Despite hitting a few dissonant chords, the Metropolitan Council has produced a long-range plan that’s in close harmony with a changing world. More than the plans of previous councils, the “Thrive MSP 2040” draft, now in final review, confronts the evolving land-use and transportation challenges facing Minneapolis-St. Paul and offers a thoughtful, evenhanded response. If implemented, the plan would enhance the Twin Cities’ livability and further strengthen the Midwest’s second-largest metro economy.
That’s not the way everyone sees it, of course. From the left come rebukes of a too-timid approach that continues to encourage the kind of far-flung development that wastes fuel, damages the environment, stifles the economy and acquiesces to concentrations of racial poverty. From the right come complaints of a heavy-handed plot to “stack and pack” residents into high-density, high-cost housing, forcing them to ride trains, and, in the process, killing off freedom and prosperity.
Reality lies somewhere in between, but surely nowhere near the conservative view. The council, from its Republican beginnings in 1967, has been largely a paper tiger, too bashful to push its full legal authority, preferring instead to employ the softer powers of suggestion and collaboration.
Through the decades, the result has produced mainly sprawl and disparity. Ever-expanding suburbs and freeways were popular, so the council dutifully extended sewer lines to accommodate the sparse housing and shopping that builders and buyers wanted. Suburbs grew and prospered while central cities emptied out. Transit was seen largely as a benefit for the urban poor and the few oddballs who still clung to city life. That’s the pattern that the council’s conservative critics still view as normal.
Things have changed
But starting in the 1990s, that pattern began to reverse itself in some of the nation’s most successful cities, and, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, it was clear that something had changed in the Twin Cities, too.
The market was demanding greater efficiency and sustainability in business and in lifestyle. The population was aging and becoming less white. Younger people wanted more choices in housing and transportation. Only one-fifth of new households included children.
Those demographic trends were tilting the market toward smaller footprints, more infill development and more reinvestment in older, urbanized districts. After six decades of loss and stagnation, the central cities were growing again, while the far suburbs were slowing down. The “Thrive” plan responds to those market trends. Its direction is bolstered by an unprecedented two-year outreach that included 118 community meetings, nearly 11,000 online inquiries and more than 3,000 public comments.
The plan’s approach is authentically conservative: conserving land and energy; embracing the homespun value of making the most of infrastructure that’s already built, and expanding freedom — the freedom to plausibly choose not just the auto-dependent suburban lifestyle that still dominates the region but also a more compact alternative that offers transit, bike lanes and walkable streets, whether in the city or at the metro edge.
This side-by-side approach — this “new balance” — aims to be the hallmark of the “Thrive” plan. Over the next three decades, it projects that 44 percent of new households will locate in already-developed areas, both urban and suburban. That’s up from a 29 percent projection in the last metro plan, produced in 2006.
Among other changes, the new plan emphasizes:
• Prosperity. It drops the pretense that infrastructure planning has nothing to do with economic competitiveness and recognizes that metro areas have become the primary units of global competition for jobs, prosperity and quality of life.
• Financial constraints. Among the factors constraining development at the metro edge is a lack of money for new roads. After 2022, the Minnesota Department of Transportation budget allows only for maintenance of existing highways. Likewise, growth in the inner metro may be stymied by transit funding shortages.
• Equity. It’s bad enough that the Twin Cities metro leads the nation in racial disparity; it’s worse that poor minorities are increasingly sequestered in a few neighborhoods, nearly all of them in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Aside from the human toll, those concentrations of poverty pose a huge threat to prosperity and competitiveness. While metro government can’t by itself erase social and cultural deficits, it can improve opportunities for viable housing and transportation to jobs, and it can apply policies aimed at dispersing affordable housing while encouraging middle-class homeownership in troubled areas.
• Water supply and climate change. Plentiful water is one of the metro’s primary assets and requires care in the siting of development and transportation projects. Meanwhile, the increasing frequency and severity of damaging storms invites a range of responses aimed at reducing fossil-fuel consumption, including options for transit and compact development.
Where the plan falls short
The “Thrive” plan hits a number of sour notes, however. Its 2040 growth estimates for the metro’s 186 cities and towns do not match the rhetoric of the plan itself. While the plan speaks of a “pivot” toward infill development, its statistical projections suggest that most new development is expected on fresh ground at the suburban edge (56 percent of new households, for example).
Metro officials explain that those projections may lag the aspirations expressed in the plan itself, drawn from the testimony of residents and experts. There’s nothing in the plan to prevent the inner metro from outperforming those projections, they say.
Then there’s the plan’s failure to acknowledge that many of the challenges it mentions (concentrated racial poverty, for example) have been exacerbated by the council’s own timidity, both now and in decades past. How do you explain a metro government, founded to guide the “orderly and economical” growth of the region, allowing just two of its cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) to shoulder nearly the entire poverty burden? The council owes metro residents an explanation — and a far greater pivot than this plan imagines.