Like many second-tier suburbs, Eagan was inspired by freeways, designed for cars and populated primarily by drivers in the 20th century. To its credit, the still-growing south-metro city of 68,000 is now asking a 21st-century question: How does a car-centered community become a people-centered one?
That question isn’t exclusive to Eagan, or even to suburbs. But it’s one that Eagan’s leaders are taking seriously in a way that other Minnesota cities would do well to notice. They have launched a strategic planning exercise called Eagan Forward, which brought more than 200 civic-minded residents together on Jan. 28 to consider how they can shape the city’s next 20 years.
Eagan is by no means a troubled place. Last year, USA Today rated it the nation’s fifth-best place to live, and it ranks fourth in metro-area employment. But like a number of the municipalities that sprang out of cornfields and truck farms surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul a half-century ago, Eagan is at an important juncture in its history. Rebecca Ryan, a nationally recognized futurist hired as Eagan Forward’s consultant, said it’s time to chart “Eagan 3.0, ” the redevelopment phase.
“Eagan 1.0 was getting the interstates drawn where they were,” Ryan explained in an interview, referring to I-494 on Eagan’s northern border and I-35E traversing it. “Eagan 2.0 was this amazing decade-over-decade growth, growth, growth, when Eagan cut itself out of whole cloth. Now we’re at 3.0, because all the available land is used up, and this is no longer a bedroom community. It’s becoming a city unto itself.”
Cities don’t just serve families with kids and minivans. They’re also home to elders who no longer drive, hipsters who’d rather not drive, and health-conscious people who love to walk and bike. They are places not just for work and sleep, but also for fun, learning, gathering, and experiencing fine dining and the arts. They’re destinations.
Many of the 200 participants on Jan. 28 volunteered to serve on one or more of eight “study action teams” charged with recommending ways to achieve goals such as keeping seniors engaged, becoming a more welcoming community, attracting new non-chain restaurants and developing a new community arts center.
The politically charged words “density” and “smart growth” are absent from the description of six strategies Eagan Forward seeks to pursue. Neither is mention made of the Metropolitan Council and its Thrive MSP 2040 plan, which has come under conservative fire for favoring transit-oriented, higher-density development. But by listening to residents’ survey responses, Eagan Forward has come up with a compatible vision. It calls for adapting the city’s retail nodes into denser “urban villages” served by walkable, bikeable corridors as well as roads.
The regional planning that has been a Metropolitan Council hallmark is too important to minimize. But Eagan is showing that there’s considerable value in local efforts that invite citizens to play a part in planning. One of Eagan Forward’s six strategies is “use citizens to put the plan to work.” That could be the key to the entire project’s success.