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Meet our episode 26 guest Heather Worthington

What could your community accomplish if it rethought how it engaged with its citizens on transportation, housing, and economic development? Heather Worthington shares how the City of Minneapolis approached community engagement for their comprehensive plan.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: I am here today in Minneapolis.  I’m with Heather Worthington who is the Director of Long Range Planning for the City of Minneapolis.  And how did I get here to Minneapolis? I kept seeing Minneapolis come up in all these interesting articles and blog posts and so forth.  I’m like, “I really need to go check this out and kind of get on the ground here and see what’s going on. So that led me to Heather and the work they’re doing here.  So I want to first start out by saying thank you and appreciate the conversation we’re about to have.

Worthington: Absolutely.

Cohen: And let’s just maybe start with maybe lay the foundation.  Y’all just released—I guess it’s the draft plan of the—no, it’s not draft anymore?

Worthington: The final.

Cohen: It’s final.  All right.

Worthington: It’s been adopted.

Cohen: So it’s the final Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive plan.

Worthington: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: So maybe kind of give us a little bit of background for our audience who maybe is not as familiar with that.  How did you get there?

Worthington: Mm-hmm.  Well, we got there largely because we had a conversation a couple of years ago, probably in 2015 going into 2016, about some articles that were appearing in the national press regarding deep and persistent racial disparities in the United States and in particular in Minneapolis and the Twin Cities area.  And we started wondering what we could do from a land-use standpoint to start to address those racial disparities that we were seeing in neighborhoods in Minneapolis that historically had been subjected to a lack of investment.

And so that was part of the foundation work that we did from a research kind of data-collection standpoint to come to then writing our 2040 comprehensive plan, which I should mention is required every 10 years by statute in Minnesota.  So all of the cities within the seven-county metropolitan area, the original MSA—which is now 15 counties, but the original MSA was seven—all of those cities have to write a comprehensive plan every 10 years.

Cohen: And so I guess this is one thing, just hearing you say that about y’all saw this data.  And I guess—I mean, obviously there’s no shortage of data.

Worthington: No.

Cohen: There’s no shortage of need in the community.

Worthington: Right.  Right.

Cohen: What about this in 2015 really—I mean, it sounds like it just hit a nerve almost.

Worthington: It did.

Cohen: So maybe what led to that?

Worthington: Yeah, I think it did hit a nerve, Josh.  And I think that it hit this place that I like to refer to as our narrative of exceptionalism.

Cohen: Hmm.

Worthington: And we as a community, Minnesota has this very strong and somewhat accurate narrative of exceptionalism.  I mean, from an economic standpoint the Twin Cities have never really experienced deep downturns like some cities in America.  And we’ve always had a strong commitment to welcoming refugees; we have one of the largest Somali populations outside of Somalia; we have a very large Hmong population, the second largest in the nation.  And so we see ourselves as a compassionate and welcoming place, but we have a significant amount of dissonance when it comes to race and the impacts of racialized policies and racially biased policies on our local government practices.

We just didn’t recognize that.  And there was a group out of the University of Minnesota named Mapping Prejudice, led by Professor Kirsten Delegard who started to map racially restrictive covenants in Minneapolis beginning at the turn of the last century and going up through the 1940s.  Now, Minnesota was one of the first states to eliminate or to outlaw the use of racially restrictive covenants in 1958, and the federal government followed in 1968, so just to give you kind of that idea. But once Mapping Prejudice started mapping these racially restrictive covenants we realized that much of that use of racially restrictive covenants was then put into force through local zoning.

So there was a direct relationship between redlining, which was a federal practice, racially restrictive covenants, and local zoning law.  And so we realized that we needed to start tackling this issue of racialized and racially biased policies in local, land use regulation.

Cohen: So it’s the right thing to do, obviously.

Worthington: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Was there some worry about the fact that you’re kind of addressing these challenges?  Obviously these were not errors that you made but our forefathers and foremothers.

Worthington: Right.  Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Like, I guess I could see some people not wanting to really touch that just because it’s like, “I’m afraid if we do that what might happen.”

Worthington: Sure.

Cohen: So beyond obviously the moral reason, which is a good one, but that’s not stopping others from not really addressing that.

Worthington: Right.  Yeah. I think it’s safe to say that we were more worried about what would happen if we didn’t have the conversation.

Cohen: Got it.

Worthington: So what we were seeing in the data and in the trend lines was a population of people, people of color who were increasingly being left behind in our local economy who were experiencing the deepest disparities around home ownership, educational attainment, incarceration.  And we realized that the comprehensive plan because it is a comprehensive plan is one of the best places to address that on a policy level. So the plan is not a regulatory document in and of itself, but it does highlight the things that we see as trends or issues that demographically will impact the community over the next 10 years.  And we knew that this was probably the number-one thing that would impact Minneapolis over the next 10 years.

Cohen: Sure.

Worthington: Climate change is a close second.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure.

Worthington: Yeah.

Cohen: So I’d love to maybe kind of take another step in this direction which is that—you know, one of the themes that I’m seeing as I’m having these conversations with other leaders like yourself is there’s a couple areas that are important here.  One is the community input; and then second is advocates who kind of really focused that conversation. So I’d love to hear a little bit about your engagement with the community as part of this plan and then the role of advocacy to help focus that conversation, or not; I don’t know.

Worthington: Right.  So I think advocacy is really crucial in our civic sort of body politic, but we have become less good at engaging as residents.  And so it’s intriguing to me when you ask people what they think about something; we live kind of in an age where people don’t quite know how to tell you what they think.  They maybe don’t think they have the right to have an opinion. And so we spent a lot of time really being intentional about asking those questions and framing things in a way that could help people feel like they had responsibility and a role in that dialogue.

So we did a lot of intentional outreach to, like, cultural communities, communities of color, people who were traditionally marginalized in public processes.  So if you’re a homeowner and in particular if you’re a white homeowner you have automatic and immediate standing in public process. And I say that as a white homeowner myself.

Cohen: Right.

Worthington: I know that I can pick up the phone and call my councilmember and say, “Hey, I really want you to listen to me about this.  I’m concerned.” The reality for most people who are people of color or people who rent is that they don’t have that immediate access.  And we like to think of that as agency; that’s how we talk about that, is that it’s about agency. So one of the things we try to do is figure out how we could enable people to have more agency in this process.

So we did things like popup meetings on light-rail trains and busses; we went out into communities and met with small focus groups; we met with large groups, business-community members, people of color, cultural communities.  We met with the ADA community. Just a lot of different kind of what I would call kind of thinking-outside-the-box type of engagement. We did a lot of artist-led engagement through social practice artists.

Cohen: Oh, wow.

Worthington: And we used a lot of different methods.  Like, one summer we went to every single festival, and we had a booth, and we talked to people one on one.  And at the end of the day we had about 200 separate engagements over the course of about 18 months. So but I want to be careful not to suggest that this is a sort of box-checking exercise.

Cohen: Yeah.

Worthington: Because, you know, you can say, like, “Well, we had 200 meetings.  What do you mean we didn’t do community engagement?”

Cohen: Right.

Worthington: Right?  And people have rightly said, “Well, you didn’t listen to me, or you didn’t hear me.”  And I think that’s part of the challenge of doing really high-quality community engagement, is that inevitably there are going to be some people who don’t feel like they were heard.  And so one of the things that I took away from this experience in the last couple of years is a feeling that we need to build up that civic infrastructure around decision-making and around participation and engagement in a way that we haven’t done since the 1950s.  And I think the 1950s are often held up as some kind of golden age in American, and I think there are many reasons why the 1950s weren’t, but one of the things that we did do well in the 1950s was civic engagement around development and land use.

And we were thinking about it in a bad way in terms of white flight to the suburbs, but in a good way we were engaging with people and people really understood the importance of land use.  So there’s takeaways from that era that, I think, we can apply to today and think differently about how we do civic engagement. So not to replicate white flight, not to replicate the racially biased conversation, but instead to say—but civic engagement was important, it was valued, and people knew how to get involved, because I think that we’ve lost that.

Cohen: Yeah, definitely.  I was reading a book actually this morning called Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath who are business school professors.  And one of the things they talk about at the end is the importance of the process.

Worthington: Yeah.

Cohen: And that even if someone has a good outcome but they have a bad process they’re going to feel actually worse-off than someone who has a good process but a bad outcome.  And I just thought that was really, really interesting.

Worthington: Yeah.

Cohen: I think that really speaks to what you say there.

Worthington: Yeah.

Cohen: It really does come down to that process.  And even if someone at the end doesn’t feel like they necessarily got their voice heard, if you have a good process, that’ll take a little bit of that sting away, I believe.

Worthington: Right.  I think so too.  And I think the other challenge is that we want it to be easy, we want the process—because of all the technology we have, we think that there are ways that we can streamline it and make it easier.  But I think the reality is that this is a relational exchange; and it is important that we connect with people on a personal and relational level, and Twitter is not going to accomplish that for us.  As much as social media can be a tool for communications, it’s not a tool for relationship building and problem solving.

And so that’s really what we’re talking about, because these problems that we’re trying to resolve through this document, as you said, they are not something that happened in the last 10 years.  They happened over almost 100 years, and it will take a lot of time and effort to undo those things. But I always like to say, I think, we have big brains, and we have smart people in this community, and we can figure this out; but it takes that structure and process to do it, so.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure.  So when I was reading the document—well, when I was—this document is 1,000 pages, so I—

Worthington: You were skimming the document?  [LAUGHTER]

Cohen: So I highly encourage you to check it out, but it is lengthy.  You know, there’s one of the things you acknowledge, I think, maybe even in the executive summary is that there are some things in here that we talk about that we’re already doing and that we need to continue doing and so forth, and there’s other things that are things that we may need to consider doing.

Worthington: Right.  Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And so there’s no shortage of things to potentially do.  Right? But you have limited resources.

Worthington: Right.

Cohen: And so I’m curious about how do you say no.  Right?

Worthington: Hmm.  Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And maybe it’s not you that has to say no; maybe that’s the political side.  I don’t know. I’m not sure. But I’d love to get your perspective on that.

Worthington: Right.  I don’t get forced to say no very often, but our elected officials get forced to say no all the time.  And one of the things we wanted to do was try to give them a roadmap for how we can more effectively manage those resources.  So not necessarily having to say no, but having the ability to say, “These things are the most important things right now in order to tackle these other things.”

So a couple of thoughts about that.  One is that ultimately I think that this is a conversation about prioritization; I don’t think it’s a conversation about resources.  And we’re a very well resourced community, and we live in a country that is still the wealthiest country in the world, so there’s not a lack of resources here.  But there is a lack of prioritization sometimes. And I think it’s very challenging. I’ve never been an elected official, but I can imagine how challenging it is to have constituents who are yelling at you about an issue that they feel is particularly important when you have a more global view, if you will, a more holistic view of what is important.

And so one of the other things that we tried to do in this document and in our thinking about it from a regulatory standpoint going forward is to see it as more of a systems document in terms of the interrelation between specific things.  And I’ll give you my favorite example, which is when you think about housing as a topic; and it’s a very important topic in Minneapolis. When you think about housing, it’s not just the four walls that people live within; it’s about how they get to their job from that housing, so it’s about transit.

It’s about where their children go during the day, so it’s about education and childcare.   And then it’s also about wages; it’s also about how much money they can make at that job to afford the housing that they need.  And so these things are interrelated. Workforce, transit, housing, and childcare are interrelated issues. So if you see that type of interrelation from a policy standpoint it’s easier to make decisions about where the priorities lie.

Cohen: Yeah.  No, I think that makes a lot of sense.  And too often, I think, we disconnect one of those from the other.

Worthington: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Right?  And it’s like—

Worthington: Well, it’s easier.  Right?

Cohen: Yeah.  It’s like, “This is just a transit conversation.”

Worthington: Mm-hmm.  Right.

Cohen: And I think when you do that you end up with transit stops in the middle of highways where it’s like you can’t really walk there very easily.

Worthington: Right.

Cohen: You know, it’s convenient to build but not very convenient for people to use.

Worthington: Mm-hmm.  Right. And you end up with things like light-rail transit that doesn’t serve any affordable housing or is not accessible to jobs.

Cohen: Right.

Worthington: So I think that disconnect can be an easier way to have a conversation about a single issue, but it ultimately results in some pretty poor decision-making and implementation.

Cohen: Yeah.  So they’re exchanging kind of the long-term, really good result for the short-term, like, okay result, which has some negative externalities as well.

Worthington: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: So one of the themes that comes out in the document as well is housing and really thinking about obviously this is a very attractive place to live.

Worthington: Yeah.  Despite the snow.

Cohen: Despite the snow.  Well, you know, I can appreciate that.

Worthington: You are here in July—well, August.  It’s August.

Cohen: I am here in July.  Yes, August, yes. So I’m curious from the standpoint of when I read the document one of the things that went through my head was, “Wow.  This is a place I want to live.”

Worthington: Heck yeah.

Cohen: Right?  Now, I’m not moving.  I really love where I live.  I love our community.

Worthington: Okay.  Well, yeah.  I was going to say I do love Durham, yes.

Cohen: But I guess my question is, is that a thought at all, that this is almost like this is a signal or a credible commitment that the city is making, you know, as you’re thinking about, “How do we attract folks that agree with some of these ideals in here?”  I mean, and it’s very clear; by 2040, Minneapolis will provide access to—you know, I mean, it’s very, very clear and ambitious and so forth. So I’m curious if anybody has even thought of that as like a potential outcome of this work. Obviously it’s not the main goal, but I wonder if anybody has even considered that.

Worthington: So I think there’s really—that’s the same coin and two different sides.  So I think the first side of that coin is demographically we know that the Twin Cities are going to grow in the next 10 years, 20 years, and there’s a number of reasons why they’re going to grow.  I mean, one is that just from a market standpoint this is still an accessible marketplace for people to buy homes, to afford to live here. Right? So there’s an economic indicator there.

But also we know that a lot of the things that are happening, the externalities that you mentioned earlier, those are things like climate change that are impacting people who are living on the coasts right now for instance, who are living in the high desert or the lower desert in the Southwest.  And they may decide that they can’t live there any more. And so we’re—I don’t want to overstate this, but I think we’re concerned about climate change in the context of people leaving those parts of the United States and moving here.

Cohen: Oh, interesting.

Worthington: Just a quick little data tidbit, one of the things is that the metropolitan council does demographic projections every few years based on American Community Survey data.  And they tell us what they think our population will be in the next several years. And for every year that they’ve done that over the last two cycles we have been three to four years ahead of their projection on population growth.

Cohen: Wow.

Worthington: Now, remember that Minneapolis did not grow in the period of time between 1950 and 2000.

Cohen: Wow.

Worthington: We lost population.  In fact, in 1950 we were almost a half-a-million residents, and by 2000 we were just under 400,000.  So we lost a significant amount of population here; now we’re starting to grow, so I think one of the concerns—and this is, again, that first part of coin.  The first side of the coin is how do we manage that growth. The second side of the coin though is how do we stay relevant. You know, I mean, people have jokingly said we’re flyover land.  I don’t agree with that, but, you know, the Midwest is not the coasts from an economic standpoint.

We want to remain relevant economically.  We want to remain relevant to people who might want to live here or come to school here.  And we want our residents to stay here too, so retention is an important issue. And there’s a lot of people who go away to college and live somewhere else for a few years, but they almost always come back, and so that’s kind of the magic of this place.  And it’s very hard for us to pinpoint why that is, but there’s some things that we know. One is the housing cost here is lower. The schools tend to be really good. And it’s a place that’s very highly amenitized. Just like you said, when you came here and you looked around you went, “Oh, yeah.  This is pretty cool.” We’re like a little-bit-smaller, more-accessible Chicago. So we want to remain relevant and manage growth. Those are the same coin, different sides.

Cohen: Yeah.  It’s neat seeing how cities evolve too because when I was walking here along Washington Street, I believe, there was some history about Washington Street’s history.  And obviously I was walking around the old mills down here by the river. Heather’s office overlooks the Mississippi river in this renovated building. It’s beautiful.  And it just is interesting where it’s like for some period of time, you know, those mills were the dominant economic engine of this area.

Worthington: Right.  Mm-hmm. This building, yeah.

Cohen: Right, even this building that we’re sitting in.

Worthington: Yeah.

Cohen: Now that’s not the case.  Right?

Worthington: Yeah.

Cohen: Now it’s much more diversified with medical and entrepreneurial stuff as well.  You have the university, which has grown significantly. You’ve got major companies like Target and others that are based here, so it’s just it’s really, really interesting to see that evolution.  And then you think about what’s that next evolution.

Worthington: Right.

Cohen: And certainly from a planning standing I’m sure that’s challenging to navigate because you don’t always know.

Worthington: It’s really tough.  I mean, in Minneapolis we had quite a bit of industrially zoned land, and we have lost so much over the last 15 years just to market-rate housing development that we went from having somewhere in the vicinity of 15% of our land use as industrial uses, and we’re down to like five now.

Cohen: Wow.

Worthington: And that’s important because those are job producing land uses.

Cohen: Right.

Worthington: Again, we want to think of this holistically, and so one of the things we tried to do in this comprehensive plan is call out the need for additional production and processing land.  And that looks a lot different than, as you pointed out, the Mill District did in the 1880s. This is not heavy industry; it’s high tech, kind of clean room, you know, that type of thing; but it’s very hard to figure out how the city will look 10 or 20 years from now.  And it’s hard to think about how to integrate those uses with housing uses because the housing market remains strong here, and so we need to be responsive to that, but also we need to give people a place to work and remain economically relevant. Right?

Cohen: Yeah.  It’s a puzzle.

Worthington: It’s never boring.

Cohen: It’s a puzzle, for sure.  Let’s maybe wrap up with this, which is, you know, there’s other leaders who are going to be going through similar processes in their communities or who want to.  And maybe they’re not quite as far along as Minneapolis is. What are maybe some key takeaways or lessons that you would share with other leaders that are in similar roles, that are serving their communities either formally like you or in an elected role or even in a community role?

Worthington: Right.  Well, I mean, I would speak to the community leaders first and just say, “Even if you don’t think of yourself as a community leader, if you see a need in your community, I think it’s really important for you to figure out how to get engaged.”  And maybe that means you serve on a board or commission or you start an advocacy group; I think that’s really important. The thing I would say about this from a staff standpoint is that one of the things we did early on that I think served everyone very well—and by everyone I literally mean electeds, the community, everyone—is that we asked the city council to adopt a set of values and then a set of goals.

And the values and goals are what really underpin this document.  I like to describe them as the foundation of the house. And we are now building the house on top of that.  And one of the things that that does for you that I think is so important is that it gets people to see where the priorities lie, and it starts to frame up a conversation about how we move forward on those things that are most important.  So for us it was six values, 14 goals. We intentionally tried to keep it tight and focused.

And I think that served our elected officials well because when they were engaging in some serious dialogue with residents about concerns, they could go back to that document and say, “This is the work we did to set the table,” and carry this work forward.  So I think it helps you as a leader if you have that to point back to, to say, “No, these are the things that we said were most important.” Everything can’t be a priority—right—if nothing is.

Cohen: Right.

Worthington: And so we need to have that.  We need to have that conversation first.  And then I guess the other thing I would just say is that to the extent that we can help to shape the dialogue, to keep it civil and constructive is really helpful.  And that’s increasingly difficult in this world we live in. So I think that that’s something that continues to evolve in my mind. Like, how do you do that? That is kind of perhaps the next challenging community engagement, is how do we have a process that is more respectful, more constructive, more civil?  And I think, again, building civic life up again as a value in this country would be a good thing.

Cohen: Yeah.  And I think you touched on it earlier when you talked about the intentional way that you approached that community engagement.  And, I guess, what was going through my mind at the time was that in some ways, you know, if you remove community engagement from the work you need to do for this plan and just say, like, “How do we make community engagement just an everyday piece of the work we’re doing?” then it’s not something that, like, winds up and winds down every five years but it’s just constantly going.

Worthington: Yes.  Yes. Always there, yes.  I think that is the answer.  That is the answer, Josh.

Cohen: Because I feel like you don’t have that trust otherwise.  Right?

Worthington: No, you—

Cohen: You build the trust; you lose the trust; you build the trust; you lose the trust.

Worthington: Yeah.  Right. Well, you don’t have a relationship.

Cohen: Yeah.

Worthington: I mean, it’s like the friend you went to school with in high school and you don’t see them for 20 years until the reunion.  Yeah, I mean, that’s like—what do you have to talk about? You have high school to talk about, right? [LAUGHS] So we need better structures in place.  And that was one thing, you know, our planners said when they got done doing all the community engagement around this. They said to me, “I wish there was a way we could do this all the time.”

Cohen: Oh.

Worthington: Because it was so fruitful for them, it was so professionally beneficial to them, and they realized that we’ve got to go out and keep working with community members, but we need that ability to build the relationship.  So now what we’re doing is trying to do that. We’re trying to do some specific work in community around some specific planning and implementation pieces, and that’s actually been very beneficial for everybody because they just saw us—right—and we’re back.  So we didn’t just go back to our offices and hole up; we’re actually still out here doing work with you. And that’s been really beneficial, so we’ll keep doing that.

Cohen: That’s fantastic.

Worthington: Yeah.

Cohen: Well, Heather, thank you so much.  This has been really, really helpful.

Worthington: My pleasure.

Cohen: I appreciate you sharing some of these lessons.  If people want to learn more about the plan or some of the work you’re doing, what would be the best way to find out about that?

Worthington: You know, is our website, and the plan resides there.  It is an electronic document, and it’s a highly interactive document, so take a look at it.  It has some kind of—I jokingly call them the wiz-bang features, but we have interactive maps, and all of the policies are there, 100 policies that we developed around the comprehensive plan and policy statements and direction.  So, as you said, it’s over 1,000 pages, lots to dig into, kind of Minneapolis in one place, so take a look.

Cohen: Excellent.  Well, I highly recommend you take a look at that and also come visit Minneapolis because it’s beautiful.

Worthington: Thanks.

Cohen: Thanks, Heather.

Worthington: Thank you.  Have a great day.

Cohen: Thank you so much.

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