Zoning’s Impact on Minneapolis Form

I’ve been re-reading the book Zoned Out on the bus ride to and from work lately, and it got me thinking about Minneapolis and our zoning history. While our whole city follows a rigid grid built largely along streetcar lines, some neighborhoods are clearly more dense than others.

1933 Map of the Twin Cities Streetcar System (Source: MinnPost)

Map of the Twin Cities Streetcar System in 1933 (Source: MinnPost)

Minneapolis implemented its first zoning code in 1924, two years before the landmark US Supreme Court decision Euclid v. Amber, right in the thick of sweeping nationwide changes in land-use and transportation. While parking minimums were not adopted in the first pass of the zoning code, they were implemented in a major revision in the 1963 code. This document from 1960 provides a good overview of the two codes. So, to what extent did the 1924 code alter our city’s landscape?

There are, of course, many factors that played into land-use and transportation choice changes between the turn of the 20th Century and post-WWII America. However, I present these three images for digestion:


Source: City of Minneapolis Plan for Sustainable Growth

The blue outline is a rough sketch (non-GIS) of Where Minneapolis had developed to by 1924. It’s rough, but pretty close.


Image taken from City of Minneapolis Zoning site

Here is the same outline combined with today’s primary zoning districts. Darker shades within each land-use silo (ex. residential, commercial, etc) signal the potential for more intense land uses. Though it’s not 100% accurate to view today’s zoning as a representation of actual use (there are many surface lots in commercial and downtown areas, for example), on the whole our zoning very much follows existing form.

Perhaps this view lacks enough granularity, but it certainly seems as though there was a definite change from mixing of uses, both within structures and within sub-neighborhoods, inside the line compared to outside. Post-1924 commercial activity is clearly limited to major corridors (along streetcar lines). Anecdotally, they seem to be the iconic single-story streetcar-era buildings more often than the denser parts of the city. This handling of commercial and residential is a major difference between US zoning and the more permissive zoning found in other countries, such as Germany.

Another view of intensity:


Image taken from Social Explorer

Population density seems to follow the pattern of current zoning – noticeably higher within the pre-1924 ring than outside it (save for an aberration in North Minneapolis).

I won’t try to draw any specific conclusions here. Like I said earlier, there were plenty of economic, social, technological, and political changes in the 1920s. Cars became affordable to the masses, people could afford detached houses, and so on. But I think it would be naive to say zoning played no part in the clear difference in our land use intensities.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at fremontavenueexperience.wordpress.com.