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Urban planning theory is ripe for a revamp, as ‘2040’ court decision and the pandemic show

Preliminary studies pointed to how the change in zoning brought about increases in housing costs in low-income neighborhoods of Minneapolis — an early sign of speculation and gentrification. 

The Built Form map in the Minneapolis 2040 Plan.
The Built Form map in the Minneapolis 2040 Plan.
City of Minneapolis

While well intended, current planning theory and the Minneapolis 2040 plan are failing in their objective. The district court decision last week in Smart Growth Minnesota v. Minneapolis, which halted enforcement of the 2040 plan on environmental grounds, is only the most recent evidence of the problems with using planning theory to solve social justice or environmental problems.

Planning, planning theory and urban design run in trends. Among the more fashionable theories in the last few years have been a push for increased urban density through the elimination of single-family zoning and a call for greater reliance upon more mass transit to move people around. The goals of both are to provide more affordable housing, eliminate racial and economic segregation, and protect the environment. This was the design of Minneapolis’ 2040 comprehensive plan, which was heralded nationally as a model of progressive planning.

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From the late 19th century until the 1950s the trend was the rapid urbanization of America as people left the farms for the cities. Industrialization, improved sanitation and economic opportunity drove this. Yet this urbanization came with racial covenants and segregation, including Minneapolis and perhaps St. Paul.

But post-World War II  suburban America was born. It was the product of aging of city infrastructures, the lure of cheap land in the suburbs, the rise of the automobile and massive building of highways, and white flight. Cities depopulated and suburbs became the new population centers. Metropolitanwide areas became racially and economically segregated, as described by  among others Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in American Apartheid. Twenty-five years ago a team of researchers including me pointed to the Twin Cities as one of the most segregated urban areas in America.

But a generation or so ago New Urbanism as a planning theory arose. Inspired by Jane Jacobs’ classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New Urbanism declared that suburban sprawl was economically inefficient, it permitted racial and economic segregation, and it was environmentally bad. Sprawl wasted land or encouraged dependence on cars, often occupied by single commuters. Cities were generators of complexity, and to be successful they should not mimic suburbs in heavy reliance upon single family houses on wide open spaces. New Urbanism proclaimed “Return to the city”; densification is good, and creating more mass-transit options is the best way to transport people.

People did return to cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, but this did not come without problems. The underlying racial and economic segregation that existed in cities was not mitigated by the return of aging Baby Boomer suburbanites or Millennials and Gen Zers who wanted to live there. In fact, redensification of cities brought with it gentrification of neighborhoods with concentrations of poor or people of color. Rents accelerated, housing prices increased, and suddenly cities were facing massive affordability crises. This, too, is the story of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which has the worst housing shortage among metro areas in the nation.

In an effort to address these problems Minneapolis mainly and St. Paul to a lesser extent acted. Minneapolis’ 2040 Comprehensive Plan sought to address this problem by elimination of single-family zoning. Allow for up to three units per property and, as the belief went, it would increase housing supply, and with more units, it would address the affordability crisis and promote desegregation.

Yet that has not happened. For one, housing is not a unified but a diverse market. Housing built for the affluent or middle class is not same as housing built for the poor. All things being equal, developers will build the type of housing that is most profitable for them, and it is not for the poor. While some argue that simply increasing the supply of housing will lower overall housing costs, there is mixed evidence for that, especially for low-income households.

Second, housing has a market driven by demand by renters and owners. But housing also has a national market, driven by investors looking for opportunities to make money. Preliminary studies pointed to how the change in zoning brought about increases in housing costs in low-income neighborhoods of Minneapolis — an early sign of speculation and gentrification taking place. As the Washington Post pointed out in its analysis of housing markets across the U.S., including Minneapolis, national investors are gobbling up housing in north Minneapolis because the real estate  is relatively cheap and they can turn it over into multi-unit buildings easily. As a result, people of color in north Minneapolis are losing homes and apartments to investors with little indication that the housing that is replacing it is affordable or racially integrated. Studies point to the fact that home ownership is inaccessible to Black families, including in the Twin Cities. This is the prime notion of gentrification.

Moreover, densification is not breaking down racial or economic segregation or necessarily leading to more affordable units, according to a recent article in Governing Magazine. Densification is not addressing mortgage lending discrimination, which persists  in Minneapolis according to the Federal Reserve. There is little indication that pricey single-family homes in south Minneapolis are being broken up into affordable housing. Densification may help business growth, but it is not doing much to mitigate segregation or provide more affordable housing for those who most need it.

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Moreover, as Hennepin District Judge Joseph Klein pointed out in his June 15 decision on the Minneapolis 2040 plan, increased densification potentially brings a host of environmental problem that were not well considered when adopting it. The city needs to think about them if it wishes to proceed with elimination of single-family zoning and greater density.

Now consider the impact of COVID on urban design and planning. At the height of the pandemic people were told to avoid mass transit and work from home. This was made possible for many, especially the middle class and above, by telecommuting. As the pandemic eases there are studies by the Urban Institute and others that people are not returning to mass transit, or that remote work is making the need for it less than before, thereby driving up the cost per passenger, according to an American Public Transit Association report.

Additionally, many fled cities for suburbs or even more remote locations to find cheaper and roomier housing, and there is evidence many are not returning and many businesses are looking at more remote work into the future. This aligns with a recent Survey of Working Arrangements and Attitudes finding a generational and permanent shift in views toward hybrid and remote work. People fled the cities to escape the pandemic. Suddenly, suburbs look like a safer place to be from a public health perspective.

photo of article author
David Schultz
But at least in the Midwest planners and politicians forgot something else: People still want to own a home. Surveys find that home ownership is still part of the American dream for many. Home ownership represents the single most important wealth asset many people have and it is a key to becoming middle class. Home ownership, while maybe not for everyone, serves an important set of interests.

Several years ago I chaired a panel for a regional American Planning Association Conference examining the wisdom of the Minneapolis elimination of single-family zoning. A person from the Met Council proclaimed: “We have more single-family housing than we need in the metropolitan area.” Asked if such housing was affordable or available across the metro area there was no response.

There is a housing problem across the Twin Cities metro region. Something needs to be done, but the planning fixes that are currently being employed will not solve the segregation and affordability issues. Moreover, planning theory and urban design have yet to recognize a new reality that the pandemic has produced. Public health factors need to be factored into the design of buildings and transportation and into the layout of cities. Density, as some studies point to, may not be the right answer going forward if we need to address future pandemics. Finally, the pandemic showed how telecommuting may also be reversing the desire or need to provide more mass transit or construction of housing units exclusively in traditional urban core cities.    


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David Schultz is Hamline University Distinguished Professor of Political Science. He previously served as a city director of planning, zoning, and code enforcement and as a housing and economic planner for a community action agency.