A view of St. Paul in evening

Cities increasingly understand their role in addressing climate change, and some are finding ways to use a traditional tool—comprehensive planning—as part of their climate and energy planning efforts. In Minnesota, a recent inventory of actions at the local level shows how a broad range of communities are incorporating climate, energy, resilience, and sustainability in their planning processes. This blog digs into GPI’s analysis and findings from this inventory, explores motivators for the change, and highlights the next steps for communities interested in local climate and energy planning.

Note: GPI’s Communities Program staff work with many of the cities described in this post on climate, energy, resilience, and sustainability and are developing additional resources for cities on planning and near-term implementation steps.

Leadership by Twin Cities regional planning body sets the stage for local incorporation of climate and energy planning

In its most recent comprehensive planning cycle, the regional planning body—the Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities (or Met Council)—demonstrated leadership around climate and energy by including resilience as an optional plan element for the first time and providing all communities with their solar resource potential. These new elements served as a gateway for communities to consider other adjacent themes, like climate and energy, and challenged them to understand how it fit into their community and comprehensive planning.

Comprehensive plans are guiding documents that articulate a community’s vision, set goals and aspirations, and regulate public policy. The traditional components of a plan are topics such as transportation, land use, water, housing, and economic developmentnot topics like climate, energy, electric vehicles, and renewable energy.

The Met Council is a unique regional planning organization in its scope and authority. Enabled by Minnesota Statute §473.858, the Met Council is charged with creation of regional plans and policies, as well as supervising a mandated, local government comprehensive plan update process that occurs every ten years. The Met Council has 189 cities, townships, and unorganized territories within their jurisdiction.

For each round of plan updates, the Met Council provides guidance on comprehensive planning requirements for its constituent communities and reviews each community’s comprehensive plan for conformance with metropolitan system plans, consistency with adopted regional policy plans, and compatibility with plans of affected and adjacent jurisdictions.

A review by the Met Council of these most recent plans has revealed a shift in the planning community as an increasing number of communities have integrated climate and energy into their plans.

More communities are incorporating climate and energy into planning

Through the review process, the Met Council inventoried the presence and depth of various sustainability- and climate-related planning included as part of the comprehensive planning process across the communities in the Met Council’s jurisdiction. Because the Met Council’s planning and review process is still underway, the inventory may not reflect recent or future updates to a community’s comprehensive plan; the inventory was up to date as of September 2019.

Communities were inventoried if they had particular elements such as solar requirements, whether they were a SolSmart or GreenStep Cities designated community, as well as whether their comprehensive plan contained other climate, energy, or sustainability elements (GPI is a SolSmart and GreenStep Cities partner).

Communities that did incorporate a climate, energy, or sustainability element in their comprehensive plan were then ranked based on the breadth and depth of that inclusion with a rating of one (1) to three (3) with three having the greatest depth:

  • Communities with a one (1) acknowledged the topic or will consider implementing resources or strategies.
  • Communities with a two (2) acknowledged the topic and committed to address it to realize an outcome or goal, with a specific implementation schedule and strategy.
  • Communities with a three (3) acknowledged the topic, included an implementation schedule, strategy, commitment, and a quantitative target.

Use the drop-down tool in figure 1 to see which communities in the metro are either participating in one of these programs or have already included others in their comprehensive plan. A handful of items inventoried do not follow the 1-3 convention because they were a level (GreenStep Cities) or a designation (SolSmart).

Figure 1. Interactive drop-down tool shows a map series of communities in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council’s jurisdiction that incorporate various climate, energy, or sustainability elements or participate in various climate, energy, or sustainability programs

Source: Maps created by Jessi Wyatt, Great Plains Institute, adapted from data collected by the Metropolitan Council, September 2019. Note: Because the planning review process is still underway, there may have been changes to community comprehensive plans after the September 2019 inventory completion that are not reflected in these maps.

GPI analyzed the Metropolitan Council’s inventory data and found that communities are increasingly active on solar; either through SolSmart designation or a solar requirement, with over half of communities including it. The Met Council provides a solar resource potential map for every community, which was likely a contributing factor during this most recent comprehensive planning process.

Another important takeaway of our analysis is that the inclusion of climate and energy elements is not isolated to any one type of community. Instead, many community types are represented from the large, dense urban cities to predominantly rural communities and suburban edge communities.

For Cameran Bailey, senior planner with the Met Council, the extent of climate, energy, and sustainability included across comprehensive plans was somewhat unexpected. Although Cameran joined the council after the 2030 comprehensive plan update, he reflected how in the 2030 planning process (which took place in back in 2010), “sustainability was about as far as a community might get”—and it’s true, in the previous comprehensive planning process, very few communities were thinking about or incorporating elements related to energy or climate.

He further shared that “a lot of these communities [now including climate and resilience elements] surprised me…it’s not just the urban core, but also rural communities, primarily agricultural communities, even tourism, and wetland and natural area communities. Every type of community is represented in integrating these elements into some portion of their plan.”

Communities are also starting to think holistically about why they want to incorporate these elements into their plans and take different approaches to why integrating resilience into their planning efforts matters for that community.

“Every type of community is represented in integrating these

elements into some portion of their plan.”

– Cameran Bailey, Senior Planner and SolSmart Advisor for the Met Council

What’s driving this trend?

The current groundswell of local interest in climate action in the metro can be attributed to three main factors: creation and availability of planning resources, direct work with communities, and bottom-top motivation.

  1. Creation and availability of planning resources

Over the last 10 years, much work has gone into supporting communities with sustainability and climate efforts. From providing sustainability best practice actions to direct technical support, several programs have helped guide cities to do more to address climate and energy issues:

  • GreenStep Cities is a voluntary program that challenges Minnesota cities to implement best practices on a variety of sustainable and quality-of-life topics tailored to specific community goals.
  • LoGoPEP (Local Government Project for Energy Planning) was a US Department of Energy -funded project to support cities with tools and resources to help drive local climate and energy action. The project aimed to work with 40 communities across Minnesota to include reference to climate or energy in their comprehensive plan.
  • For 10 years, the Regional Indicators Initiative has made city energy consumption and emissions data available to communities.
  • Partners in Energy (PiE) is a partnership opportunity between communities and their utility (Xcel Energy) that provides free energy planning and implementation services tailored to a community’s unique energy needs and priorities.
  • The Met Council’s Local Planning Handbook and PlanIt training series provide direct resources to communities to assist with their long-range resilience and climate change-related planning efforts.

These resources also provide information about the range of benefits for communities, from cost-savings to greater resilience, that addressing climate and energy can bring.

  1. Direct work with communities

Through the programs listed above, various entities helped communities incorporate climate and energy in community policy and planning. Direct work with communities, led by organizations across Minnesota, as well as through peer-to-peer relationships, has had tremendous impact on the level of interest in communities and helped foster awareness that there is power and opportunity at the community scale to think about big topics like resilience and climate. The power of a conversation and shared learning was pivotal in talking to communities about planning for resilience.

  1. Bottom-top motivation

External pressures are increasingly putting the onus on local governments to act on climate. Given the lack of action to address climate at the federal level, local communities continue to take on the responsibility of addressing planning for climate change. An increase in youth-led conversations around climate and the environment have even been the catalyst for some communities, like the City of St. Louis Park, to adopt a climate action plan.

Where do we go from here?

Whether motivated by climate change, cost-savings, peer-learning, or exploring innovation, many communities are already trying to implement and accelerate inclusion of climate, energy, and resilience into their planning processes. All this means that there will be increasing local climate action and energy planning, and the potential for increased incorporation of these elements into other local planning processes in the Twin Cities and in cities across the region and the country.

Fortunately, through the efforts of the Met Council and non-profit organizations like GPI, communities that desire to see sustainability, energy, and climate incorporated into this process can do so.

The wave of local action shows tremendous interest and motivation to increase progress on climate, energy, resilience, and sustainability. If enough communities are successful, there is hope for achieving even larger climate change mitigation impacts—and continuing to support and foster prosperous, resilient communities.

Additional information and resources

Communities can reach out directly to GPI staff with questions on climate and energy action planning at the local and community level.

Abby Finis, Senior Energy Planner

Jessi Wyatt, Energy Planner and Analyst

To further explore some of the Metropolitan Council resources described in this post, check out the following links:

Communities can also get in touch with Metropolitan Council staff directly.

Eric Wojchik, Senior Planner, Local Planning Assistance

Cameran Bailey, Planner, Local Planning Assistance / SolSmart Solar Advisor

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