Minneapolis’ Secret 2040 Sauce was Engagement

Tweet asking, "How did 2040 Happen?"

People want to know.

Around the country, people advocating to build abundant homes are asking how Minneapolis did it. Why is Minneapolis the city passing a comprehensive plan that ends exclusionary zoning and allows triplexes everywhere?

There are a multitude of reasons why. We’ve long had an active urbanist community, fostered by discussion on streets.mn, a nationally recognized bike culture, urban planning Humphrey Institute graduates who settle here, a culture of organizing and advocacy, progressive elected leaders, a region thick with relationships, a strong history of planning both at the City and with the Metropolitan Council, and more.

Going beyond Minneapolis as a fertile place for such an ambitious plan, I want to highlight a gardening team and two critical conditions that grew this plan.

  1. Our gardeners developed a super-thoughtful engagement plan. They’re led by the Long Range Planning Team within Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED).
  2. Two years ago, the soil nutrient of supportive elected leadership was critical, in particular from Council Member (now Council President) Lisa Bender, former Mayor Betsy Hodges, and Council Member Kevin Reich. The current mayor and council have continued to nurture the plan with their support.
  3. Finally, the grassroots rainfall of support fell from many groups throughout the process, most consistently Neighbors for More Neighbors.*
Some of the CPED Long Range Planning staff who implemented the engagement plan

Some of the CPED Long Range Planning staff who implemented the engagement plan (Photo credit Heather Worthington)

For readers from outside Minneapolis, take a few minutes to explore the plan. Triplexes everywhere has gotten most of the media coverage, but there is a lot more to love. Nearly all the core city, about 20 blocks north and south of downtown, allows missing middle building types beyond triplexes. Transit corridors city-wide will allow significantly more homes. It eliminates parking minimums. Explore that in the built use form map. There are dozens more policies worth checking out.

But again, how did how something this ambitious happen in Minneapolis?

So, what did those planners do?

Every ten years, CPED’s Long Range Planning staff lead development of the comprehensive plan. This cycle, they designed a thoughtful three-year process. (It’s outlined in great detail here on the 2040 website.)

The process was key to ensure elected officials, city staff, and grassroots advocates were pulling in the same direction. They secured an engagement budget from the previous council and mayor. With their strong support, they started a city-wide conversation about Minneapolis 24 years into the future. They grew city-wide understanding of the challenges we face. They demonstrated the political support needed to counter the voices who tend to show up defending the status quo.  

They started by naming a historic problem with civic engagement:

Historically, people of color and indigenous communities (POCI), renters, and people from low-income backgrounds have been underrepresented in civic processes.

Then, they designed a planting plan. They seeded the process by “dedicat[ing] time to building new relationships in order to create a more inclusive and equitable planning process to join communities that have already been at the table” for more representative citizen input. The City Council prepared the soil when they approved the engagement framework.

2040 Engagement Framework

2040 Engagement Framework

First, CPED staff asked the community what we wanted. How do we like to be engaged? What are our existing priorities? What are our big ideas for the future of the city? This included focus groups in communities who tend to be underrepresented in public processes. (More details, including where they connected with us, what we said, and how they used feedback is here.)

6 Word Story

Six Word Story (Image from Minneapolis 2040 site)

Next, they organized topical research teams to dig into big challenges. They used this research and the “big ideas” input from the first phase to craft “Big Questions.” They shaped engagement at what seemed like every festival and major event in the city between May and December 2016. (Details here.) CPED contracted artists to design fun engagement activities. Thoughtfully framed questions ranged from “Share your six-word story for the future of Minneapolis!“ and “Housing: Are you satisfied with the housing options available to you right now? If not, what’s missing? How will your housing needs change between now and 2040?“ to “Vision/Tying it Together: What does your ideal Minneapolis look like in 2040? What makes you feel connected to your neighborhood?“ This drew attention to the plan. Advocates got excited about the big vision and prepared supporters to turn out.

Improv at a public meeting

Improv at a Public Meeting (Image from Minneapolis 2040 site)

There were iterative cycles of accessible engagement. Interactive poetry, art, and maps at festivals and larger City-organized events ran throughout 2017. (They even included improv and open-to-anyone in-depth discussions with experts.) Every time, they started by reflecting what they’d heard before, adding what the City is seeing through studies or research, and finally asked for feedback on draft policy direction. Each series of conversations got more specific. There was an online “maptionnaire,” and an interactive scrolling story asking for feedback. “Meeting in a Box” kits invited people to organize an input session with your basketball crew, your block club, or your ECFE parents. With the kit, it was easy to give useful feedback. Advocates nudged their networks to water the plan with comments highlighting housing shortages, concerns about racial disparities, and the desire for better car-free transportation options.

2040 Maptionnaire

2040 Maptionnaire

By spring of 2017, CPED had identified core goals for Minneapolis 2040. Together with the City Council, they crafted 14 goals, painting a vision for 2040. The goals were big, like, “In 2040, all Minneapolis residents will be able to afford and access quality housing throughout the city.” You can read all 14 here. The City Council adoption was a check that the plan’s direction matched elected leaders’ understanding of their constituents needs. The April 2017 vote was 12-0.

Comment Box on 2040 Website

This Comment Box was on every 2040 Website Page

CPED organized the DRAFT Minneapolis 2040 plan around the 14 goals. They released the draft with a BIG SPLASH on March 22, 2018. The super-accessible website design invited feedback. People could comment on any policy or on the two maps in the plan. It connected the dots of reasoning behind each goal and policy. (This included a detailed history of the impact of redlining and other land use policies.) The website design illustrated how individual policies supported multiple goals. The pieces fit together into a three-dimensional puzzle, pulling out one piece impacts many goals. Advocates could see where to comment to grow support for specific policies. That resulted in prolific blogging, with responses and critiques here on streets.mn and other sites, too.

Next up was 100 days of engagement parties, conversations, and games. City Council Members encouraged people to come out. The artists made sure meetings asked productive questions. One activity used a 3D 2020-2040 timeline to invite attendees to make signposts of achieved goals. There were more than official 200 public meetings besides online engagement. There were new “Meeting in a Box” packets to host your own unofficial comment party. I attended one and led another two. Lots of the same old people showed up, and lots and lots of new people came. Every public meeting was an opportunity for advocates to organize another round of watering.  

In the spirit of transparency, CPED published all the comments. Everyone can see how the city responded to the draft. It turns out that if you make engagement fun and accessible, people show up to share their opinions. About 18,000 comments in, comment closed and CPED started harvesting.

And the comment process didn’t just check a box. They made significant changes in response to comments. You can see how they translated into the final draft, because CPED posted a redlined plan the fall of 2018. It shows changes to both the context and policies.

2040 Redlined Copy Example

2040 Redlined Copy Example

The process capstones were two big (and contentious) public hearings at the Planning Commission and the City Council. The City Council made their own amendments to the plan policies and maps. Finally, the Council voted to approve the plan for submittal to the Metropolitan Council on December 7, 2018.

“Minnesota Nice” sounds nice, but…

I give the Long Range Planning staff a ton of credit and my deepest thanks. They made the case for and executed outreach at an unprecedented and needed scale. That investment only makes sense on a 20-year, everything-the-city-touches kind of plan. If they hadn’t opened the door, people couldn’t have organized in support of or opposition to the plan. That organizing made a difference in what ambitious policies are included in the plan. 

This engagement approach was no kumbaya solution. Once the draft plan was published, CPED staff were on the receiving end of incredible vitriol. The whole team (shout out to Heather Worthington) staffed many unpleasant meetings with grace. Anyone who has followed the last 9 months of Minneapolis 2040 news knows that “contentious” or “divisive” was frequently in headlines and in nearly every article. Discussion around the plan was pitched!

Despite that, welcoming engagement, well-framed questions, and always asking “how old will you be in 22 years, and what will you need then?” meant powerful people got to share space in the public process. People who tend to go unheard were heard and had the opportunity to organize for change.

CPED’s team rebalanced which voices get space in the process. Instead of harvesting lettuce, lettuce, and more lettuce, they harvested lettuce, eggplant, jabaneros, beets, corn, and more lettuce. Instead of hearing the same old powerful perspectives, we all got to hear diverse perspectives. It’s allowing us to begin the hard work we’ve been avoiding for decades: addressing our housing, racial justice, and climate challenges.

They made it possible to approve an ambitious vision I’m excited to experience when I’m 70.

CPED Long Range Planning Staff at a well-earned celebration

CPED Long Range Planning Staff at a well-earned celebration (Photo credit Heather Worthington)


*The author is a Neighbors for More Neighbors volunteer.

About Janne Flisrand

Janne Flisrand spends her time thinking about how people interact with the space around them. Why do they (or don't they) walk or bike or shop somewhere? How do spaces feel? Why do people sit here and not there? Why bus instead of bike, bike instead of drive? What sorts of spaces build community, and what sorts kill it? Can spaces build civic trust and engagement?

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14 thoughts on “Minneapolis’ Secret 2040 Sauce was Engagement

  1. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

    Great piece! I appreciate that city staff recognized that more “traditional” ways of feedback (such as engaging with neighborhood groups) are not representative of the city as a whole. The city went out to existing community events to engage with people early in the process, and that was very important. I hope the city continues to engage residents for a few minutes in their day-to-day lives rather than expecting anyone to sit through multi-hour meetings to have their voice heard.

    Also, streets.mn has been important in setting the table (I don’t have a good gardening metaphor, sorry) for these types of discussions, as has WedgeLIVE.

  2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Thank you for this piece, Janne. As someone who moved away from MSP just as this effort was getting started, I’ve witnessed most of it from the outside, and I appreciate the inside perspective. A few extra thoughts on the politics of the plan…

    Minneapolis has benefited from two structural factors:

    + Ranked choice voting, which has broadened the field of candidates and the field of voters for city elections. It’s less important now to have support from established groups like neighborhood organizations or the DFL. The city council has gotten more progressive as the influence of primaries has waned and winning candidates have succeeded by following CM Bender’s 2013 model of broadening the electorate. This necessarily involves much higher participation from groups like renters or people of color, who had their concerns prominently represented in the 2040 plan.

    + Small city boundaries. Minneapolis’ political boundaries encompass a small, dense slice of the metro. It would have been much harder to bring a comprehensive plan like this for a hypothetical Minneapolis that had annexed Richfield, Golden Valley, St. Lois Park, St. Anthony, etc. Even Ward 13 has many streetcar suburb characteristics.

    Minneapolis has benefited, as you lay out, from a number of factors specific to this plan and this moment. To add to the points you’ve already made:

    + The outreach to communities that have been historically left out made the plan better and helped inoculate the plan against the very loud, very visible tantrums from plan opponents late in the process. When your only public outreach consists of public meetings late in the game, it’s easy to feel as though the whole city is opposed. But when you have built a plan with a ton of early feedback in support of the plan’s direction, it’s much easier to put the opposition into the proper context.

    + The creation of the plan in such close concert with the city council and planning commission helped inoculate the plan against the misleading and inaccurate portrayals (bulldozers, etc) that were painted by plan opponents. While some of these unfortunately gained some purchase in the media, the city council members all knew these claims to be false and were armed with the facts to rebut these charges, and ultimately not take them seriously when voting.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who believes the small geographic borders (relative to other major Midwest central cities) worked in Minneapolis’ favor on this.

      Good call on the difference Ranked Choice Voting made on the political side. RCV will reap rewards for years to come, I can see the MNGOP try to block it from spreading to new cities, try to pass state laws getting rid of it where it already is.

  3. Lou Miranda

    Congratulations on helping get a plan passed that fits Minneapolis very well. I’m guessing that Neighbors for More Neighbors had a more than a little role to play in that. 😉

  4. Scott

    IMO the community engagement around Minneapolis 2040 wasn’t that great, which is demonstrated in how divisive it became. Rather than explaining connections between density, mixed-uses, transit, and racial equity, CPED just posted the complicated document onto their website. Citizens were expected to grasp the giant document, which included lots of planning jargon and confusing maps that mean little to an average person. This, coming from someone who supports the goals and most of the policies included in the plan.

    The community workshops included simplistic activities, very basic information, and little context about how information was being used. Integrating art and fun into meetings is a great idea, but the workshops felt pointless. The first draft document was such a giant leap from what was done at workshops and other settings where input was gathered.

    The concept of the interactive website was cool, but the execution left mush to be desired. I’m still confused about the “Topics” and why it was so hard to find the page that included the list of 97 Policies. It got really old clicking back and forth between individual policies. Was there any opportunity for people who didn’t have access to computers/ the internet to comment?

    In many ways the plan didn’t go far enough to identify a vision for 2040. The transportation policies, for example, included action items that are basically a list of things Public Works is doing now. Minor tweaks here and there will not result in great walking, biking, and transit by 2040. Did the plan ever acknowledge the City owns thousands of parking stalls in ramps and surface lots, and whether that might change in 20+ years? How about down-sizing the freeways or Hiawatha Avenue by 2040? If not, we can expect a lot of people to drive in the future.

    While generally pleased that the plan was an improvement from previous versions, I believe a more robust engagement process would have brought more people on board and perhaps even brought residents together. Instead there appears to be much more of an us vs. them mentality in the City after this process.

    1. Andrew Evans

      I’m going to lean toward this, but then again I’m not sure really of when the city was actually good with outreach to those who really didn’t care one way or another. At least in the case it truly did seem like the city was interested in outreach. Now, we could have the debate (and did) if they were interested in changing their mind, but that’s politics…

      Either way, and I’ve said this before, living in North Mpls I’m not sure what impact any of this will have on me, and it seems others up here had similar motivation over this subject.

      It may not have been perfect, but it wasn’t terrible.

  5. Mike

    I think an assessment of the engagement process should include some balanced and well reasoned critique as well. The engagement leading up to the draft which included poetry and pop up booths at neighborhood gathering may have been technically engagement but the real engagement measure that matter most begin when the draft appeared in March.

    I think “with much fanfare” would be a generous exaggeration. People who were well plugged knew it went live but the vast majority of the city did not. Many people heard about it by word of mouth, and just like the classic game of telephone, things were lost in translation. Here the cities adamant unwillingness to send a letter, or robocall, or a postcard, is mystifying. They could probably have defused a lot of the anxiety that was caused with a more straightforward roll-out instead of spending all their time defending website, social media and community meetings as the only methods needed.

    The planned official comment period was quite short, with only a few forums, and most of the dialog happened at add-on meetings council members took the initiative to schedule when their constituents realized there weren’t many opportunities to learn more.

    I know not everyone liked the website. I liked it. I thought was pretty easy to navigate, thought the build form map tended to crash more than I’d like when you tried to zoom in – I’m sure there were some segments of the population based on tech sophistication who had different opinions – but the planners provided a PDF for them so that should have eliminated that obstacle.

    Lastly it’s worth acknowledging the majority of comments were negative on some aspects of the plan. While there was a relatively small group with extreme criticism, aka the red sign brigade as they have been christened, the majority of criticism was more measured and more focused. The plan.as it should, changed in response to these inputs – while there was clearly a constituency who felt the more density, the better, that is not where the population of Minneapolis is as a whole in where and how they chose to live.

    The step back to triplex vs 4plex for practical and political reasons, the re-thinking of transit corridors and their adjacent blocks, and the elimination of language that could be interpreted as foreshadowing eminent domain are all good changes that came about because of criticism of the plan. For many neighborhoods now, the claim that the plan simply legalizes what we have today is much more accurate than it would have been in plan 1.0 where some areas of single family homes saw 4-6 story apartments in their future.

    The flurry of amendments at the last hour by the city council was irresponsible, IMHO. They had a freeze in July, they had a draft a few months later, and then literally in the last week or two prior to approval we have hundreds of amendments, some quite substantial, come forward. You had to be really diligent to find them – maybe your local CM had a facebook post with their own items, but to get everything from all CM required a lot of digging on the city website meeting info. These of course all happened after the last public session so why did they feel the need to wait until all the public dialog was over – did they just think of these things after months and months of feedback? Sadly it was a little reminiscent of last Decembers 11th hour pay raise move, which also lacked an appreciation of the public reaction to such moves, I thought they might have learned from that episode that transparency and allowing public input is a good idea, in general.

    I do think other cities can learn from the Minneapolis2040 experience both in what went well (maybe we can licence the website for other cities to put their content in and make some $$!) but also just the simple stuff – send the letter. Plan more neighborhood meetings than you think you need,and if you are going to propose a bunch of major amendments, do it during the process, not at the 11th hour.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I’m growing excessively weary of process complaints, but just to not let some of this go unchallenged:

      1. There was way more than “poetry and pop up booths at neighborhood gatherings.” There was a multi-year process of talking to different constituencies, including soliciting online input via the maptionnaire thing in 2017. I’m pretty sure I got an email about that (couldn’t say from whom).

      2. Given the pre-release brouhaha over the leak about fourplexes to the Strib, I’d say you had to be living under a rock not to at least know the plan was coming a couple weeks before it was released. And there was enough anticipation of it that I recall multiple articles in the Strib speculating about timing of the release alone. I got multiple emails from my councilmember. Believe it or not, a lot of people don’t care or think things will be fine. (They’re probably more right than those of us who spend too much time on things like this.)

      3. Given all of that, I think it’s pretty insane to believe that more people would have learned about it or cared had they gotten a postcard.

      4. No one complaining about that thinks that either, which is why they say the mailing should have included their alarmist predictions, because these are somehow “the truth.”

      5. It is beyond naive to believe there was a set of notice and feedback mechanisms that would not have regenerated process complaints from opposition that’s looking for things to complain about. People with “bulldoze” signs are actually upset about the substance. Their process complaints are pretext that could not have been satisfied.

      6. The planned initial comment period was three months. During that time, there were something like 200 public meetings (or maybe that number was throughout the whole process? I definitely saw a claim of over 100 during that period alone). CPED was at all of them, I believe. There were 10,000 comments. This was not a secret. There was then another comment period.

      7. Honestly, the one process mistake they may have made was to allow unlimited and anonymous comments during the first round. They may have been able to get more meaningful data and more reasonable comments, had people needed to give their name. But maybe they wanted it to be totally open. Notice that they changed for comments on the revised draft, though.

      1. Mike

        Um, this was an article on process. So, opinions on the process are valid. You are welcome to your own opinion.

        I would agree the unlimited anonymous comment format was not the best, I’m sure people of all opinions abused that with unnecessary repetition trying to get a count of their POV increased. Another thing to add to the list for other cities to learn from.

        Even if you believe the city did an overall good job on the process, and I do, it’s worth looking with clear eyes at what could have been better.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      “much fanfare” is relative, of course. I’d say compared to just about any other planning discussion, there was a lot of attention and effort. Comp Plans usually fly under the radar.

  6. John AbrahamJohn Abraham-Watne

    Great article, really fills in the pieces of info I was not aware of regarding the engagement process. True, you were advocating for a certain perspective but nobody can deny their voices were not heard in this multi-year process. Thanks for giving this rundown for us folks who have been following this from afar, but have not been into it as much as we should be!

  7. Chip JenneChip Jenne

    Janne, when the Star Tribune profiled you and your fourplex why didn’t they mention your involvement with Neighbors for More Neighbors?

  8. Jim Meyer

    Crisis PR firm was hired . . .by someone . . at level just below needed approval, because the engagement and reception had been so great to that point. And I’m wondering how residents can learn how the 80 grand was spent by the firm. “Partnering with 3rd party supporters.” You mean, like. . ..

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