You could argue the update of the regional framework now being undertaken by the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council (now called Thrive MSP 2040) is the most significant piece of land use policy that will be developed this decade. The framework guides the development of various policy plans, which in turn shape the development of regional transportation, water, wastewater, parks and other systems.
The framework also triggers the updating of the comprehensive plans of all cities, townships and counties in the metro area, and legislation requires these comprehensive plans be consistent with the regional framework. That means decisions about the location, intensity and type of development in all seven counties begin with this policy.
What does this have to do with climate change? Well, if you read the previous framework adopted in 2004 you might think
nothing. A search of the document for the words “climate change” or “global warming” turns up exactly zero references. However, we know that land use and transportation decisions can have major impacts on greenhouse gas pollution. The Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group appointed by our climate-hawkiest governor, Tim Pawlenty, had a whole work group focused on transportation and land use issues. That group recommended strategies like focusing growth in developed areas where people can use other transportation besides the automobile, changing subsidies and incentives that encourage low-density development and school siting on massive greenfield acreages, and targeted open space protection. These strategies were adopted unanimously by the advisory group. They also recommended a “fix-it-first” transportation investment policy, and changes to transportation pricing.
All of these strategies would fit perfectly into an update of the region’s long-range plan. These strategies could be implemented both through regional decision-making, like the transportation policy plan that shapes investment in infrastructure, and local comprehensive plans which identify locations suitable for growth and the density at which it may occur.
Another powerful approach would simply be exposing residents and local governments to their impact. Some communities in Minnesota already collect energy use and greenhouse gas emissions data for their community, but many do not. Often, just the act of collecting and reporting this data is enough to get conversations started among residents and policy makers about what local actions can be taken. Projects like the Regional Indicators Initiative are helping cities start this journey. The Met Council could encourage this data collection and these conversations by collecting data on a regional basis and reporting it to communities in their system statements. Or they could ask the communities to do it as part of their comprehensive plan update.
Not only do communities need to adopt strategies to reduce emissions, they need to start preparing for a climate that is already changing. The Upper Midwest has already seen a 31 percent increase in heavy precipitation events since 1958. More extreme heat, floods and drought will impact human health and infrastructure systems. Designing our pipes, roads and rails using historic weather data is no longer appropriate, communities should be looking ahead. Met Council should recognize these future impacts in policy plans to shape the 50- and 100-year investments we’re making in infrastructure now.
Now is the time to act. The Met Council only updates the regional plan once every ten years. Local comprehensive plans are (typically) only updated once every ten years. The science says we need to begin taking dramatic action to reverse the trend of greenhouse gas emissions growth within the next 3 – 8 years or risk some catastrophic consequences. If we wait until the next regional plan update in 2024, we’re too late.