On some level, the claim that people inevitably bring impacts is self-evident. But what’s actually rearing its head here is a deep schism in the understanding of environmentalism. It’s one which, if I may paint with broad strokes, tends to fall along generational lines.
When the environmental movement exploded into the national consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, the battle lines were over the kinds of impacts that are highly visible locally: smog, water pollution, the loss of habitat and endangered species. The battles that were won in that era were things like the passage of the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act: laws that targeted forms of pollution that primarily affect local environmental quality.
That version of environmentalism was essentially a quality-of-life movement, and it achieved stunning quality-of-life victories in American cities. For those (including myself) who weren’t alive back when the Cuyahoga River was on fire, it’s hard to appreciate the magnitude and importance of these victories.
What the environmentalism of the 70s was not very attuned to, however, was spillover effects: the ways in which impacts don’t disappear because you ban them within one specific set of borders, but just move outside those borders.
The flagship laws passed in that era also have a distinct status-quo bias built into them. NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) and its state-level analogue, including Minnesota’s MERA, require government agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed projects before taking action. Implicitly, the burden is on the agency to prove that their actions won’t create new environmental harms, regardless of any harm already occurring under the status quo. The avoidance of harm already occurring under the status quo is much harder to prove to the satisfaction of a judge. And the easiest kinds of harms to prove are generally those with a demonstrable local effect—like point-source water pollution, tailpipe emissions, the paving over of land—not those that involve spillover effects somewhere else.
That earlier version of environmentalism, along with the body of environmental law it spawned, is incoherent in the face of challenges like climate change, whose effects don’t respect any human borders. To a newer generation of environmentalists, whose advocacy centers on climate, it is completely obvious that compact, walkable urban development has environmental benefits. (A growing body of data also confirms that as a general rule, the per-household carbon footprint in urban U.S. ZIP codes is considerably lower than in suburban ZIP codes.)
Those benefits come from behavioral changes. When people live in apartments, they share walls, saving on heating and cooling-related energy use. On net, compact development gets people to drive fewer miles and makes it more possible for those so inclined to eschew cars altogether. (Transportation-related carbon emissions are negatively correlated with urban density.) Minneapolis’s abolition of parking minimums, one of the centerpieces of 2040, removes a source of mandated car dependence. Attacking this on environmental grounds, to almost anyone who grew up hearing about climate change, is incoherent.
After all—and it feels silly to have to say this so bluntly—if people don’t move into Minneapolis, those people don’t disappear into the ether. They just live outside Minneapolis. Most likely, a lot of them live in the Minneapolis suburbs—where, on average, they have a bigger house and garage, own more vehicles, and do more driving.
The gap between conceptions of environmental impact is evident in the study the lead plaintiff group commissioned of the environmental impacts of the 2040 Plan. It contains a lot of words, but here are some it doesn’t: “climate,” “emissions,” “gasoline,” “fossil,” “energy.” “Carbon” appears once, but only in the context of hydrocarbons deposited into storm sewers.
It’s easy to assume that all of this is just cover for garden-variety NIMBYism: the mansion owners of Minneapolis not wanting more neighbors. And while I don’t like to assume bad faith as a rule, I will observe that Smart Growth Minneapolis is remarkably elusive about what alternative they would prefer to the Minneapolis 2040 plan. Their website urges Minneapolis to be “smart—not reckless—as it plans for future density,” but there is literally zero concrete policy prescription or indication of what this group thinks “smart” density looks like. It’s hard not to conclude that this group’s real goal is to preserve the land-use status quo.
But let’s assume the well-established Audubon Society, at least, is operating in good faith. They’re still misguided here. They’re misguided here because of a tunnel-vision version of environmentalism that ultimately won’t achieve their goals. Or will, at best, achieve some of them (some preserved migratory bird habitat in urban yards) at the expense of greater harms elsewhere.