Minneapolis Invests in 'Green Zones'

City Brings Environmental Justice to Its Most Vulnerable Neighborhoods

Actively fighting climate change since 1993, Minneapolis was one of the first cities in the world to adopt a framework for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Today, the city remains a leader in sustainability with an emphasis on bringing environmental justice to its most vulnerable neighborhoods.

The city’s goal to reduce community-wide greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2015 was exceeded by two and a half percent. It’s now on pace to reduce emissions 30 percent below 2006 levels by 2025, though many more significant changes are needed (including decarbonization of building heating systems) to achieve its ultimate goal of reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050.

As a step toward reaching their next milestone, the Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Jacob Frey passed a resolution in April vowing to move the city to 100 percent renewable electricity in municipal facilities and operations by 2022, and citywide by 2030.

Inspired by the Sierra Club’s Ready For 100 campaign and the national youth organization, iMatter, the resolution gives the city’s Division of Sustainability until the first quarter of 2019 to develop a blueprint for reaching the citywide goal. The decree resolves to oppose the rollback of climate policy at the federal level and reaffirms the city’s ongoing commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Luke Hollenkamp, a sustainability program coordinator who focuses on the city's buildings and energy programs, credited renewable energy for the "lion’s share" of the city's success at reducing emissions so far. It's expected that in coming years more electricity will be generated through solar and wind energy and more coal-fired power plants will be retired, Hollenkamp said.

“We’re certainly encouraging Xcel Energy (the city’s electric utility) to add more renewables to their grid. As an investor-owned utility, they make those decisions at the corporate level, but we’re doing everything we can to encourage it and show there’s an appetite for it in the community.” He said the city will also be making it easier for residents and businesses to install on-site renewable energy or invest in community solar projects. Some of that capacity will be dedicated to low-income consumers.

The city’s current emission reduction goals were established in 2013 after the sustainability staff spent more than a year working with partners in the public, private, and non-profit sectors to create the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan.

With input from an Environmental Justice Working Group, the Climate Action Plan included the creation of a Minneapolis Green Zones Initiative, identified as areas of the city that have historically been overburdened by environmental conditions such as air pollution, brownfield sites, blight and substandard housing, and face cumulative impacts of social, economic and political vulnerability.

Sustainability Program Coordinator Kelly Muellman said the place-based policy initiative is intended to reverse the inequitable health, economic, employment, and environmental outcomes in neighborhoods occupied primarily by low-income, indigenous people and communities of color in Minneapolis.

Muellman said the initiative is an example of the Sustainability Division’s evolution from being inwardly focused on municipal operations to becoming a more outwardly focused department making impacts on the community at large.

“Now we’re trying to focus on policy changes or programs that will foster more sustainable activity and actions in the community, whether that is improving access to urban agriculture and land, increasing the number of residents or businesses that do energy efficiency, or increasing the amount of solar capacity that we have installed in the city on private land,” she said.

Muellman said the Green Zone plan will also focus on job opportunities, particularly in the new green economy, as well as the quality and affordability of housing in the city’s two designated Green Zones.

“Another main component of the work that we’re doing is community wealth building, demonstrating how environmental or sustainability-minded strategies can actually help foster more community wealth and stability,” Muellman said. As examples, she said the community is exploring using community land trusts as an alternative path to ownership and worker-owned cooperatives to provide employment, wealth and stability for more people within a neighborhood.

“It’s really trying to figure out a different model for how we do work and change systems, because we know the current process for how plans and policies are developed are not inclusive and therefore they are perpetuating some of the same challenges that these communities have historically had. We can’t assume we can use the same process we’ve always used and see different outcomes,” she said.

Muellman said the project framework has been created and the next steps will involve setting up different working groups to focus on specific objectives established by community leaders within each of the Green Zones, working with city staff from various departments.

A key effort within these zones and throughout the city is improving access to healthy and local food, especially for those in need. Homegrown Minneapolis is a city-community partnership initiative aiming to improve the community’s ability to grow, process, distribute and eat healthier, sustainable, locally grown foods. The initiative has increased access to farmers markets, urban gardens and local retail food outlets across the city. It is guided by the Minneapolis Food Council, established in 2012 to “increase access to quality food, address hunger and food insecurity, connect sectors of the food system, influence policy and decision making, and ensure an environmentally sustainable and socially just food system,” according to its mission statement.

Food Policy Coordinator Tamara Downs Schwei said the city also developed an urban agriculture policy plan. “This generated a vast array of zoning code and text amendments that were drafted and adopted, making it legal and easier to grow and sell food in the city for the first time in several decades and making it much easier to operate and access a farmers market,” she said.

As a result:

  • Nearly 30 farmers markets with more than 800 vendors are currently in operation within the city. The Farmers Markets of Minneapolis collaborative was formed in early 2017 to support the city’s farmers markets through strategic and informed innovation, advocacy, education, and cohesive partnerships. Early projects have included the gathering and assessment of citywide market metrics, collaborative market branding, promoting food access and providing technical assistance to local markets. “Last year we had an estimated 1.2 million visitors citywide and more than $12 million in vendor sales,” said Downs Schwei. She said the markets support more than 5,000 jobs in the community.
  • About 70 city-owned vacant lots, many located in the Green Zones, are made available for community gardens as part of the city’s urban garden lease program. The city also provides free and reduced price compost to help low-income gardeners while reducing carbon emissions and diverting organic waste from the landfill. Overall, there are more than 300 community gardens in Minneapolis.
  • The city has created a number of financial and technical support programs to encourage and assist local food businesses. The Homegrown Small Business Fund, for example, provides financing and technical assistance to Minneapolis-based businesses that process, grow and manufacture local food products. The fund provides eligible applicants loans up to $10,000 at 2 percent interest for a five-year term.
  • Local foods programs are supported by numerous city policies and programs including guidance on keeping chickens, supporting pollinators, operating food trucks and carts, using approved carry-out containers and helping the city reach its recycling goals. Downs Schwei said the city has issued about 100 backyard bee-keeping permits and more than 300 backyard chicken coop permits.
  • In 2008, the city became the first in the nation to pass a staple food ordinance that was expanded in 2014 to require certain types of grocers to provide a minimum set of healthy staple food items to ensure that all Minneapolis citizens have reasonable access to fruits and vegetables, whole grains, eggs, low-fat dairy and other healthy nutritious foods.

Minneapolis has also been a leader in building energy efficiency. In 2013 the city adopted its landmark 2040 Energy Vision, a blueprint for making the city’s energy system reliable, affordable, local and clean, while contributing to a more socially just community. This vision spawned numerous strategic action plans and led to the founding of the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP), a first-of-its-kind partnership between the city of Minneapolis and its local electric and gas utilities. The CEP is led by a joint city/utility board that reviews and approves work plans focused on helping the city achieve its climate and energy goals.

Among the city’s early initiatives was the Commercial Benchmarking Ordinance, which requires owners of all non-industrial commercial buildings 50,000 square feet and larger to report their annual energy and water benchmarking results to the city. Along with the reporting requirements, the policy provides transparency by reporting results to the public, and assistance to help building owners identify and implement energy and water conservations techniques.

The results have shown steady progress. Despite an increase in square footage of commercial properties between 2014 and 2016, weather-normalized energy use intensity (EUI) decreased by 1.7 percent and water consumption decreased 5.9 percent, according to the latest report. The benchmarking allows for competitions, recognition of top achievers and sharing of best practices among participants.

Armed with this new data, the CEP’s 2017-2018 Work Plan has established new and effective community engagement strategies to drive participation in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs targeting each of five residential and commercial building categories.

Hollenkamp said the work plan includes 23 separate actions that are currently being implemented.

“As a community, we’re spending more money to expand and accelerate the climate work we’ve already been doing as well as creating new energy programs,” Hollenkamp said. He said some of the city’s new programs are being funded by incremental increases in a utility franchise fee, which is collected from rate payers by the utilities and then transferred to the city.

For example, Hollenkamp said, the city recently began using these funds to partially subsidize home energy audits. The audits are conducted free of charge to residents in the Green Zones and other low-income residents throughout the city.

Access Minneapolis is the city’s transportation action plan, which is really the compilation of separate master plans for downtown and city-wide transportation and specific plans for streetcars, pedestrians and bicycles. In 2016, the city adopted a complete streets policy that aims to reduce vehicle miles traveled within the city, de-emphasizing cars and establishing guidelines for providing a road and trail system that encourages walking, biking and the use of public transit.

Since 2007, the use of bicycles in the city has increased 49 percent while the rate of motorist-bicyclist crashes has declined 52 percent, according to city reports. When the bicycle plan was first drafted in 2011, the city had 138 miles of bikeways. Today there are 249 miles, with another 153 miles planned.

The 3.4-mile Nicollet-Central Modern Streetcar will be the first modern streetcar in Minneapolis. The $200 million project was approved in 2013, but construction has yet to be scheduled. The line is expected to carry more than 9,000 daily riders. Two additional streetcar lines are in the early planning stages.

To help make Minneapolis more walkable and reap a variety of environmental benefits, Muellman said the city provides funding for tree planting on private property. The City Trees program was launched in 2006 and in the past five years more than 13,000 trees have been planted.

Minneapolis also has a strategy for shrinking its waste stream by encouraging reuse and increasing recycling of both organic and inorganic materials. In 2017, the Zero Waste Plan was adopted and will help the city reach its goal to recycle or compost 50 percent of its overall waste stream by 2020, 80 percent by 2030, and achieve a zero-percent growth rate in the total waste stream from 2010 levels.

Sustainable City Network will host a free 1-hour webinar on Thursday, July 26, featuring the sustainability initiatives of the city of Minneapolis. Register or download the recorded webcast at https://sCityNetwork.com/Minneapolis.