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Post-2040 Plan court ruling, a Hobson’s environmental choice for cities: sprawl vs. densification

Somewhere along the line the city of Minneapolis and reformers neglected to think about the environmental impact of densification.

West Maka Ska neighborhood, Minneapolis
West Maka Ska neighborhood, Minneapolis
MinnPost file photo by Bill Lindeke

A Minnesota court and law has dealt a major blow this month to the latest trend in urban planning theory — densification and the elimination of single-family zoning. The implications of this decision should force cities and metropolitan areas to rethink the environmental tradeoffs between continued sprawl and urban density.

New Urbanism declared urban sprawl bad for many reasons. Among them, sprawl produced inefficient use of land and resources. It forced the use of cars on paved roads resulting in pollution and the use of carbon fuels. It resulted in mega homes too costly to heat or cool and green lawns that used up too much water. Sprawl was an environmental problem.

The solution was densification. If cities were to eliminate single-family zoning and encourage greater density of housing and business, it would be good for the environment, especially if coupled with the encouragement of mass transit. It would yield a better use of land, provide for less use of carbon fuels and private cars to move people around. Additionally, elimination of single-family zoning would encourage the building of more affordable housing and address the legacy of residential racial segregation.

Minneapolis was the first on board with this idea. Its 2040 comprehensive plan was heralded by the planning community as a major progressive reform. It provided the model for other cities contemplating similar action to addressing a host of problems.

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But somewhere along the line the city of Minneapolis and reformers neglected to think about the environmental impact of densification. A coalition of environmental groups challenged the Minneapolis 2040 plan, contending that it violated Minnesota’s Environmental Rights Act. They brought suit contending that comp plans were subject to state environmental impact statement reviews. The Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately agreed and finally on Sept. 5, 2023 a Minnesota court reached a final order declaring the 2040 Plan in violation of  state environmental laws and enjoined its enforcement.

In reaching its decision a Minnesota District Court reached several findings of fact. It found that densification and the plan to add nearly 150,00 residents to the city by 2040 would include among other things increased noise impacts, pedestrian traffic, vehicle traffic and  vehicle congestion and idling. It would result in decreased air quality, increased parking constraints, reductions of privacy, increased light and glare from buildings, decreased access to light for surrounding properties, shadowing of adjacent properties, and impacts of existing solar panels on neighboring structures.

The court also noted that densification would produce more hard surfaces, exacerbating water runoffs and heat island effects. Overall, simple densification would produce significant problems that the city had not accounted for.

photo of article author
David Schultz
For now and pending appeals, Minneapolis cannot enforce the 2040 Comp Plan and it must continue to use the existing one. But longer term the court opinion, if upheld, poses a Hobson’s choice for planners and metro areas. Urban sprawl poses environmental problems as does renewed urban densification.

How we assess the competing environmental tradeoffs in these competing approaches suggest that there needs to be a better balance or assessment in how cities and suburbs are constructed, and that will require a rethinking of the types of housing built and where, and how we move people from place to place. We also need to rethink  issues such as green space location and a host of other issues. Perhaps the pandemic and then changing patterns of where people are choosing to live and work is the opportunity for this. But for now the Minnesota courts are forcing reformers to rethink the environmental consequences of the latest trend in planning.

David Schultz is a distinguished professor at Hamline University. He teaches in political science, legal studies and environmental studies.