Recently I saw a Reddit post, shared on Twitter, from an American who had been traveling for a month in Europe and upon returning home had rapidly become disillusioned with American urbanism. “The way [they] are set out to be so pedestrian-friendly. … You feel actually as though you are cared for by the infrastructure,” the traveler wrote of European cities. “Back home, there’s just wide roads and grey buildings with little pockets of activity scattered throughout. It feels like a weight on my shoulders that I never felt before I did my trip.”
It’s a comparison that could be made between many European cities and many American counterparts. But as it happens, the home that this specific traveler had returned to was Minneapolis.
Minneapolis is my home, too. This despite being born in New York City, growing up in a commuter rail suburb, studying abroad in Oslo, being the son of a Dutch passport holder and living for seven years in Philadelphia. I’ve spent a lot of time in some famously incredible cities and even still I’m here by choice.
Sometimes I flatter myself by thinking that my perspective, to varying degrees as both an insider and an outsider, can provide a helpful lens for thinking about Minneapolis (and our twin city of St. Paul). So let me say this:
Minneapolis has a lot to learn from many other cities. Our homes are too few to be available to all, our communities are too far apart to be densely knit, our roads are too wide to be safe, our public transit is too un-staffed to be there whenever you need it, our bicycle infrastructure is too nascent to be broadly comfortable, and our pedestrian infrastructure is too inconsistent to protect everyone who is at risk.
Our local politics is inflected with bitterness, our approach to homelessness can seem like tires spinning on ice, our approach to crime is setting neighbor against neighbor, our police department is in perpetual crisis, our school district is in perpetual crisis, and then to top it all off if you open up the newspaper (or worse, social media) you’ll find that the nation, or another nation, or the whole world seem to be in crisis too.
And yet, let me say this also:
Minneapolis is more prosperous, competent and forward-looking than so many other cities.
- We have set a national benchmark for housing policy.
- We’ve been building more densely for a decade now.
- In the aggregate, our local rents have remained relatively flat and affordable for years.
- We are actively narrowing and right-sizing our local and county roads, something that is happening for the first time in history.
- Metro Transit is fully funded, recovering steadily from the pandemic, and expanding its highest quality services with a speed that almost no other American city can match.
- Our standards for bicycle infrastructure have evolved to approach international best-practices; we are largely beyond the world of paint and plastic bollards where many of our peers are still mired.
- We have a fresh $20 million to invest into streetscape safety improvements and a fantastic action plan to identify and act on priorities quickly.
And whether it’s the mayor that you hate, or a City Council faction that you hate, they all basically agree on the policy outline for housing and transportation described above. The city’s leftist faction largely rejects the zero-sum approach to new housing that has poisoned the debate of many other cities. The city’s most “conservative” ward overwhelmingly re-elected the incumbent who supported a pioneering bikeway project. There’s a lot of progress on homelessness that is happening, often away from the spotlight at the county level. The city is increasing its investment in public safety, including alternatives to policing, like few other cities anywhere. And at the state level, a package of progressive reforms with few national comparisons passed the legislature.
You can total up both sides of the ledger differently, if you wish, but my faith in this place has a a deeper source. There’s a well of optimism about Minneapolis, and to some extent Minnesota as a whole, from which I’ve always drawn. I believe that the civic ethos here has maintained a rare and productive balance between two extremes. On one end is a belief that the place that you live is the best place on earth and you wouldn’t want it any other way. On the other is a deep knowledge of the flaws of the place that you live and their intractability.
Both of these beliefs can, in the absence of the other, justify inaction and polarization. But I believe it is possible and healthy to hold onto both. It is the love of a city that inspires action and understanding of its faults that channels it. Take me at my word when I say that more than other places I have lived, I have found that Minneapolis embodies this balance. This is why I have identified with this place since I first came here as a student and it why I have come back to make my home here as an adult. I want to be a part of a place that finds meaning in its flaws and identity in striving to become better.
So, it’s true that we are not Oslo or Vienna. We will likely never resemble New York City. And we can justifiably lament that we lack the urban legacy of Boston or Montreal or that we are not even re-urbanizing with the propulsive force of Calgary or Seattle.
But neither are we stagnating nor rejecting progress. We are working to improve and we are seeing, slowly but surely, the fruits of our labor. So much of the hardest work in consensus building and political alignment is accomplished already, to an extent that few of our common comparison cities can boast. Now what’s left is to capitalize on those shifts. In so many areas that I follow most closely (housing policy, transit expansion, streetscape design), momentum is increasing. I am confident we will see progress, both relative and absolute, in other arenas as well.