Urban planning theory is ripe for an overhaul, as ‘2040’ court ruling and pandemic show
Although well-intentioned, current planning theory and the Minneapolis 2040 plan fail in their purpose. The district court’s decision last week in Smart Growth Minnesota v. Minneapolis, which halted implementation of the 2040 plan for environmental reasons, is only the most recent evidence of the problems with using planning theory to address social justice or environmental issues.
Urban planning, urban planning theory and urban design follow trends. Among the hottest theories in recent years have been a push for increased urban density through the elimination of single-family zoning and a call for greater reliance on more public transit to move people around. people. The two goals are to provide more affordable housing, eliminate racial and economic segregation, and protect the environment. This was the design of the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which was nationally announced as a progressive planning model.
From the late 19th century until the 1950s, the trend was for rapid urbanization in America as people left the farms for the cities. Industrialization, improved sanitation, and economic opportunity have led to this. Yet this urbanization has been accompanied by racial pacts and segregation, including Minneapolis and maybe St. Paul.
But post-World War II suburban America was born. It was the product of aging urban infrastructure, the lure of cheap land in the suburbs, the rise of the automobile and massive highway construction, and white flight. The cities became depopulated and the suburbs became the new centers of population. Metropolitan areas have become racially and economically segregated, as described among others by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton in American Apartheid. Twenty-five years ago, a team of researchers, including myself, highlighted the Twin Cities as one of the most segregated urban areas in America.
But about a generation ago New Urbanism as a theory of planning emerged. Inspired by the Jane Jacobs classic The Death and Life of America’s Big Cities, New Urbanism said suburban sprawl was economically inefficient, allowed racial and economic segregation, and was bad for the environment. Sprawl has wasted land or encouraged reliance on cars, often occupied by single commuters. Cities were generators of complexity, and to be successful they did not have to mimic suburbs heavily reliant on single-family homes over large spaces. The New Urbanism proclaims “Return to the city”; densification is good, and creating more transit options is the best way to get people around.
People returned to cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, but it didn’t come without problems. The underlying racial and economic segregation that existed in cities was not alleviated by the return of aging suburbs of baby boomers or Millennials and Gen Z who wanted to live there. In fact, the redensification of cities has led to the gentrification of neighborhoods with concentrations of poor people or people of color. Rents accelerated, housing prices rose, and suddenly cities faced massive affordability crises. This too is the history of Minneapolis and St. Paul, who have the worst housing shortage between the metropolitan regions of the country.
In an effort to address these issues, Minneapolis primarily and St. Paul to a lesser extent have acted. The Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan sought to address this issue by removal of single-family zoning. Allowing up to three units per property and it is believed would increase housing supply, and with more units it would solve the affordability crisis and promote desegregation.
Yet, that did not happen. On the one hand, housing is not a unified but diversified market. Housing built for the rich or middle class is not the same as housing built for the poor. All other things being equal, developers will build the type of housing that is most profitable for them, and it is not for the poor. While some argue that simply increasing the supply of housing lower overall housing costs, there is mixed evidence for this, especially for low-income households.
Second, the housing market is driven by demand from renters and owners. But housing also has a national market, driven by investors looking for opportunities to make money. Preliminary studies pointed out how the zoning change has driven up housing costs in low-income Minneapolis neighborhoods — an early sign of speculation and gentrification. As the Washington Post pointed out in his analysis of housing markets in the United States, including Minneapolis, domestic investors are gobbling up housing in North Minneapolis because the real estate is relatively cheap and they can easily turn it into apartment buildings at multiple dwellings. As a result, people of color in North Minneapolis are losing homes and apartments to investors with little indication that the housing replacing it is affordable or racially integrated. Studies point to the fact that home ownership is inaccessible to black familiesincluding in the Twin towns. This is the first notion of gentrification.
Moreover, densification does not break racial or economic segregation and does not necessarily lead to more affordable housing, according to a recent article by Governance Magazine. Densification does not address mortgage discrimination, which persists in Minneapolis according to the Federal Reserve. There are few indications that expensive single-family homes in south Minneapolis are being divided into affordable housing. Densification may encourage business growth, but it does little to alleviate segregation or provide more affordable housing for those who need it most.
Additionally, as Hennepin District Judge Joseph Klein pointed out in his June 15 ruling on the Minneapolis 2040 plan, increased densification potentially brings with it a host of environmental issues that have not been properly considered. when it is adopted. The City must think about it if it wants to proceed with the elimination of single-family zoning and greater densification.
Now consider the impact of COVID on urban design and planning. At the height of the pandemic, people were told to avoid public transport and work from home. This has been made possible for many, especially the middle class and above, by telecommuting. As the pandemic subsides, studies are being conducted by the Urban Institute and others according to a American Transit Association report.
In addition, many have fled the cities to suburb or even more remote locations to find cheaper and more spacious accommodation, and there is evidence many are not returning and many companies are considering more remote working in the future. This corresponds to a recent Survey on working methods and attitudes finding a generational and permanent shift in views towards hybrid and remote working. People have fled cities to escape the pandemic. From a public health perspective, the suburbs suddenly look like safer places.
But at least in the Midwest, planners and politicians forgot something else: People still want to own a home. Surveys reveal that home ownership is still part of the American dream for many. Home ownership is the most important asset that many people have and it is the key to becoming part of the middle class. Home ownership, while perhaps not for everyone, serves an important set of interests.
Several years ago, I chaired a panel for an American Planning Association regional conference examining the wisdom of Minneapolis’ elimination of single-family zoning. A person from the Met Council proclaimed: ‘We have more single-family housing than we need in the metropolitan area.’ When asked if such housing was affordable or available in the metropolitan area, there was no response.
There is a housing problem in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Something needs to be done, but the planning fixes currently in use will not solve the segregation and affordability issues. Moreover, planning theory and urban design have yet to recognize a new reality that the pandemic has produced. Public health factors must be taken into account in the design of buildings and transport and in the planning of cities. Density, as some studies point out, may not be the right answer in the future if we have to deal with future pandemics. Finally, the pandemic has shown how working from home can also reverse the desire or need to provide more public transport or to build housing exclusively in traditional urban centers.
David Schultz is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Hamline University. Previously, he served as city manager of planning, zoning and code enforcement and as a housing and economic planner for a community action agency.