NIMBYs in disguise? The irony with the environmental case against the Minneapolis 2040 plan

In 2018, Minneapolis became the first major city to end single-family zoning, thanks to the passage of the 2040 plan — a comprehensive plan guiding Minneapolis’ future growth. That liberalization of land use laws is partly to thank for booming housing construction which has kept rents down in Minneapolis compared to other cities in Minnesota and in other states.

Due to a court ruling rendered last week, however, the city of Minneapolis has 60 days to cease implementing the plan. Claiming that “the cumulative impact of the comprehensive plan would pollute public waters while reducing green space for wildlife,” environmental groups including Smart Growth Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds sued the city of Minneapolis for failing to account for the environmental harms of authorizing about 150,000 units of residential housing.

There is some irony here that is just mind-boggling.

The environmental argument

Environmental laws are generally notorious for being used to stop development construction. This is because such kinds of laws are so broad that they can be used against anything. The Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, for example, is meant to “provide an adequate civil remedy to protect air, water, land, and other natural resources located within the state from pollution, impairment, or destruction.” By this sort of logic, any type of development presenting any type of harm is bound to be challenged, regardless of whether it is an improvement over the status quo.

But what makes this case especially ironic is the fact that the 2040 plan specifically goes to great lengths to minimize its environmental impact and, in some cases, potentially even undermines its effort to provide affordable housing with its onerous requirements. From high-density housing near metro lines to bike lanes and eliminating minimum parking, the plan is virtually an environmentalists’ paradise.

Under Policy 6 the 2040 plan, for example, Minneapolis would

Regulate land uses, building design, and site design of new development consistent with a transportation system that prioritizes walking first, followed by bicycling and transit use, and lastly, motor vehicle use.

Does it get more pro-environment than that?

Any reasonable person understands that housing development of any kind is going to have some sort of impact on the environment. Similarly, more people moving into an area would also have some impact. The Minneapolis 2040 plan isn’t mandating that 150,000 houses be built in Minneapolis overnight. Instead, what it offers is guidance to accommodate population growth in a way that could be more environmentally sustainable, in some ways by minimizing energy-intensive activities like driving.

Increased density, moreover, which is one of the key ways in which the plan was supposed to add more housing units, has been found to be good for the environment. Compact living usually means less energy waste, less energy use (as multi-family units tend to be smaller), less driving, more walking, and also less land for development. When you build up, you use less of the green space that plants and animals need, not more.

In fact, the EPA’s modeling in 2006 concluded that:

Denser developments consume less land to accommodate the same number of houses. Consuming less land creates less impervious cover in the watershed.

It is not surprising that some research even concludes that:

Yorkers have the smallest carbon footprints in the United States: 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases per person per year, or less than 30 percent of the national average. Manhattanites generate even less.

Certainly there is some research out there that suggests that above a certain point, tall buildings may use more materials and need more energy to operate, which can lead to more pollution than single-family housing. But again, the Minneapolis 2040 plan isn’t mandating that every developer in the city build skyscrapers. It merely authorizes multi-family units in places where they could not be built before.

There is a lot of variety between single-family homes and very tall skyscrapers. Studies that contend that building taller is bad for the environment, for instance, do not necessarily argue against all density. There are other ways to build dense housing while minimizing the environmental impact of development. The Brookings Institution, for example, concludes that low-rise high-density, or what they call “gentle density,” offers a middle ground for both cost and environmental concerns. Scraping the 2040 plan therefore means that developers won’t even have the option to experiment with different types of dense housing that could be better for the environment than what’s currently available.

Minneapolis reverting back to the 2030 plan means even more urban sprawl, even more people living further apart, more land being used to develop, longer drives, and greater energy usage. Perhaps environmentalists are counting on the idea that without more construction, people won’t move to Minneapolis as much. But that ignores another important point. People who choose not to live in the denser urban areas don’t cease to exist or pollute. By the mere fact that they live in a less densely populated area, they will likely pollute more.

But hey, at least, those plants and wild animals will have more space to exist in Minneapolis, unlike if the city had been built closer together.

Shaky at best

The Minneapolis 2040 plan deserves some valid criticism, especially for its intense planning of every facet of city life. Among other things, the 2040 plan, for example,

requires adequate distribution of windows and architectual features in order to create visual interest.

Requires that the appearance and materials of the rear and side walls of new buildings are similar to and compatible with the front of the building.

Prohibits the establishment of new drive-throughs and gas stations.

Requires licensed grocery stores to stock nutritious food.

Require uniform skyway hours of operation.

However, the argument that going back to the status quo in which houses are built further apart and Minneapolis accommodates fewer people — while others expand into the suburbs where they will drive more, use more energy, and will need more land to build — is better for the environment goes against logic. Unless, of course, these environmentalists are merely NIMBYs in disguise and are merely hiding behind environmental concerns to block more housing.