Regarding the Community Voices piece “Minneapolis should address environmental impacts of its 2040 Plan,” by Keith Olstad:
Given the luxury of a conversation with Olstad, I think we would agree on a great many things. Chief among them would be the fact that humans have caused incalculable damage to the environment and that we MUST do more to protect the environment if we are to survive and thrive as a species. We would probably also agree on many actions that would help address the environmental crises we face. But we are leagues apart on our views of the environmental impacts of the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan.
Olstad and his friends at the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis think that the new Minneapolis 2040 plan will cause environmental ruin. I will argue that Minneapolis adopted one of the most environmentally progressive plans in the country. I will also argue that the Audubon Society, rather than squandering resources on counterproductive lawsuits, should focus on shaping implementation so that we can make this laudable plan even better.
Dense housing in walkable neighborhoods
My argument in favor of the environmental merits of Minneapolis 2040 is simple. The regional population is expected to grow by 300,000 over the next decade. Since I’m assuming most of us don’t think these new residents should be homeless, we must also agree that we will need to build more housing to accommodate them. Assuming you agree, the question then becomes how we build new housing with the lowest long-term environmental impact. And the simple truth is that building dense housing in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods near frequent transit will create the smallest environmental impact as we continue to grow. The research supporting this position is extensive.
So let’s dig into this.
There are two fundamental questions that we need to ask when considering the environmental impacts of housing. First, what type of housing should we build and, second, where should we build it. Construction methods and materials are also important issues to consider but are generally too granular for a comprehensive plan.
When it comes to housing type, the choice is simple. All else equal, one triplex causes far less environmental harm than three single-family homes. A triplex uses less construction material, requires less electricity, requires less heating and A/C, requires less water, creates less impervious area, contributes less to heat-island effects, and uses less green space. The list goes on.
More triplexes to limit enviro impact
So if we agree that we need new housing to accommodate our growing population and we want to limit the environmental impact of that housing, we should build more triplexes, not more single-family homes. But the same logic applies to large apartment buildings. Generally speaking, one 60-unit apartment complex will cause less environmental harm than 20 triplexes. There are limits to this line of reasoning, but it generally holds true. Of course, not everyone will want to live in this type of housing, but at the very least we should stop prohibiting this type of development for those who do.
Where this development occurs is just as important. After all, transportation emissions are one of the most prolific sources of greenhouse gases. The choice here is simple as well. Relatively speaking, walking and biking cause virtually no environmental harm. Transit (both buses and trains) causes far less harm than personal vehicles. Thus, focusing this development in walkable neighborhoods near frequent transit is crucial to limiting transportation pollution from new development. Given that Minneapolis is a relatively walkable and bikeable city with robust transit service, then the best outcome from an environmental perspective is that most of the region’s growth occur in Minneapolis (and other cities or neighborhoods that are similarly walkable, bikeable and transit friendly). The fact that Minneapolis 2040 permits that growth and focuses it along transit corridors is something that environmentalists should be cheering, not fighting.
Just because Minneapolis 2040 is a win for environmental organizations doesn’t mean there isn’t more advocacy work for the Audubon Society to do. We still need policies that protect and expand our tree canopy, protect our lakes and streams, encourage pollinator habitats, require use of sustainable materials and green construction, and support sustainable energy, just to name a few. But first, Olstad and the Audubon Society must realize that Minneapolis 2040 was a remarkable step in the right direction toward a more sustainable future.
Michael Krantz is a planner and civil engineer living in Minneapolis.
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