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Why the focus of Minneapolis planning must still be vertical

Living in a compact city reduces vehicles miles traveled (VMT). This is because people can choose to walk, bike or take the bus rather than be forced by the built environment to drive. VMT is the primary cause of air pollution.

South Minneapolis apartments
MinnPost file photo by Peter Callaghan

I grew up in apartments and now live in a single-detached home in south Minneapolis. We live close to my in-laws, who helped with the down payment, and I’m so happy that our 3-year-old gets to see their grandparents on a weekly basis. I write as a response to David Schultz’s piece about urban planning after the court ruling on Minneapolis’ 2040 plan.

I want to live in a city where there are abundant homes and everyone can find a place to live that they love. I want my kid to be able to live here when they grow up. To have independence. And housing security. I want to grow roots and know they won’t get ripped out by a rising tide, strong winds or wildfires.  

There is only one earth. Minnesota and Minneapolis only take up so much space. People need space. We need places to live, work and play. And we hope it doesn’t take more time traveling between those places than we spend being in them — like when my family lived in the D.C. metro area and my commute was four hours a day. The argument between sprawl and compact cities is like one between choosing to send trash to a landfill or choosing to compost at home. 

Sprawl is like a landfill. You take the unwanted necessities of making room for more people and push it far away where you can’t see it anymore. You make big infrastructure to make that possible, like highways, and then you kinda forget about it. Until the externalities build up and up and we have a global catastrophe of pollution. 

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Compact cities are more like composting. There are some impacts like smells or construction noise. And then you have an end product, more homes and less vehicle miles traveled to and from the places you need, which is better for the planet than a highway. 

Environmentalism has long been about saying no. But we need to say yes to welcoming more neighbors so that we can build communities our children can grow up in and thrive. We need to build compactly so we can have the ability to frequent small businesses, walk to the grocery store, and use our untapped verticality rather than pushing ever outwards. 

MPLS 2040 is a vision of allowing for growth in our city. Currently about 89% of the city’s parcels are designated for homes only and about 83% are single detached homes. Meaning only one family can live in that specific part of Minneapolis. That didn’t change much post 2040. New triplexes can only be as big as a single-family home.

We only have so much horizontal space. But we do have quite a bit of vertical space. Most small detached homes are bungalows, about 1.5-2 stories tall.  The biggest changes in the 2040 plan were on corridors along bus lines where we are trying to allow more three- to four-story buildings. 

There’s a new beautiful apartment building in south Minneapolis, the Sundial building on 37th Street and Nicollet Avenue, which took a vacant lot and built 12 new homes in a three- to four-story building. It’s on a bus line and next to a set of restaurants, which helps people who choose to live without a car access amenities. And it’s just three blocks from a park that hosts a farmers market on Sunday mornings.

The Sundial building was made possible by the 2040 plan. And we need more such buildings. A city comp plan can’t account for every regional or global impact. But it can let us do our part in creating a Minnesota we want to live in with enough homes for all of our neighbors. 

Brit Anbacht
Brit Anbacht
Some folks say that planning for homes for up to 150,00 new residents in the city by 2040 would cause impacts to current residents that just aren’t worth it. That the noise of children playing at their new school or at the park is an environmental degradation. That the reduced privacy of a neighbor having a balcony next door is too disruptive. Or that tall buildings providing consistent shade and reducing the sun’s radiation to a home is more harm than the good done for your AC bill.

OK, sure, different folks have different preferences. But the one argument I don’t buy is that it would increase air pollution.

Living in a compact city reduces vehicle miles traveled (VMT) — because people can choose to walk, bike or take the bus rather than being forced by the built environment to drive. It also reduces driving time as there are more businesses and homes closer to each other. VMT is the primary cause of air pollution as seen by the prevalence of asthma next to highways. And is also the primary cause of global warming that we can do anything about at a local level.

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Comprehensive plans are compulsory, and denying city and regional growth doesn’t make people magically disappear. Environmentalists who see people as pollution only provide unpalatable solutions. I hope we can find a way toward abundance and community rather than fighting for the privilege of living in our great state with our dollars. 

Brit Anbacht has volunteered with Neighbors for More Neighbors since 2018 and contributed to the N4MN amicus brief to the court on the 2040 Plan lawsuit.