EcoDistricts Summit 2018: Reimagining the Twin Cities

This fall, the EcoDistricts Summit is heading to Minneapolis and St. Paul, two dynamic cities with complex histories, unique architecture, and diverse cultures. The Twin Cities are situated along the banks of the Mississippi River, just north of the river’s confluence with the Minnesota River. The geography makes for an interesting landscape of bluffs, spectacular bridges, and waterfront views, and colors the way locals refer to place. When asking a Minnesotan for directions, almost all will use the river as a point of reference.

Sixteen lakes are also located within the city limits, making discussion about water in the land of lakes fluid. City leaders and community organizers eagerly wade into conversation about water infrastructure and managing point and nonpoint source pollution, and the discussion invariably turns to the topic of environmental justice.

Growth for Some, Not All?

Much like other cities in the U.S., Minneapolis is experiencing an urban regeneration boom as people seek to move back downtown, close to jobs in well connected, walkable communities. In fact, Minneapolis is going through what has been dubbed as “The Big Build,” where more than $1 billion worth of construction permits were issued in the city for four years running. This collection of major projects will add new green space, facilities and public amenities that will transform the city’s neighborhoods for decades to come. What that transformation will look like is the big question and a big opportunity.

In the midst of the excitement about these “big build” projects and many others, racial and economic disparities continue to worsen in the cities. Indigenous communities, low-income communities, and communities of color in Minneapolis and St. Paul continue to experience unequal health, wealth, employment, and education outcomes. The disparities are so acute, that in late summer 2017, Minnesota was named the second-most unequal state in the country behind Wisconsin. This was based on a study that measured gaps between black and white residents in areas like unemployment, income and homeownership. Among other startling statistics, the study found the median income for a black household is $30,306, less than half of the median income for white households, which is $66,979.

These same communities also bear the burden of harmful environmental conditions, including air pollution due to traffic congestion and industry, water pollution and other stationary pollution sources. Brownfield sites, blight and substandard housing are also prevalent within their neighborhoods.

One of the most pervasive symbols of this is embodied in the The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center or the “HERC”, located in downtown Minneapolis in a neighborhood referred to as North Minneapolis. It is a waste-to-energy facility that burns garbage to generate energy, and also provides jobs for nearby residents. North Minneapolis is populated dominantly by communities of color and lower-income households. Studies show that this area is severely impacted by an unhealthy amount of lead and other toxic metals in the air, leading to higher asthma rates and other health issues that only exacerbate racial and economic disparities.

Despite being one of the most transit-dependent communities in the region, North Minneapols is not well served by light rail or rapid transit. Initial planning and recent rail extensions only graze the neighborhood. Now plans being made for projects that could better serve the area. In the meantime, city officials and community members are wrestling with how to approach bringing capital into the community without encouraging projects that will ultimately displace residents down the line.

Addressing the Intersections of Equity, Climate and Resilience

City leaders have launched initiatives to help address some of these tensions. Most notably, the Minneapolis Green Zones initiative which came from the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan Environmental Justice Working Group. These Green Zones represent a place-based approach to improving health and supporting economic development, while using environmentally conscious efforts in communities that are most environmentally, socially and politically vulnerable.

Still, community leaders feel that more can be done to address these interconnected issues. On Thursday, March 8, residents from North Minneapolis and surrounding neighborhoods gathered on a cold, wet night for a forum on the status of the environmental justice movement in the twin cities. Topics went beyond the environment, and included discussion about economic development and community policing. When asked how the city was performing on addressing environmental issues, almost all panelists were critical of past efforts. Though, all acknowledged that with new Mayors in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, there remains a lot to be seen.

Interestingly enough, freshly-elected Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey joined faith and civic leaders in the North Minneapolis neighborhood the next morning to launch of the community’s first “Just Solar Garden”. The crowd gathered on the roof of Shiloh Temple, led by Bishop Richard Howell, where the array will be installed. It will initially provide power to the church, Masjid an Noor mosque and more than 20 residents who subscribe.

Across the river in St. Paul, another community solar project seeks to provide low-income residents with power. Dayton’s Bluff is a neighborhood located on the east side of the Mississippi River. It borders St. Paul’s Railroad Island neighborhood in the southeast part of the city. Here is where Xcel Energy is partnering with the community to build a utility-owned solar farm that would serve 100 homes and residents who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the panels.

The farm will be built on an east side bluff overlooking downtown. The site formerly served as a dump site for the city of St. Paul. The farm would also be adjacent to Erchul’s Rivoli Bluff housing project, a project that is one of St. Paul’s biggest housing development in decades. In addition to the solar farm, Xcel is partnering with Erchul and the Energy CENTS Coalition on an outreach program. They are working to offer funding for efficiency upgrades to low-income residents. A community garden is also planned for the site.

To the west, closer to the border of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the old Ford Plant also represents a huge redevelopment opportunity. The 144-acre former Ford Motor Co. manufacturing site in St. Paul’s Highland Park community is currently on the market for sale to private developers. To guide development, the St. Paul City Council has approved a master plan that calls for rezoning most of the acreage for medium- to high-density residential development as well as a limited number of commercial buildings. State-of-the-art environmental protections, public transit access, and a 20 percent dedication to affordable housing are also in the plan. With new St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter at the helm, the pressure to get the project right is high.

A Project Bridging the Twin Cities

Not too far away from the Ford site, directly in the middle of the Central Corridor-an 11-mile light rail line connecting the University of Minnesota and the central business districts of Minneapolis and Saint Paul-is the site of the emerging Towerside Innovation District. Towerside is right on the border of the twin cities. It straddles two neighborhoods: Prospect Park in Minneapolis, and Saint Anthony Park in Saint Paul.

Community leaders anticipated that the Green Line Light Rail Transit project was going to bring change to their neighborhoods. Intent on avoiding the mistakes of traditional urban redevelopment, they joined with a collaborative of philanthropic funders to build a “corridor of opportunity.” Together, they seek to create a diverse district, with affordable housing, green transportation, and bustling businesses.

This comprehensive effort was beyond the scope and resources of any single sector, so Towerside was established. Towerside uses a systems, or district-thinking, approach to development. They have identified a 370-acre “Innovation District,” and will act as a quasi-master developer with control over the district’s development. They will facilitate real estate and infrastructure projects in the area, while simultaneously delivering community-outcomes.

We are excited to welcome their team in May as they participate in the 2018 EcoDistricts Incubator, a three-day intensive designed to empower district-scale teams to accelerate sustainable projects forward.

Join Us for the EcoDistricts Summit, October 17-18

We have only just begun to scratch the surface of community and urban development projects in Minneapolis-St. Paul. We are continuing to reach out to movers and shakers in the cities. These are the people that are working each day to peel back the layers of equity, climate and resilience. They seek to design neighborhoods in which everyone can thrive.

Join us at the Summit where we will re-imagine the Twin Cities and co-design the neighborhoods of the future with over 400 urban and community changemakers, municipal leaders, and A&E professionals from all over the world. Together, we’ll dig in and unpack the Twin Cities’ urban redevelopment legacies, explore innovative projects, and uncover important breakthroughs. We’ll visit Towerside, have drinks at Water Bar & Public Studio, explore the Green Zones, tour the Ford Plant and St. Paul Ecodistrict, and more to discuss district energy and water solutions, adaptive reuse, infrastructure, housing and creative placemaking.

Don’t delay, Early bird tickets are on sale now.

We’re looking for inspiration! Submit a session proposal today to help build a dynamic and diverse program.

Are you in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and want to be a part of bringing the summit to your city? Consider Sponsorship or joining the Host Committee.

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