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Minneapolis Planning Fail

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I used to be one of those urban snobs who would rant about the god-forsaken suburbs. I could go on and on about treeless cookie-cutter tracts of sterile garage doors hiding soulless monotony that passed for neighborhoods. Now I am wiser.

The suburbs have advantages, and the form of development is a minor factor in quality of life. I still prefer the city, but I am not so arrogant about it. Planners and the electeds who hire them, however, are still filled with hubris.

For the decade-plus I have been involved in neighborhood activism, at the grassroots of urban planning efforts, I have seen millions poured into subsidizing development in Minneapolis. We’ve turned abandoned downtown railyards into residential neighborhoods, home to tens of thousands. We built a light rail line to connect the Minneapolis core to the other major regional amenities.

The new stuff did attract people. But on the whole, how have our planners served out city? Did they provide—via subsidy—the kind of lifestyle that a majority of area residents preferred?


Updated demographic information recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 382,578 people lived in Minneapolis in 2010. That’s 40 fewer people than occupied the city in 2000—reflected in census statistics as a 0 percent change.

Maybe that’s a regional problem. Maybe we’re lucky to have kept the population we had, and our planners deserve gratitude for forcing their scheme upon us.

Or not.

The greater metro area, meanwhile, experienced some growth, according to census data compiled by the Metropolitan Council. The region’s population increased by 207,505 during the decade to about 2.85 million, a change of roughly 8 percent.

Our utopians did not manage to capture any of the growth of the past decade. Despite the subsidies and the easy money of the credit bubble. Since the newly-built neighborhoods captured all the growth (pdf map : Ward 7 includes the downtown railyards and Ward 2 includes U of M housing), that means the remainder of Minneapolis was further hollowed out by a continuing suburban exodus.

Politicians and planners can point to the thriving new neighborhoods as evidence of successful policy. It was built, and they came. Thousands who look like and live like the planners themselves. Content without a garden, not needing space for a traditional family, feeling righteous to walk to work during the few months when walking here is tolerable. That self-reflecting demographic slice the planners served well.

New Urbanism is not only environmentally superior, it is what the people want. So let’s build more!

Despite the stagnant population in Minneapolis, the city has continued to build: Since 2000, Minneapolis has added 9,681 housing units—boosting the city’s total to nearly 180,000 units. The new construction has been offset by foreclosures and family displacements during the recession, and the city now has a staggering 14,747 vacant housing units—representing a vacancy rate of about 8.3 percent, versus the 3.7 percent vacancy rate in 2000.

The planners’ vision is a proven success. As long as you don’t look in the 55418. Or the northside. Or pretty much anywhere else in Minneapolis without lofts or a lake nearby.


The pro-planning faction would call that a market failure. Private developers laid out those tracts counting on continued easy borrowing. The pro-planners cite the roads and sewers put in by townships to support development as an example of unfair subsidy to the exurban lifestyle.

I think they’re half right. It was still planners, just not New Urbanist planners, who decided that there was demand for more exurban growth. When planners do not work for the government, they’re called developers.

Either way, its a racket. But when private planners fail, they go bankrupt and probably learn from their mistakes. When public planners fail, they just build more empty faux-rowhouses and vacant storefronts.