Overturning the 2040 Plan was a terrible error

construction workers

More density enables vibrant neighborhoods with walking, biking and transit options. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

At MN350, we are committed to building a more racially just, sustainable future for Minnesotans in the face of climate change. In Minneapolis, the 2040 Plan outlines one possible path to that future by undoing the strict zoning limitations put in place in the 1960s and 70s, which banned new multifamily housing in large swaths of the city.

But last month, in a suit brought under Minnesota’s bedrock environmental law — the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) — a Hennepin County District Court judge ruled that the city of Minneapolis must stop enforcing the Minneapolis 2040 Plan.

Blocking the 2040 Plan is a blow to those who know that there is no time to waste. There is a lot to unpack in this decision, but let’s talk about just 3 ways in which the decision went wrong.

Absurd assumptions

By state law, city leaders in the Twin Cities metropolitan area are required to take stock of where their city — and the metro area as a whole — is moving in the coming decades. Every ten years they must make a comprehensive plan for shaping their city’s development. That’s what the 2040 Plan is, and it includes 100 policy recommendations on topics ranging from small business development to air quality to reducing traffic fatalities.

While Minneapolis 2040 plans for more density — which, if done right, helps address climate change and make progress on racial justice — it does not require it. Yet, somehow the judge ruled on the 2040 lawsuit with the assumption that every dwelling authorized will actually be built.

Can you imagine every single-family homeowner tearing down their house and building a triplex in the next two decades? No? Neither can we. In terms of number of dwellings, the judge’s ruling assumes a buildout of three times more units than Minneapolis real estate experts expect to see. It’s absurd. Minneapolis residents shouldn’t take this argument seriously. But the court did, and this assumption of a full buildout is the foundation on which the judge allowed the plaintiffs in the 2040 lawsuit to make their environmental argument under MERA.

Environmental benefits of the 2040 Plan

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Smart Growth Minneapolis, Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds — argue the increased density of a full buildout negatively impacts water, habitat and air in the city. However, this is a myopic view of what really causes negative environmental impact — especially in the climate change era.

The 2040 Plan is a comprehensive plan, and while density is part of it, the plan includes a lot more. Considering the plan as a whole shows clear environmental benefits. It includes reducing reliance on cars — which will help improve air quality and health, especially in neighborhoods with more Black, Indigenous and immigrant neighbors who are more heavily impacted by local air pollution.

The plan also addresses building climate resilience. The requirement for improvements in the tree canopy will help the city address the impacts of hotter summers. The plan takes on the realities of bigger rains and includes a focus on using green infrastructure to do so.

At the same time, more density in Minneapolis is itself key to an overall better environment. More density enables vibrant neighborhoods with walking, biking, and transit options. It enables more people to live in an area served by similar amounts of impervious infrastructure. For example, the impervious surface of a road is the same whether it is serving a street with 20 single-family homes or multiple apartment buildings that house dozens more families.

The multifamily housing in denser development means more energy efficiency in homes. In short, density helps Minneapolis achieve its goals to address climate pollution while increasing livability for all people in the city — a huge environmental benefit.

Despite these benefits, the City of Minneapolis’ legal team did not make a positive environmental argument for the 2040 Plan. The court opinion reads, “This unfortunate [legal] strategy has left the City bereft of any fact-based rebuttal or affirmative defense, the type of which is called for under MERA.”

There is a clear environmental case to make in support of the 2040 Plan. Minneapolis should make this case in its appeal.

Ensuring a racially just future

Finally, it’s important to use this legal wrangling about 2040 to ask bigger questions of ourselves about who and what belong in Minneapolis as we navigate the climate crisis. We are moving into unprecedented climate times — driving more extreme weather, more people moving around the world, and generally more risk.

In the midst of all of this, we will still rely on our essential environmental laws, such as comprehensive planning requirements and MERA. However, both pre-date significant concern about climate change. Much of our early environmental laws focused on stopping bad things. (There’s a reason MERA is enforced by the Pollution Control Agency.)

But with climate, it’s no longer just about preventing things. We need to proactively build, and build better. That means energy-efficient homes, better-connected transportation, cleaner energy infrastructure, and greener water management systems. It means vibrant neighborhoods, welcoming more people to our beautiful city. As we navigate this new era, it’s going to be important we make sure our state’s foundational planning and environmental laws serve the collective good.

We need to build the future envisioned in the 2040 Plan. Let’s not let a misguided application of one of our state’s most important environmental laws stop us from doing so.

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Kate Knuth
Kate Knuth

Kate Knuth, PhD, is the founder of Democracy and Climate. She has spent her career working at the intersections of nature, science, research, government and civic life.

Tee McClenty
Tee McClenty

Tee McClenty joined MN350 as executive director in 2022. She has dedicated her life to ensuring that all communities have access to all the resources available to them.