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.
- Our gardeners developed a super-thoughtful engagement plan. They’re led by the Long Range Planning Team within Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED).
- 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.
- Finally, the grassroots rainfall of support fell from many groups throughout the process, most consistently Neighbors for More Neighbors.*
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*The author is a Neighbors for More Neighbors volunteer.