How to make the Twin Cities the best region in America
A classic Time magazine cover from August 13, 1973, shows Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson on a lakeshore, hoisting a big fish, next to the headline: "The Good Life in Minnesota." The accompanying article touted Minnesota as a state that works, an example to be envied and emulated throughout the nation.
More than 40 years later, we're hip again. Time and again, lately, Minneapolis-St. Paul tops '"Best places to live" lists. Our job growth is solid and our real estate prices have rebounded and then some.
We've got music, theater, and literature, and we just legalized gay marriage. You can bike just about anywhere, and we're undergoing a massive local food and beer boom.
But nothing is perfect. So what will it take to prepare the Twin Cities for a great future? We asked a crack panel of experts.
1. Keep bringing back the downtowns
Millennials are wary of the suburban two-car lifestyle. Many empty-nesters are looking to downsize and trade the single-family home for the convenience of a downtown apartment. There's plenty of demand for more city-centered lifestyles.
"We've always had a strong enough downtown," says former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. "But now we've added thousands of new residents, and turned a strong 12-hour-a-day downtown into a 24-hour vibrant place to work, live, and play."
Downtown Minneapolis is pulsing with the sound of construction. Even the much-maligned Block E finally will have a second life as a haven for the Timberwolves and the Mayo Clinic. With the Vikings stadium a done deal, Nicollet Mall is ready for its makeover. Even downtown St. Paul is showing signs of life.
But downtowns aren't just buildings and infrastructure. As in typography, what's left unoccupied in between is just as important to making it work.
John Soranno, the co-founder of Punch Pizza, got his 15 minutes of fame when President Barack Obama gave him a shout-out in his State of the Union address in January. Soranno also knows a thing or two about dense, vibrant downtowns, having spent part of his childhood in Milan, Italy.
"I would like to see more parks in downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul," he says. "Block E should have never been built. If we would have made the commitment 20 years ago to make that an urban park space, I think that would have paid dividends for downtown Minneapolis."
Soranno likes the plans for a new park in downtown Minneapolis, next to the new Vikings stadium. He calls Peavey Plaza the perfect example of an urban park that works.
2. Support the local-food explosion
Gone are the days when a typical Minnesota meal was bland and white. When sophisticated mega-city dwellers from the coasts do end up here, they're often blown away.
"It's like an explosion," says Heartland Restaurant owner and chef Lenny Russo, who was a finalist for this year's James Beard award for Best Chef Midwest.
Customers have become more discerning and adventurous. The farm-to-table movement is everywhere from food trucks to fine dining.
"Every week I get at least one or two emails from another farmer who's raising a heritage breed of some sort of animal," says Russo. "Let's face it, it's all about the ingredients. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but you can certainly fry it and put it in your stomach."
Along with the dining explosion comes a local-beer boom. Local breweries have been successful for years, but since the Legislature allowed them to sell beer onsite in 2012, tap rooms have sprouted up all over.
Qiuxia Welch is the co-founder of the Boom Island Brewing Company, which specializes in Belgian-style beers. The brewery has been around for two and a half years. A tap room followed last December.
"We're just trying to keep up with demand," says Welch.
Our growing sophistication about what we put in our mouths in general helps small breweries, says Welch. "People are looking for local products. They want to support small businesses instead of corporations. That's part of the wider trend."
So how do we solidify our status as a nascent foodie capital?
"We've got to continue to make it an attractive place for small restaurants to open up," says Soranno. "The less barriers we have for first-time restaurant owners like I was 18 years ago, the better."
A growing number of restaurants around the Twin Cities have to compete over the same limited talent pool and pay good people top dollar, says Russo. That puts a strain on budgets, because even high-end restaurants operate on thin margins. So why not expand the talent pool?
"It would be a great thing if there was some kind of funding mechanism available to help young people develop the skills they need to fill these positions. Maybe we need to come up with some kind of an apprenticeship program, where we work with the trade schools and the culinary academies, and with the high schools as well."
In any case, we shouldn't hesitate to blow our own horn, and promote ourselves as a foodie destination, says Russo. "We have things that are either as good or better than any place else. There's no reason Andrew Zimmern should live here, but he's still here."
3. Fix the traffic mess
Have you noticed that you seem to be spending a lot more time in traffic lately? Don't worry, you're not alone.
According to the Washington-based tracking firm INRIX, traffic in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro was up 16 percent last year compared to 2012, making MSP the 16th most congested metro in the country.
"Traffic here is unbelievable," complains acclaimed photographer Alec Soth. "I live in south Minneapolis and I work in St. Paul, and every year it gets worse and worse. It's affecting the quality of life."
Meanwhile, our embryo of a light rail system lags behind lauded examples such as Denver and Portland, Oregon, as well as lesser lights like Dallas and Salt Lake City.
What that should tell us is that we can't rest on our laurels. A city that wants to thrive needs to be mobile. And that will take serious investments over the coming years.
With the Green Line light rail on University Avenue set to open in June, there's a major push for mass transit going on already. But we shouldn't only fall in love with light rail trains, streetcars, and other high-tech hardware, warns Joan Pasiuk of Bike Walk Twin Cities, a federally funded initiative that aims to help people get out of their cars.
"We have a world-class system of trails, and those are used lovingly for recreational purposes," Pasiuk says. "But we need to connect them to a real network, so that people can get to daily destinations like work, school, the post office, or the grocery store. The less cars are required, the more households will have the economic advantage of not owning one."
What is sorely needed is settling on a metro-wide, long-term plan and sticking to it, says John Adams, an urban geographer and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota.
"Cities change slowly, and it takes about 50 years to get where you want to go, but if you don't believe in planning, every inch of the way is a fight."
The lack of a mature public transit network isn't just a problem for drivers, notes rapper Toki Wright, who is also a community organizer and the head of the hip-hop studies department at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. It's also a major obstacle for those who don't have a car, let alone a job.
"If I have to take two hours and transfer three buses to get to a decent paying job in the suburbs, and I have kids, it's less likely that I'm going to take that job."
4. Build denser cities
The Metropolitan Council, MSP's planning board, projects that the region will grow to 3.67 million people in 2040, up from 2.84 million at the time of the 2010 census. Where are we going to put all those new people?
To many, the answer is clear: We'll have to get denser.
"Here in Minneapolis, we've plotted out exactly where we want to grow," says Rybak. "On the river, around the football and baseball stadiums, by the farmers market and where Kmart is today. Those areas are ready for tens of thousands more people without having any negative impact on the single-family residential neighborhoods."
That's easier said than done. All around town, plans for denser development have been met with stiff resistance from residents who fear their neighborhoods will be ruined when even modest-sized multi-story apartment and mixed-use buildings go up.
We shouldn't let the NIMBY syndrome hold us back, says John Adams. "People just resist change. What's familiar is what's thought to be necessary."
Joan Pasiuk envisions a region where public transit puts commercial areas within reach for bicyclists and pedestrians. "Land use is huge," she says.
There is no reason why increased density couldn't go along with more open space, says Pasiuk, because if people drive less, we won't need as many roads. "There are some efforts now to think about greenways and streets that can be decommissioned for motor vehicle travel. Those can become a linear park, a gathering place, a source of community pride."
5. Prepare for climate change
The weather is always a big deal around here, but because of climate change it's about to become even bigger. Various local governments have studied the issue, and they all end up at the same conclusion: Things will get uncomfortable quite often.
"Minnesotans should expect more difficult summers, with intense heat waves increasingly common, more prevalent water- and insect-borne diseases, and a greater number of days with low air quality," states the climate plan that the city of Minneapolis drew up last year.
That is a crisis waiting to happen, says John Abraham, a climate expert at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "Particularly for people who are vulnerable: older folks and young kids. They will be less able to have their bodies fight off the heat."
During recent heat waves in Europe and Russia, thousands died of heat-related causes. Since the Twin Cities will be exposed to similar weather patterns, we must come up with heat emergency plans, says Abraham.
"Expect the unprecedented," says MPR's chief meteorologist and climate guru Paul Huttner. "We seem to be having what we call 'weather whiplash', where we swing from one extreme to the other. We could go from flood to drought in just a few weeks."
The point is: Things will break. Already, Minnesota is a national leader in catastrophic insurance losses. According to the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, home insurance rates are up 267 percent since 1997. And that's just the beginning.
"We built the Twin Cities on climate assumptions that were in place 50 or 100 years ago and no longer apply today," says Huttner.
We have to rethink the way we build and maintain our region, agrees Abraham. "We need to lower the economic cost as climate change happens. We can't stop it, but we can become more resilient."
6. Use and generate energy wisely
The good news is that a lot of the things we're doing already — more public transit and higher density — will also prepare us for our new climate, says J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director at the St. Paul-based advocacy group Fresh Energy.
The state of Minnesota aims to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2025. The Twin Cities are planning accordingly. The first item on the agenda is designing energy-efficient new buildings and retrofitting existing homes and commercial inventory.
"That should be the first thing that we do," agrees Maggie Koerth-Baker, the Minneapolis-based science editor at Boing Boing and author of the recent book Before the Lights Go Out — Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us. "If you look at where the majority of our emissions come from — it's from electricity generation. The majority of that is waste in buildings. So the biggest thing we need to look at is reducing the amount of energy it takes to power our buildings."
A major energy-efficiency push would be good for everybody's bottom line, says Drake Hamilton. "When we make our buildings more livable for more people, we are going to be creating jobs and improving everybody's quality of life."
At the same time, we need to get ourselves into the clean-energy-generating game. To Drake Hamilton, "community solar gardens" are a big part of the solution.
To make up for the fact that not everybody has the right kind of roof — or income — for solar panels, the Legislature opened the door last year for people to buy a share in neighborhood solar parks that could be located on the flat, unobstructed roofs of commercial buildings. At the end of the month, your utility credits you for the power your slice of the neighborhood solar park has generated.
To make renewable energy work, we must also rebuild the power grid, Koerth-Baker says. "That's not just good for building a hippie utopia, but it's also good resiliency during disasters."
Dense cities are also energy-efficient.
"If you want sustainability, you also have to have density. And density doesn't necessarily mean we have to look like Hong Kong. We shouldn't get into this false dichotomy that says we either have to live in a quaint little village, or we have look like downtown, and there's nothing in between. We really need to find ways to make that acceptable to people, because if you don't do that, you're not sustainable."
7. Get the jobs done
What do we do to keep our economy bubbling? We double down on our strengths, says Michael Langley, the CEO of Greater MSP, otherwise known as the Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership.
"Human talent is going to be our secret weapon for the future. We have a strong economy because we have a very strong workforce. Smart people attract really good businesses, and good businesses attract more smart people," he says.
The Twin Cities has 19 Fortune 500 headquarters, boasts Langley. The area is a global player in three key sectors: food, healthcare, and, less well-known, water technology, which, according to Greater MSP, employs 12,000 people in the Twin Cities — more than anywhere else in the U.S.
Water technology will be an increasingly important international asset, says Rybak. As global warming becomes an ever more pressing condition, water will be more vital around the world. Local companies such as Pentair, 3M, Ecolab, and Osmonics, which was recently acquired by GE, are promising to make water management MSP's newest growth engine.
Africa, which is perpetually dealing with scarce or contaminated water, could become a major market for local players. "China is dominating Africa, but the solution for the United States is called Minneapolis-St. Paul, where we have a part of the population connected directly to Africa," he says.
Writer and community activist Nimo Farah, who came to Minnesota as a refugee from the Somali civil war in 1994, is all for it, as long as forays into Africa are undertaken with the good of the local populations in mind.
"Of course there are opportunities because of globalization and because of all these connections that we have," she says. "That's the case for Somalia, too. Although it's a war-torn country, there are many opportunities. There are a lot of people that are returning and taking advantage of those opportunities."
8. Promote the hell out of the place
The only three things people elsewhere think they know about Minnesota are that it's freezing cold nine months out of the year, Prince lives here, and it's the setting for the movie Fargo. To make matters worse, Fargo just came back as a TV series on FX to mock us. It might not be the easiest task to advertise the biggest metro in the state to the rest of the world. Or is it?
If it were up to Michael Langley, the Twin Cities bumper sticker would simply be "Business and people prosper here."
"We tend to be somewhat reticent to brag about the strengths of our region," he says. "That's a cultural thing. We need to get over that and be more willing to tell our story very aggressively to a broader national and global audience."
But what to do about winter? We shouldn't be shy about promoting our coldest season, says Rybak. "What we need to do is take lots of pictures of a spectacular night on the City of Lakes Loppet, when there are thousands of people on Lake of the Isles, with two-story ice globes, dog sled races, and cross country skiing, and say, 'You can't do this anywhere else in the world, and in the summer you can be swimming in the same lakes.'"
And once people come, they tend to stay, says Dane Smith, the director of the social advocacy group Growth and Justice in St. Paul. "I don't know how many times I've heard stories about how when you're trying to lure executives to the Twin Cities, they resist at first, because they really don't know what the place is like, and then they come here and it's impossible for the corporations to get them to move elsewhere."
9. Embrace diversity
The theory you hear from politicians and business honchos is as simple as it is optimistic. Our population is quickly becoming more diverse, and we should see that as a strength, because the fresh perspectives and talents of people from different backgrounds will help us thrive in the global economy.
Reality is more complicated, says north Minneapolis writer and educator Chaun Webster, who is set to open Ancestry Books, an independent bookstore that will highlight authors of color.
"This is the best place if you're a white male. But the gaps are increasingly large. We see some of the largest gaps in the nation between communities of color and their white counterparts, whether it be work opportunities, income ratio, or education."
For all our growing diversity, we're still a place where white people greatly outnumber minorities. And even though outright racism isn't the norm, many people of color note that they often feel out of place and overlooked.
"Some people might call that benign neglect, but I don't think neglect is ever benign," says Dane Smith. "This feeling that they're left out, consigned to a separate fate and really not part of the community is overwhelmingly real."
Webster aims to help fill the gap with his bookstore. "We need more spaces that are outside of the home and outside of work that facilitate opportunities for educational advancement," he says.
Politics has a role to play, says Webster, but he doesn't expect salvation from elected officials. "I don't think our answer is with our politicians. Our answers have never been with our politicians. It's happening on the grass-roots level, where people are beginning to do work. I'm starting a bookstore. Somebody else might start a garden in some of the empty lots that exist in north Minneapolis. Another person might set up spaces at their homes where children can be safe after school, and read, tell stories, and have healthy foods."
The majority culture needs to do some tough introspection, says Smith. "We might actually have to surrender some short-term advantage that we enjoy, in the form of taxes and maybe our kids not getting the job that we think they ought to get, because some kid of color is equally qualified."
10. Correct the racial education gap
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Education released figures that show we are well on our way toward the goal of cutting the racial achievement gap in half by 2017. But we've got a long way to go. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Minnesota's gap between minority students and their white counterparts in math and reading hovers around 30 percent. That disparity is one of the largest in the nation.
R.T. Rybak's Generation Next is just one of the groups that is trying to fill the gaping chasm between affluent white students and others.
"We have a phenomenal opportunity in taking the most diverse population we've ever had, and turning the achievement gap into a highly successful global workforce that can help us soar around the world," says Rybak.
But on a human level, it's a long way from the world stage to the classroom, says Toki Wright. "My child was in private school all the way up until last year. She's 13 now, and it's the first time that she's ever told me that she didn't want to go back to school."
Many kids of color face a tough set of hurdles, says Wright. They often end up in overcrowded classrooms, with rookie teachers who have no idea how to deal with their problems.
Chaun Webster refuses to see the problem as an achievement gap. He prefers to call it an "opportunity gap."
"'Achievement gap,' in terms of language, places the onus of responsibility on the student," he says. "We need to think about education as a human right. Education isn't something that some folks should get at a better rate and a higher quality, while others just have to deal with the scraps."
Daunting as the problem may be, trends can change in relatively short order, says Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. He was involved in an effort in Cincinnati, Ohio, that eliminated the graduation gap between white and African-American students in seven years.
The strategy involved everything from setting up several small schools in larger high school buildings, helping teachers deal with the problems of urban kids, partnering with teachers unions and the private sector, and setting community groups up with offices inside the schools.
"We saw young people as resources themselves," says Nathan, "We didn't just see them as empty vessels into which knowledge has to be poured."
He invited first-generation college students from low-income areas back to their high schools to encourage students to challenge themselves academically.
Wiping out the achievement gap would do more for the Twin Cities than just creating a globalization-ready workforce, Nathan says.
"We'd spend a lot less money on negative things like prisons, and we'd have a lot more to spend on more positive things, like reducing college tuitions. We'd also have less chemical abuse, because right now, we have a lot of really unhappy people who have not found a way to fulfill themselves, so they turn to drugs. And we'd have healthier people overall and lower medical costs."
11. Support local artists
Though we lack a new transcendent, zeitgeist-defining artist like Prince, we're still going strong in the arts, says musician Mike Michel. He has done everything from writing tunes for Target and Subway to playing with local hip-hop luminaries such as P.O.S., Desdamona, and the late Eyedea. Through his music networking hub, the Rock & Roll Therapy Room, he is a one-man incubator for new acts.
The problem to Michel is that people outside our area vaguely know we're a scene, but we're hard to define.
"This is a hotbed of creativity. How many big cities are like that in the U.S.? Seven or eight? We're the Mecca of the Midwest."
In the arts, too, large groups of people and swaths of the city perfunctorily get overlooked, says Toki Wright.
"There's an Uptown crowd, and there's everybody else. A lot of the attention goes to the Uptown crowd, and everybody else just fights for scraps."
Too often, artists of color end up leaving the Twin Cities, because they see no way to get ahead here, notes Chaun Webster. He points out that people of color are chronically underrepresented at local culture temples like the Walker, the Guthrie, and the Ordway.
"This place often becomes graveyard for forward-thinking artists of color," he says. "The 'official' spaces that facilitate artistic advancement are not representing indigenous communities and communities of color. We are in need of thinking creatively about building our own infrastructure and developing our own spaces where we are not on the periphery."
"This is why we have to create our own institutions and our own ways of expression," says writer Nimo Farah. "People that are not of color often come in and use the community as guinea pigs. They will come and ask you for connections and then you never hear from them again. It's not really sustainable or beneficial."
Meanwhile, photographer Alec Soth would like to have a true arts district.
"You can't really have a gallery crawl here. One of the great things about New York City is that you can walk around Chelsea and there are endless galleries. Here, you've got the Weinstein Gallery over here and you've got the Soap Factory over there, and you have to schlep yourself from one place to another."
12. Make a 100-year plan
So where do we want to be 10, 20, or even 50 years from now?
"Let's say it's 2043, 70 years after the Time magazine cover on the state that works," says Dane Smith. "Time magazine comes up with a new front page article. Minnesota is held out as the state that is showing the rest of the nation how to achieve racial harmony and equity. That's the dream. And instead of a governor of Swedish ancestry, you have another governor, maybe a Somali-American woman, holding the same fish."
Although she isn't thinking about the governorship, Nimo Farah saw a glimpse of that future at the recent mayoral inauguration in Minneapolis, where she performed as a poet. Betsy Hodges's "One Minneapolis" celebration was "very diverse, very beautiful," Farah says.
"It honestly made me feel happy. I think that was foreshadowing what's to come. But unless we do the work, it would be an illusion to think that that's what's going to happen."
To get there, we have to stay in touch with what made us special in the first place, says John Adams.
"One of the things that this place has going for it is the idea that, at least traditionally, things were done here on behalf of the group, and that ended up making the place quite agreeable for the next folks that came along."
That's how, in time, we ended up with philanthropists and foundations who funded everything from the parks and trails system to museums and theaters.
"People feel it more than they understand it," Adams says. "They enjoy it, but they don't necessarily know how to reproduce it. What's working against them today is the kind of 'me' culture that we live in."
Greater MSP's Langley wants business, politics, and intellectual leaders to get together and draw up a plan that sets out the marks for decades to come.
"If we can do that, our region will be more competitive on a global scale. And when we're more competitive, we'll be more able to take care of what we want our region to look like in the future."
[Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Walker Art Center does not employ any curators of color. The Walker currently employs two curators of color.]
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