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.

5 thoughts on “Zoning’s Impact on Minneapolis Form

  1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    The automobile had a profound effect on streetcar ridership. The top year for streetcars in Minneapolis was 1920 with 138 million rides. By 1928 it had dropped by 23 percent, even though the city population increased by about 20 percent and the streetcar track mileage increased by the same amount.

    While zoning may have had a long-term impact, there’s no question that the proliferation of autos was the primary cause of the transit decline.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Yes. I almost included a chart that showed ridership by year (this one: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/54/Historic_Lifecycle_of_Twin_Cities_Streetcars.jpg) but decided against it.

      Obviously rising incomes and affordability of cars played into this big time. But car ownership and use hinged on the type of government interventions in transportation (and to some extent zoning). Paving/plowing requirements of streetcars, fare caps hampering the ability to innovate, zoning for new construction limiting the ridership potential per mile of track laid, road widening, free parking, etc all happened in rapid order in the 20s.

      It’s tough to know what the “control” city would have been absent federal/state/local changes. Comparisons to Europe are tough given the impacts WWI had on their populations/cities/economy.

      I guess I was more asking a question than making a definitive point. Did the new zoning in Minneapolis match what the free market would have provided anyway? Or did it (and other gov’t programs) enable lower densities than would have otherwise been built? I lean toward the latter, but it’s impossible to know by how much.

      1. Evan RobertsEvan

        I think your “control cities” for what would happen under different planning regimes can be found in Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Common law jurisdiction, heavily influenced by American planning. Settled at the same time as Midwestern and West Coast cities.

        Mode share for transit in cities there is 10-30% (compared to <10 in most US cities, including Minneapolis). Lots of single family homes, but attached dwellings and townhomes are not segregated in the way they are here. My anecdotal observation is there's a lot more new mixed use development, though the cry of "moar free parking" is still present when new developments are proposed.

        I think a key thing in those countries is that municipalities are much less powerful in planning.

  2. Keith Morris

    No coincidence that the areas outside of this boundary are retail deserts: these neighborhoods are about as walkable as Phoenix or Jacksonville. They’re all neighborhoods that, unless you live there, have no reason to visit. Morris Park, Diamond Lake, Shingle Creek? I’ve lived in this city for over three years and not once have I set foot in any of these among others.

    If we want a healthy city we need to address zoning in these fringe neighborhoods to offer something for other residents and more residents to be able to support mass transit in these areas.

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