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Taking Duluth's Fight Against

Climate Change to the Streets.

Jordan van der Hagen  • April 16th, 2021

On Monday, April 12th, an opinion piece published by CNN touted Duluth as “one of the most climate-friendly places in America.” Later that day, the Duluth City Council voted to declare a climate emergency, a decision seemingly at odds with the opinion published earlier that morning. The fact is, no place will be truly “climate-proof,” and the choices we make here on whether or not to address climate change will lead to impacts that will affect not only us, but the places that will be more severely harmed by a changing climate. Climate change is a global phenomenon, and it requires a global response, but this response has to be carried out at the local level. We all have a part to play in the solution, whether our city is "climate friendly” or not.

If we want to prepare Duluth for the changes to come, we need to bring the fight to the streets, and perhaps not in the way you think. The number one source of environmental pollution isn’t the billowing smoke stacks downtown, or even our industrial waterfront; it’s the drive you took to the grocery store, it’s your morning commute to work, and it’s the mode of transportation most likely to be used in our city. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, on- and off-road vehicles now contribute 44% of all emissions in our state. While our geography might put us in a fortunate and privileged position, we need to put in work to make sure the way we actually build our city is "climate friendly" too. Any meaningful strategy by the city to tackle climate change will require big changes to both how we build and how we use our streets. Here are our recommendations for strategies the city can incorporate into their climate emergency response plan.


Build a walkable city.

Duluth is uniquely suited to return to the 15-minute city, a concept which seeks to ensure that all essential human services, such as groceries, pharmacies, parks, hardware, etc., are within a 15-minute walk of any city resident. While it’s hard to find positives in Duluth’s lack of growth over the past 6 decades, one good outcome is that our city has maintained its pre-car development pattern, largely sparing it from the sprawling car-centric suburban development seen in many other metro areas. The city should focus on enhancing these aspects of Duluth, making it easier for residents to walk to a corner store for our needs than it is to drive to Miller Hill. The impact of creating a city like this would be huge, and it would come at a benefit to our environment, our neighborhood business centers, and our own personal health.


Walkability isn’t only about economics, for many in our community it’s a necessity. One in three households in downtown Duluth don’t own a vehicle, and one in five live with some type of disability. Yes, our city is steep, but if anything that's more reason to invest in safe and accessible pedestrian infrastructure. A sidewalk is available to everyone, a road is not. Building a walkable city is the most democratic way of spending transportation dollars as it benefits all of a city’s residents, and its creation allows us to improve equity, economy, and environment hand-in-hand.


Implement The Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Bikeways Plan.

A bike plan prepared by the Metropolitan Interstate Council for the Twin Ports area has been available to City staff since at least as early as 1975. While the plan has evolved over time, very few of the plan’s recommendations have been implemented. The City’s stance on adding bike infrastructure to a street has been to wait until it is reconstructed, yet in the past few years, a number of high priority Duluth streets including Superior, 1st, and 2nd were reworked to varying degrees. All of these streets were noted in the Bike Plan as future routes, and none of them today have any bike infrastructure. We’ve already put in the work to plan out a successful bike network, and implementing it is an easy way to create needed alternatives to driving. Moving forward, the City should ensure that any street outlined in the Bike Plan should be built with infrastructure that make bikers feel safer on our streets.


Save Room for Green

Duluth streets typically have around 60' of space to work with - sometimes more, rarely less. How our city prioritizes this space is a direct reflection of its values, and if the city values mitigating climate change, the street network provides ample space to do so. While asphalt, concrete, and other hard pavements are often necessary, these materials contribute to the climate crisis in both their production and their implementation. We should be designing streets with as little of these materials as possible to maintain functionality, and in doing so we make room for other exciting things to happen. At the minimum, our city should be including trees on its streets, and ideally it would be including space for stormwater gardens, native plantings, and other forms of vegetation in tandem with permeable pavings and low-impact materials. 


Decrease Impervious Surfacing, Parking Lots, and Wasted Space.

We have paved over too much of our city. The amount of impervious surfacing within Duluth is extensive and puts unnecessary stress on our watersheds and our maintenance budgets. Focus should be placed on maintaining and retrofitting existing streets before building new ones. Many of our roads are too big and connect to overgrown parking lots which take up even more valuable space. A city in a climate emergency should not be investing in projects that will make driving easier, nor should it be mandating parking lots for new development. They take up space that could be used for housing, economic development, or climate change mitigation strategies. The amount of parking a project needs should be up to the developer, and if anything the city should be setting parking maximums.


Recognize the Asset of Community Activists

Above all else, it will be essential to include the community in the process of creating guidelines and setting targets. This is true not only because instilling a sense of ownership amongst the public over the response will help alleviate any sense of the city imposing rules, but also because Duluth residents are passionate about fighting the climate crisis. So much so that they've drafted policies, created ambitious design interventions, attended protests, and even developed their own extensive Citizen's Climate Action Plan. The community isn't interested in waiting to make change, and a lot of the leg work for creating a more resilient and sustainable Duluth has been done up-front on a volunteer basis. Any climate change mitigation strategy by the city should seek to empower the work already being done and establish stronger relationships between these initiatives and the City. While the City has moved in the right direction with the creation of a Sustainability Coordinator, there still seems to be tension between these sustainability goals, the community's interests, and how built projects are actually playing out on the ground. Any meaningful climate change mitigation strategy will create impacts to the community, and the community needs to be at the table to assist in determining what that looks like. We are at our best when we engage these processes, and only by coming together can we create a more equitable, sustainable,

and connected Duluth.

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