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Minneapolis 2040 is a boon to the environment

South Minneapolis apartments
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
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.

Michael Krantz
Michael Krantz
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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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/04/2019 - 10:42 am.

    Making Minneapolis more dense will do little for the “environment” if nature and ecosystems remain in the abstract, if consumerism is still the watchword, if most meals are still traveling 1500 miles, if the land around the Twin Cities is a veritable wasteland of corn and soybeans for hundreds or a thousand miles in every direction.

    That said, if we are to make the city more dense, then we should also have a conversation about restructuring economics so starting and maintaining a small business is easier, so people don’t have to leave the city to find work.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/04/2019 - 10:57 am.

    But this response pays no attention to green space in Minneapolis.

    All the 2040 plans goals involve building right up to the sidewalk or street, with a triple-decker triplex [going “up”] the only way you might avoid eliminating a lot’s green space while densifying it with a triplex. Construction of even more density with an apartment building takes almost all the lot’s green space if recent experience is any gauge.

    This engineer/planner might consider what Minneapolis will present in the region’s ecology when the whole city looks like downtown, with little to no green except for ersatz “parks” like the God Medal carve-out.

    • Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 11/04/2019 - 08:33 pm.

      It’s not surprising the article doesn’t mention green space. “Green space” is not going to combat climate change. Reducing the carbon footprint of humans will. Putting people closer together makes reducing our carbon emissions achievable.

      Also, Minneapolis has one of the best park systems in the country. There’s plenty of green space to enjoy, and Minneapolis 2040 won’t change that.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 11/04/2019 - 10:58 am.

    Mr. Krantz, what might you have to say about the plan being imposed on the Cedar Riverside (West Bank) neighborhood of Minneapolis, specifically on the area between Cedar Avenue, I-35 and Highway 12? The plan will increase the density of the already densest area of housing in the Twin Cities, decrease parking–a huge problem for Cedar Cultural Center, Mixed Blood Theater and various businesses–and worsen an already severe peak time traffic problem on 4th Street–while simultaneously increasing the need for parking. All of which seems consonant with the 2040 plan.

    Immigrant residents of the area expressed their need for expanded recreational facilities and more green space, their opposition to the planned “African Mall,” by making it impossible for the plan’s advocates, Council Member Warsame and Mayor Frey, to speak at an August 30th meeting in the area.

    How does the city government’s insensitivity to the wants and needs of the neighborhood square with the 2040 ideology?

  4. Submitted by lisa miller on 11/04/2019 - 01:23 pm.

    Oh sure and my guess is he does not live right near a transit corridor. We have buses already, we have had light rail and yes we need mass transit, but assuming if you build it, people will use it to the extent you hope has not proven true recently regarding light rail. What you will have are more people moving further out. Again why not build where there was already density? Exactly how many jobs are in Hopkins and Eden Prairie vs Ridgedale, Brooklyn Park/Maple Grove or in Burnsville? You could have increased buses, more bike paths and then built where there is already density. Yet neighborhood wishes were ignored and more money spent than planned. Many in those areas, don’t have enough needs to meet building it vs having increased transportation in high need areas such as more express buses in north Minneapolis.

    • Submitted by David Markle on 11/04/2019 - 04:09 pm.

      You may have seen my article on line a few years ago, referenced in a Star Tribune op-ed “Understanding the Green Line,” that has substantially proved true. They put a train on the street instead of along the freeway, thinking it would promote development. They thought. And now we have the half-billion dollar Gold Line coming, clearly and admittedly in the interests of real estate interests and developers, not to serve existing transit needs.

      And my comment above concerns an area of Cedar Riverside with two LRT stations one block away, plus bus service. The overcrowded residents don’t want more density, and the businesses need to continue attracting customers from around the metropolitan area who won’t spend four hours on public transit getting here and back home. One of the neighborhood Council Members’ assistants says, “I ride my bike everywhere:” a great option for some arthritic 70 year old lady who needs to get to the supermarket in January.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/04/2019 - 04:59 pm.

        Have you ridden the Green Line? It has been fantastically successful in promoting development.

        And yes, not everyone can ride a bike. But the good news is that building bike infrastructure and transit doesn’t eliminate cars. It just changes the focus from all cars all the time, which is what we need to do for the environment.

        • Submitted by David Markle on 11/05/2019 - 12:48 pm.

          I wouldn’t call it fantastically successful. The preponderance of ridership takes place between the University of Minnesota area, from its western St. Paul Fringe, to downtown Minneapolis. Had it been sensibly routed along I-94 where it could operate as a train should, it would have had higher ridership and faster service. The Ramsey County and St. Paul officials who got it put onto the street were wrong.

          Warsame and Frey are simply insensitive to the wishes and needs of Cedar Riverside, to the reality of that already overly dense area.. It’s fantasy to think that the clientele of the Cedar Cultural Center, Mixed Blood Theater, Midwest Mountaineering will suddenly start coming there via public transit. Ideology and generalities of a particular philosophy of urban planning don;’t necessarily apply well in specific localities.

          • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/05/2019 - 03:02 pm.

            No, it isn’t fantasy at all. Its the idea the reducing parking will hurt businesses that is a myth.

            The city elected Frey. And the ward elected Warsame. I’m not sure how you can say they are out of touch. If a small angry crowd shouts them down, is that who is in touch? SMH

  5. Submitted by Kathie Noga on 11/04/2019 - 02:22 pm.

    It may be more environmental, but I am very concerned that low income persons will not be able to afford this housing. The costs will go up and only the well off will be able to afford living here. A real estate realtor says that several developers are licking their chops about this plan and plan to flip this housing and sell it a big profit to people who can afford it. Not a good thing. She says the only way to avoid this is to make that triplexes and duplexes are owned by people who actually live there. They are less likely to be doing the flipping games and more likely to keep up the property.

  6. Submitted by Michael Hess on 11/04/2019 - 03:17 pm.

    It’s difficult to compare the environmental harm of a triplex to three single family homes when you accept that a single unit of a triplex is almost always going to be smaller living space than what you find in a single family home . Are you comparing the living space of 3 families to three singles, or couples?

    And contrary to the comment above by Ms Sullivan I think one important concession made to the objections of residents who did not want lot-line to lot-line towering developments next to them is that the triplexes need to fit in the current single family home setbacks and massing requirements- so barring a irrational exuberance for variances the triplexes should have the same opportunity to preserve tree canopy and green space as a new large single family home going up on the same lot.

    • Submitted by Terry Small on 11/04/2019 - 10:40 pm.

      There are literally many 1,000’s of single family homes less than 1,000 sq ft which is smaller than what a triplex unit can be. I’m sure you know that, right?

      • Submitted by Michael Hess on 11/05/2019 - 09:16 am.

        If you read what I wrote I did not say you can’t find SF homes smaller than a unit of a triplex. But in most cases, the comment stands, most single family homes in Mpls are larger than 1,000 fsf. A few thousand out of 100,000 doesn’t change that and comparing the typical SF home to a unit in a triplex is not a fair comparison.

        And another consideration – some of those small sub 1000 fsf homes are on undersized lots that can’t accommodate a re-build of the size that current SF or triplexes are being built. Note the comment “some” – please don’t reply with the question do I know that that some of them are on full size lots, the answer to that question is yes. They use less space (aka are less environmentally damaging) than three full sized lot sited houses would. One of the reasons the ADU and the like are an appealing development in the city.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/04/2019 - 07:14 pm.

    An environmental review would bring facts to what is largely opinion educated as it maybe.

  8. Submitted by John Richard on 11/05/2019 - 06:13 am.

    There is no doubt that transit development, and promoting the use of public transit, is an absolutely necessary factor in an urban planning to address climate change. But expanding transit options will have little effect until people feel safe using buses and trains.

    I work in workforce development, and part of our work is helping low income people develop plans to commute to work. As you’d expect, low income workers are more likely to use public transit.

    Over the past few years, we have heard increasing concerns regarding safety both while riding buses and trains, and about waiting at bus stops and stations. Simple observation will demonstrate the issue .. crowds of people at certain locations drinking in public, openly using drugs and harassing passengers non-stop. It is becoming more common to see people smoking on buses and trains, using vulgar and intimidating language at large volumes, and starting physical fights with other passengers.

    The majority of people we hear expressing these concerns are people of color and women.

    If we want people to use public transportation, we need to make it safe. So far, the city of Minneapolis is turning a blind eye to these issues.

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