It’s post-election recovery time in Minneapolis (and St. Paul)! Residents and businesses across the core of our metro area are digesting what the changes in leadership will mean, and at Cuningham Group, that turned into hosting an event called “Dear Mayor-Elect … Congratulation, Now The Work Begins” as part of their Urban Currents series. I was honored to receive an invitation to this event to talk about my perspectives as someone that has been satisfied by recent changes in how the City of Minneapolis has looked at resources invested in infrastructure but also believe that there is still a lot of room for improvement. Two others, Alissa Pier and Eleonore Wesserle, joined me to add their perspectives.
This series of articles will publish the open letters that the three of us presented at Urban Currents. While there are many opinions on whether the change in leadership is good or bad, I think that we will all find consensus on certain topics just as the three letters do include common themes. This is an important time for our community to have an open dialogue about what we expect from a better city, I hope this sparks a healthy discussion here just as it did at the event.
Dear Mayor Elect Frey
I write to offer congratulations. And caution. We don’t know each other well but in some ways it might seem like we’re pretty alike. We advocate for changes in density and transportation and acknowledge that the city has a key role in giving residents and businesses equitable support to achieve success. Yet, Minneapolis is a city of many perspectives and one key reason for the yawning gaps in opportunity is that far too much of the city’s power is concentrated among white homeowners with a vested interest in the status quo. So listening to me too much without realizing that I come from this privileged perspective is a trap, hence my words of caution. Minneapolis is a great place for many; city government needs to reject the tendency to listen to those who offer the historically loudest voices in order to be a great place for all.
The way the city plans, funds, and builds infrastructure is, in many ways, a great place to focus this conversation. It’s a core function of the city enterprise, yet infrastructure is an often forgotten aspect of cities. How we connect the city through pipes, wires, and roads can quickly reveal our values. A truly progressive Mayor will push the boundaries of agency staffs’ opinions on how things should be done.
Cities are for people. Not cars, not buildings. The most beautiful skyscraper means nothing to this city if no one can afford to live in it and the only way to get around is a car. Ensuring that infrastructure supports getting residents around the city is, unlike affordability, entirely within the city government’s domain. Here are a few examples of how a new Mayor can change the conversation in a way that could close the gaps in opportunity.
The city should seriously explore a quantitative goal to reduce pavement. There are many reasons that people may embrace this, but two foundational facts that I have learned are that people pay attention to costs, and pavement is expensive. Not only that, our current infrastructure was built to support the vehicle of inequity – the single-occupant automobile. I’m not saying that we should get rid of entire streets. The resilience of an urban street grid is something that we don’t want to lose. However, narrowing streets has real cost savings implications for the city in capital and maintenance costs, and it reduces the impact of assessments on residents, too. Shrinking the width of residential streets will also have incredible traffic-calming value and make the city more comfortable for people outside of their cars.
A mayor focused on closing gaps will advocate for change in how we fund infrastructure. The poster child for this is the inequitable uniform assessments model. The solution could be a sliding scale, relief grants, or long-term payments, it doesn’t matter. The status quo is broken because it disproportionally burdens those who have the least.
Every proposed street project should be analyzed based on people moved, not cars. Transit lanes should be considered on every street with more than one bus route. The conversation around transit needs to shift away from talking about incentivizing those who drive to switch. If we get the policy right, that will follow. The addition of transit-only lanes is one way to address the inequity of making people who are transit-dependent spend even more time getting where they need to go. Removing traffic congestion barriers may not result in the same travel time as cars, but allowing cars to get in the way of buses directly conflicts with the complete streets policy that you supported as a council member. The mayor’s primary role in this is vocally advocating for change in agencies that have been notoriously resistant to taking space from cars. That means city departments as well as state and county. In addition, the Mayor needs to build a relationship with transit providers to convert time savings on city streets into more frequent service; this will leverage the city’s investments to improve equitable transportation outcomes even more by giving those who cannot drive more freedom to go where they need to when needed.
But this is complicated. Minneapolis needs stakeholders outside of the city to buy into some of these changes. At the same time, the city is losing influence in the Legislature and public opinion by allowing people to talk about how we’re not like ‘normal’ like Eden Prairie or Willmar or East Bethel. Those places are hardly the same but they still seem to have found common cause in casting Minneapolis as the outsider. A successful Mayor will understand our place in the policy ecosystem and flex the right muscles. That means building trust through authenticity, transparency, and real results. Minneapolis doesn’t have the same place in the state and region as decades past but that does not mean the role is diminished; it’s just different. As Mayor, it’s your job to use subtle influence to turn the conversation from “if Minneapolis does it, it must be wrong” into “if Minneapolis is doing it, why aren’t we”?
During the campaign there were a lot of big, sweeping promises made about the less glamorous, challenging issues like opportunity gaps, police reform, and affordable housing. I hope you can help residents to continue to be proud of their city by tackling those issues instead of leaving them to a future mayor. But, my suggestions come with the lens of my privilege. I hope you ask others that need to be asked and I wish you good luck.
Look for additional posts with the remaining letters leading up to the new mayor’s inauguration. And if you’re interested in learning more about Urban Currents, click here or email rnash(at)cuningham.com.