‘Model Cities’ campaign launches in metro region

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In June the McKnight Foundation announced it will once again provide financial support for the activities of the North Star Chapter’s Land Use and Transportation Committee.

McKnight’s two-year award comes as an endorsement of a new direction for the committee. Well-known for its popular “Tour de Sprawl” bicycle ride, the committee used a previous McKnight grant to produce a website and various publications to assist land use activists in advocating for open space and for denser development. The committee also held several open-space workshops and conferences.

“We will continue to provide those activities to groups who contact us,” says Sharell Benson, the committee’s co-chair. “But we’re now directing our energies at specific communities for what we’re calling our Model Cities program. The committee will work to form groups in various communities to influence comprehensive planning and development.”

The Metropolitan Council, which manages growth in the seven-county Twin Cities region, has asked all communities within its borders to submit comprehensive plans by 2008, says Benson. The community groups the committee plans to initiate – or collaborate with – will be instrumental in participating in comprehensive plans in their communities, she says.

The first two cities the committee chose are Inver Grove Heights and Hastings. Inver Grove Heights will absorb thousands of new residents over the next decade and has no existing community-based environmental organization, says Frank Jossi, the committee’s co-chair. He and Benson contacted several community members, including Representative Joe Atkins, who represents Inver Grove Heights at the Legislature, and found a high level of interest in the Model Cities concept.

“We had a speaker from Inver Grove Heights to one of our meetings and he suggested the community was ripe for the creation of a Model Cities group,” says Jossi. “After more research, we found that others felt the same way. Developers and the Met Council have targeted Inver Grove Heights for more growth in the next decade and many of its residents want to see it done right — with space for parks, with some density, with maybe even a modern downtown.”

This summer the committee is reaching out to community leaders and citizens in Inver Grove Heights, says Jossi. The committee hopes to get a first meeting of the community group going in September. “It will be a busy September, because we have our 11th Annual Tour de Sprawl on September 16th,” he says. “But that seems a good time to get things moving.”

Down the Mississippi River from Inver Grove Heights is another Model City that we will begin organizing: Hastings, MN. This historic town already has an environmental group, Hastings Environmental Protectors (HEP). The Land Use and Transportation Committee has been meeting with the group to establish a strategy for political organizing and for creating a higher profile for the organization. Benson says this might involve helping HEP design brochures, a website, presentations and a database.

“It’s already a strong, excellent organization,” she says. “We simply want to make it even stronger by helping them create tools for influencing public policy.”

The committee also has been involved with an effort in Plymouth to encourage its city council to develop a new land parcel with a greater density. The hope is that it could provide a transit corridor and more moderately priced housing for the growing community. The effort had mixed results. “We worked with several affordable housing groups on the campaign and we wished it would have turned out differently,” says Benson. “We still made some progress however, and learned an immense amount about lifecycle and workforce housing issues.”

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