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Minneapolis should address environmental impacts of its 2040 Plan

Northeast Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
“I can’t believe you people,” ranted the angry voice on the phone. “You value birds more than people!” followed by slamming down the phone before I could utter a word. He may have been reacting to media coverage of our Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis’ effort to persuade the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to prevent birds from fatally crashing into the expansive glass windows of US Bank Stadium. But even that charitable guess completely ignores how thoroughly false his claim is.

In September the journal Science published a widely reported article about the loss of bird populations throughout North America. Barely two-thirds of the bird population 50 years ago survives today, and more are dying every year. According to Peter Marra, coauthor of the report, “the domino effects [of this loss of birds] can lead to the decay of ecosystems that humans depend on for our own health and livelihoods.”

Then National Audubon on Thursday, Oct. 10, published a study entitled: “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.” The effects of climate change threaten extinction for two-thirds of all American bird species, according to the study, bringing severe threats to human communities as well. Contrary to the dismissive rant from my irate phone caller, our well-being depends on the overall health of our entire ecosystem. Humans do not exist as an island independent of the rest of the natural environment. 

Devastation from human activities

According to the Science article, studies document bird deaths not only from widespread loss and degradation of habitat, but also “from predation by free-roaming domestic cats; collisions with glass, buildings, and other structures; and pervasive use of pesticides.” Human involvement in climate change is now well documented as well. In other words, vast numbers of birds are dying as a result of human activities. This devastation is our fault. To the degree that loss of birds signals a corresponding loss in the earth’s capacity to support human life, we are bringing this disaster on ourselves.

Keith Olstad
Keith Olstad
We are even doing it locally, while many look the other way. The Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, collaborating with Smart Growth Minneapolis, is deeply distressed by the environmental damage coming with implementation of the Minneapolis 2040 Plan in its current form. The 2040 Plan is being considered without prior professional assessment of environmental impact. To confirm the validity of our concerns, Smart Growth Minneapolis contracted with a respected environmental engineering firm to assess the current plan’s impact.

Report suggests multiple sobering impacts

The resulting Sunde report is available on the Smart Growth Minneapolis website. It suggests sobering impacts on water and air quality, dramatic losses in green space and plant life, and huge increases in glass and other impervious surfaces often fatal to birds and others. All these deficits could be addressed without significantly diminishing the laudable rhetoric found in the 2040 Plan. We should be able to address our housing challenges, confront climate change, improve opportunity for our diverse populations in more equitable ways without waging such devastation on our city’s environment. 

In our concerns for our whole community — people and all living beings — our Audubon chapter simply wants to make sure that development authorized by our city actually accomplishes admirable goals without destroying our city’s environment for birds, people and other living things. We want the community we live in to be alive with healthy people living fruitful lives enriched by the beauty of birds brightening our lives with song as they migrate through.

Keith Olstad serves as chair of the board of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis.


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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Christa Moseng on 10/21/2019 - 09:37 am.

    This commentary myopically pretends that if the people don’t move to Minneapolis, they won’t live anywhere.

    Whatever environmental impact there is to making Minneapolis more dense, it is less than the environmental impact of those people living elsewhere.

    It is disappointing that people opposing more people living in a city on environmental grounds don’t reflect more honestly on their motivations, and on what they’re choosing to ignore, in the course of their ridiculous argument.

    It’s not fooling me, and shame on them if they fool anyone else.

    • Submitted by Phillip Peterson on 10/21/2019 - 01:17 pm.

      Sorry, Christa Moseng, as a senior citizen of Minneapolis with presbyopia, I submit that the myopia you speak of is rooted in ignorance of the crucial role of ecosystem health in the survival of all animals (including Homo sapiens) and plants. I moved to Minneapolis more than four decades ago and plan to stay here as long as I’m able because of what I continue to believe–we are one of the only urban environments in America that provides such beauty in its inner city–thanks to city planners harkening back to the founding of the city and the Minneapolis Park and Recreational Board. I enjoy my daily walks around our city lakes, because of the birds, trees, and water. I was astounded to learn that the City Council hasn’t pushed for an environmental impact review of the 2040 plan. Clearly, I won’t be here to see what the city looks like then, but I hope those living here will thank the City planners for their foresight!

    • Submitted by Rebecca Arons on 10/21/2019 - 06:59 pm.

      Ms. Moseng,
      Your logic is confounding and your characterizations are misplaced. The reason the City of Minneapolis should consider voluntarily doing an environmental assessment as part of creating a comprehensive plan is to DO DENSITY RIGHT. Do we need need deregulate 49.73% of all of the land in Minneapolis? By the City’s own population growth projections for the next 20 years, we do not need any upzoning. The City of Seattle upzoned 16% of it’s land and did an environmental study to see the best way to increase density. What is the argument against?

      Should we consider the failing 100-year-old storm sewers and how much cummulative run-off there will be with less permeable surface area? How much contaminated run-off will enter city lakes and streams? How much wildlife habitat will be lost within the city (I’m talking about shrinking habitat that is NOT park land)? The City is growing and we will have more density, but will it be density done well? Environmental effects are cumulative and cannot be considered piecemeal, project by project.

      Why have we been told that we need to choose between social and housing equity, clean water, reduced carbon footprint and climate change resilience? If the planning process involved assessing potential harms and potential goods with real science and not blanket slogans about density, we could harmonize these concerns. We likely agree on the majority of the goals of the 2040 Plan, but like the author, I am alarmed by the Initial Environmental Analysis by Smart Growth Minneapolis and I think the City should be too.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/25/2019 - 09:29 am.

        Ms. Moseng’s logic is sound. There are, however, some problems with the logic in your comment.

        You actually don’t have to choose between equity and the environment. Building denser cities is actually one of the most important things you can do in halting climate change. Anyone who cares about the environment should be enthusiastically supporting the 2040 plan and not trotting out right-wing talking points about storm drains. True environmentalists should be (and are) standing up to the ironically named smart-growth groups.

  2. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 10/21/2019 - 10:03 am.

    The simple problem with this editorial is that it considers the City of Minneapolis and the 2040 Plan in splendid isolation.

    If the boundaries of your world begin and end at the municipal borders, you might come to the conclusion that the 2040 Plan is environmentally destructive. But if you understand Minneapolis within the context of a metro area, and that metro area within its national and global context, suddenly the myopia becomes clear.

    If you were to take four million people and distribute them across a landscape, what spatial organization would be better for the birds and the bees? Obviously, you would advocate for as dense and compact a human footprint as possible, packing people together and preserving the maximum amount of open space. You would reject single family homes, the highways that supply them, and the overall character of sprawl, because that would create the larger environmental impact *overall*.

    What the 2040 Plan does is bring the entire Twin Cities region closer to the former land use pattern, and helps to slow the latter pattern. When you take a step back, the environmental benefits are undeniable.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 10/21/2019 - 10:33 am.

      However what people also overlook is that some people who have been living in Mpls do so for proximity to open space and parks. So if you continue to build and build–people move even further out in search of that open space and as you build and build, there is no evidence that prices go down, rather as those smaller homes get bought up by developers and replaced by larger structures, those seeking a starter home have few options. Wanting something to happen, does not make it so–look at Seattle and Oregon, more people, prices up, need to build even more infrastructure and services. Yes some really do worry about the environment without an ulterior motive. The met council is beholden to developers as has been the city council for some years. Look at our lake qualities, air pollution alerts–these were not prevalent 15 years ago. To deny that more people does not affect the environment is naïve.

      • Submitted by Christa Moseng on 10/21/2019 - 11:00 am.

        No part of the 2040 plan proposes building on parkland. The report cited doesn’t even suggest a loss of green space.

        The harms you identify (“if you continue to build and build–people move even further out in search of that open space” and ” need to build even more infrastructure and services”) happen moreso if you don’t make Minneapolis more dense. The housing gets built in Lino Lakes and Anoka and Shakopee and Chaska… More open space destroyed by human habitat, more infrastructure, more services, except spread out much further, causing more destruction. Density reduces the impact/need of infrastructure and services.

        It’s so simple to see and understand. People who claim not to see or understand it are either missing something simple, or they are choosing to ignore it.

        Your argument is self-defeating, unless you willingly ignore that the people that can’t live in Minneapolis have to live somewhere else, and will inevitably live somewhere where the environmental consequences are less desirable.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/21/2019 - 01:08 pm.

        More people does effect the environment. Denser, transit-friendly development is one of the best things we can do for the environment.

    • Submitted by Michael Hess on 10/21/2019 - 11:29 am.

      The arguments of this particular editorial notwithstanding, it should not be suggested that the 2040 plan does anything at the metro-wide level. In fact a valid criticism of the Minneapolis 2040 plan is that it does treat the city as though we were in isolation and there is no accommodation for what other surrounding cities or towns are planning in the same time horizon. This is particularly true on population projections which assume that if the city has inadequate housing options people I guess will be homeless? When in reality, first ring and second ring suburbs and St. Paul are all options and planning for growth as well.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/25/2019 - 09:32 am.

        No, that criticism is invalid and bogus. The city can’t make policy for other cities. And the idea that it doesn’t otherwise work with its neighbors on these issues is nonsense.

        • Submitted by Michael Hess on 11/13/2019 - 06:50 pm.

          Nope. The plan by design from the Met Council is Mpls only. This criticism was brought up repeatedly during the plan public discussions and the city staff always returned to their scope of responsibility. While we exist in a metro area with other municipalities doing their own plans any coordination to this point has been coincidental or an example of city 1 clinical my the work of city 2. I would Fault the Met council for laying the rules so myopically such that the city plans do stand in “splendid isolation”.

  3. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 10/21/2019 - 11:39 am.

    The Minneapolis 2040 defenders here are desperate that we not agree that a big part of density-uber-alles as a policy means a diminution of green space in Minneapolis.

    Building from lot line to lot line, which the plan envisions, means elominating lots of private green space–gardens where insects and birds get sustenance throughout the seasons. Cities build up with concrete and glass are deserts for wild life. Dead islands of non-life forms.

    Not to worry, because there are suburbs farther out, and rural areas, still? Please!

    Of course, these folks refuse to believe that all huge projects, like Minneapolis 2040, should undergo a scientific environmental review, to point out holes in their theories about urban planning.

    How DARE this Audubon president challenge the plan?! Right?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/21/2019 - 01:05 pm.

      What utter nonsense.

      First, that isn’t what anyone is arguing. I don’t even know how to respond because its just not true.

      Second, the 2040 plan isn’t a big project. Its a zoning plan.

      Finally, its not that he dares to challenge it. Its that he does so with such complete disregard for the facts and the law.

    • Submitted by Christa Moseng on 10/21/2019 - 01:46 pm.

      Conduct all the environmental review you want, just (a) don’t artificially confine the study to the effects within the boundary of Minneapolis, and (b) compare the effects to all of the environmental consequences of the status quo.

      The only way you don’t scientifically conclude that sprawl is worse is by misleadingly excluding it from the scope of the study in the first place. Which is all the cited study is: a misleading effort to make detriments seem bad by refusing to consider and quantify how increasing density in a city avoids greater environmental harm.

      Yeah, if you design a study that only quantifies the detriments of something without any of the corresponding benefits, on the city or the surrounding region, your study will make something sound bad. That’s not science, it’s propaganda.

      • Submitted by Rebecca Arons on 10/21/2019 - 07:09 pm.

        Massively deregulating land-use in Minneapolis will not stop urban sprawl. It will always be more expensive to build in the city, and therefore building in the ex-urbs will continue regardless. Absent Federal housing subsidies, the market and deregulation of land-use is not going to save green space.

        • Submitted by Christa Moseng on 10/24/2019 - 11:30 am.

          Opposing a partial solution because it won’t completely stop the problem is not a very pro-environmental position. It’s a very pro-climate-calamity position.

          No one solution will solve all our problems. Absolutism is an effective way to prevent any progress.

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 10/21/2019 - 11:46 am.

    This discussion arouses a twinge of nostalgia in me, making me think of my former housing here in the heart of the city. It was a little “house in back of the house,” with a small, shady area between the two houses, and at first, an out of control weed patch on another side. I converted the weed patch into a lawn, while I encouraged the attractive wild plants along the edges. I was even able to harvest a few morels. The shady area remained in a state of controlled wildness. One day a woodcock saw that little space from above, descended, and began probing the soil with its long bill. Unfortunately my cat also found the bird interesting and scared it away after its second attempt at finding food.

    I proposed to fix the house and maintain the immediate central area of the block for the benefit of others as well as myself, but the neighborhood group had no sympathy; the little cottage got demolished. Nothing took its place.

    A few years later the Minnesota Tenants Union sent me to an adjacent residence to investigate a complaint. After hearing her concern, I chatted outside with the resident. The center of the block had been landscaped, desert-ified, from my point of view. The nice resident said, “Just look at this. Another neighbor told me some guy used to live back here and made it beautiful. Now look at it!” I was pleased to inform her that I was that guy.

  5. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 10/21/2019 - 03:12 pm.

    It’s wild to think that, in the year 2019, there are still people who think low-consumption low-travel-required dense urban living is less environmentally friendly than high-consumption high-VMT exurban living.

  6. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/21/2019 - 04:33 pm.

    These were the guys who filed the frivolous lawsuit that got dismissed. Lose at the council. Lose at the court. I guess a Minnpost article is the next step.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/25/2019 - 07:01 pm.

    The parallel between the Polymet Plan and 2020 in terms of environmental review are pretty in your face. A proper review lacked for mining as he does for 2020. Let that sink in.

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