this spring the Minnesota Legislature failed to do what the California State Assembly did regarding CEQA, failing to ensure that environmental action doesn’t get kneecapped by fixating on the literal color green rather than its metaphor. Next session, the state should clarify the status of compressive planning under MERA to ensure that this kind of legalistic knuckle-dragging doesn’t happen again. When it comes to the environment, if you mean biodiversity and saving our fragile climate, a lot depends on it.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to federal court. The ruling was in Hennepin County District Court.