City Profile: Minneapolis

6 minute read

Known as the first city to eliminate single-family zoning, Minneapolis has a lot to live up to — a host of challenges beyond housing.


Downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota skylinw with stone arched brige in foreground.

f11photo / Adobe Stock

Basics

*Current as of 2020 Census.

Indigenous occupants

The area we know as the Minneapolis region was inhabited by Indigenous groups 9,000 to 12,000 years ago. The Sioux and Ojibwa people were early inhabitants, followed later by the Dakota. The first half of the city’s name was derived from the Sioux word minne (water), which was fitting because the area’s waterways played a vital role in native peoples’ lives as a source of food, mode of transportation, and means of building an extensive trade network both within and outside their region.

Colonization

From 1819-1825, the U.S. Government built Fort Snell at the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, and in 1820 it established St. Peter’s Indian Agency on the military property as part of its efforts to control trade between the U.S. and Indigenous nations. An influx of new settlers of European ancestry began in the 1840s, and in 1851, the Dakota peoples’ land was taken by the U.S. government through the treaties at Traverse des Sioux and Mendota. The area developed major lumber and flour milling industries, as well as extensive rail networks with connections to Chicago, the South, and the East to transport its products. By 1870, Minneapolis was the country’s top producer of flour.

20th century growth

Minneapolis remained one of the nation’s primary wheat markets throughout the 1900s, and this booming industry — as well as strong transportation, distribution, and manufacturing industries — supported significant population growth in the first half of the century. The city reached its peak population of 521,718 in 1950 but then declined for decades, driven by migration patterns out of the Midwest and to the suburbs after World War II, until it reached an equilibrium in the low 400,000s in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the population of the Twin Cities metro area exploded. Over that time, the percentage of residents of European descent has declined, and the number of Black, Asian, and Latino residents have grown.

The city created its first planning body, a parks board, in 1883 and its first planning document, 1917 Plan of Minneapolis, twenty-four years later, though few of the plan’s recommendations were ever adopted. Its first comprehensive plan was adopted in 1954, and in 1964, the current regional and municipal planning agency, the Metropolitan Council, and transportation agency, the Metropolitan Transit Commission, were founded. The first of the city’s famous skyways was built in 1962 (later demolished) and the second in 1963. Today, the system consists of seven segments of interlinked, enclosed pedestrian bridges stretching a total of 9.5 miles and connecting various buildings in 80 city blocks.

21st century concerns

Though known for its affordability compared to other major U.S. cities, Minneapolis is deeply segregated by race and income. Stark disparities in housing, schools, public spaces, and policing are rooted in historic systemic drivers like the racial housing covenants of the early 1900s, the construction of freeways in the 1950s, and redlining, and perpetuated by modern policies like restrictive zoning and neighborhood disinvestment. In 2019, in a bid to diversify and increase density in traditionally high-income, white, single-family neighborhoods, Minneapolis made the at-the-time controversial decision to eliminate single-family zoning as part of its 2040 Comprehensive City — the first city in the United States to take such action. As of 2024, those zoning reforms appeared to be working, as the city saw a 12 percent increase in housing stock and just a 1 percent growth in rent costs compared to a 14 percent rise in the rest of the state. After environmental groups brought a lawsuit, the plan was shelved when a court deadline pased in November 2023, forcing the city to revert to its 2030 zoning plan.

Minneapolis is a largely car-centric city, though momentum for increased public transit built over the last 20 years and led to an expansion of the city’s limited transit access. In 2004, the Metropolitan Transit Commission opened its first light rail line (LRT), followed by its first bus rapid transit in 2013. As of 2024 it had two LRT lines and four BRT lines, and public transit ridership of 48.7 million rides in 2023, which marked the second consecutive year of growth since the pandemic.

The city’s dependence on cars and car infrastructure — as well as its economic dependence on industries like transportation and manufacturing — contributes to another challenge: climate change and its impacts. In 2013, the city adopted the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with targets of 15 percent by 2015 and 30 percent by 2025 compared with 2006 levels. In 2014, Minneapolis adopted a long-term goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. More recently, the Minneapolis City Council voted to adopt a Climate Equity Plan, which updates the city’s commitment to addressing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and climate equity issues.

The 2020 COVID pandemic hit cities across the country hard, but Minneapolis has had one of the worst recoveries in the nation. In the first half of 2023, the number of visitors to downtown was 56 percent, and at the end of 2023, commercial real estate vacancy rates were among the highest in the country. Revitalization of the city’s downtown will be a key issue in the coming years.

Key planning milestones

  • 1883: The Minneapolis City Council petitioned the state legislature for permission to create a parks board.
  • 1917: The city’s first planning document, 1917 Plan of Minneapolis, was created, though few of its recommendations were ever adopted.
  • 1954: The city’s first comprehensive plan was adopted.
  • 1963: The oldest remaining segment of the Minneapolis Skyway System opened.
  • 1967: The Minnesota legislature created the Metropolitan Council, a regional governmental agency and metropolitan planning organization, and the Metropolitan Transit Commission. 
  • 1967: Nicollet Avenue was transformed into the Nicollet Mall, the first car-free street in the nation.
  • 1990: The city set up the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), funded for 20 years with $400 million tax increment financing (TIF). 
  • 2004: The first light rail transit line, the 12-mile Hiawatha Corridor in Hennepin County, opened for service. 
  • 2013: The city’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) line opened, running between the Apple Valley Transit Station and the Mall of America.
  • 2015: Minneapolis City Council passed a law to eliminate parking requirements for buildings with three to 50 units near public transit with service every 15 minutes or less and allowed for a 50 percent reduction in parking requirements for larger residential buildings.
  • 2019: The city council approved the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, effectively eliminated single-family zoning citywide.
  • 2021: The city council abolished minimum parking requirements for new construction citywide.
  • 2023: The Minneapolis City Council voted to adopt a Climate Equity Plan, updating the city’s commitment to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and addressing climate equity concerns.
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