City Climate Corner

Youth Lead The Way - St. Louis Park, MN

Episode Summary

High School students in St. Louis Park, MN initiated what became the most aggressive climate action plan in the state. Abby interviews co-host Larry Kraft about how youth forever changed the course of the city and how they remain involved.

Episode Notes

High School students in St. Louis Park, MN initiated what became the most aggressive climate action plan in the state. Abby interviews co-host Larry Kraft about how youth forever changed the course of the city and how they remain involved.

Check out our bonus episode where we interview St. Louis Park youth leaders.

More Information and Links

Episode Transcription

Podcast Intro

Abby Finis  00:02

Cities produce more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Big cities get a lot of attention. But most household emissions in the US actually come from communities outside urban cores, making them critical players in climate mitigation and climate justice. City Climate Corner explores how these small and midsize cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future. I'm Abby Finis.

Larry Kraft  00:23

And I'm Larry Kraft. We're co-hosts for City Climate Corner.

Episode intro

Larry Kraft  00:29

Hey, Abby. 

Abby Finis  00:29

Hey, Larry. Hey, you excited about today's episode?

Larry Kraft  00:34

I am very excited. I understand we have a really interesting interviewee.

Abby Finis  00:39

Yeah, very special guest today.

Larry Kraft  00:42

Oh, wait. It's me!

Abby Finis  00:44

It's you!

Larry Kraft  00:46

Yeah, I'm super excited to talk about my home city of St. Louis Park. And how young people here have really changed the course of our city, and maybe along the way, give others cities ideas of how to involve youth in their own climate action.

Abby Finis  01:02

Absolutely, youth can be a really powerful champion for climate action and communities and move cities that otherwise might not move on climate change to do it.

Larry Kraft  01:14


Abby Finis  01:14

Let's hear it. 

Larry Kraft  01:15

Let's do it. 

Start of interview - background on St. Louis Park (SLP)

Abby Finis  01:18

So today on City Climate Corner, we are going to interview our very own co-host here, Larry Kraft, council member in the city of St. Louis Park. And he has been involved from the beginning of the evolution of climate action planning in St. Louis Park. Larry, can you paint a picture of the city and we'll dig into that evolution in a second but maybe paint a picture of the city and your role in it?

Larry Kraft  01:46

Sure. St. Louis Park is a first ring suburb of Minneapolis. We have just under 50,000 people. And I joined the city council a year ago actually ran in late 2019. And yeah, it's a fairly liberal city, seven of us on City Council.

SLP's Climate Report Card 

Abby Finis  02:10

Great. So you and I actually met through this project, the St. Louis Park Climate Action Plan. And so we both kind of have a little bit of a history with it. But you were really there from from the get go. And the city itself has a long history of taking sustainability action, but in I guess 2015, I think they were taken to task on climate. Can you tell us about that?

Larry Kraft  02:42

Sure. Actually, it was in late 2015 that I met a student, Jayne Stevenson, at the time, was the leader of the high school Roots and Shoots environmental club. It was at a time when I was involved with the nonprofit iMatter. And we were looking for cities to do a pilot, part of a program, on helping students lead their own campaigns to push their city councils for climate action. And Jayne embraced it brought it to the Roots and Shoots club at the high school. They dove in and by March of 2016, went before city council gave them a report card on climate action that gave him a B-minus and said they needed to do better, and asked them to commit to developing a climate action plan with a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

Abby Finis  03:41

So can you can you break down that report card again, because their overall grade I think was a B-minus right. But they did not do quite so well on climate action. 

Larry Kraft  03:49

Right. So St. Louis Park did quite well on the waste portion of the plan where they had initiated recycling, I think maybe the first in the state to have compost, curbside, organics pickup early on. So they did well in a number of areas. But on the climate action portion, they got a D or a D plus or something along those lines because they hadn't yet set goals and developed a plan. And that's what the students asked for. And a couple months later in May, the Council adopted this resolution, unanimously, committing to develop a climate action plan with the goal of net zero by 2040. And part of that resolution was a commitment to start the development of the plan within 30 days. Within that 30 days and the students were right on top of it, they kept on pestering the mayor and city manager but within that 30 days a RFP was sent out it was begin to be developed I think, and I think that was where the organization that you work for responded and eventually led to the process that developed our Climate Action Plan.

Abby Finis  04:58

Yeah, I think that these report cards have been presented in a number of cities. What was different about St. Louis Park for their reaction? And maybe from the council members' and the mayor's standpoint?

Larry Kraft  05:13

Yeah. Well, St. Louis Park was one of the first, was one of our first five pilot cities. The Council was, I think, pretty blown away and very receptive to students. And several of them spoke very eloquently about the power that youth have, even if they don't necessarily realize it on this issue, just the moral authority. You know, St. Louis Park has always been a community very focused on supporting its children, supporting its kids. I think the council was predisposed to listen. And then they, you know the logic of the students plea was pretty unassailable, saying, hey, look, it's our future. We need to do something about it. And so the council was behind it. And I think the students felt really very positive and empowered. Now, they didn't just go before Council, they had done a bunch of work, they had talked to others in the community, they had done a petition in the school that got nearly half the students of the school to sign the petition. And they put together a really powerful presentation for the council. Yeah, it just went from there.

Climate Action Plan Development

Abby Finis  06:27

Yeah. So then we get into the development of the plan itself, how important was it to involve youth both in the development as well as integrating their voices and making them a part of the implementation of the plan?

Larry Kraft  06:46

Yeah, great question. Part of the resolution that the students brought was not just to take action, but also to say that they needed a seat at the table because it was their future. And so part of that commitment of the council was not only to develop a plan, but to involve students in a meaningful way in the process. In the RFP that went out, one of the requirements was that students would be involved in the development of the plan. I was, at the time, I was asked to be on a citizen group that helped score the proposals and advise the city on it, and one of the key factors was how well the respondents had a plan for integrating the students involvement in the creation of the Climate Action Plan. So it was integral. And then, as you know, Abby, the students from Roots and Shoots, were involved at multiple points during the development of the plan in setting goals, and in trying to paint a vision for what we as a community and what they viewed as a vision for what we wanted.

Abby Finis  07:58

Okay. You know, when I think back on the adoption of the Climate Action Plan, it's one of my favorite council meetings that I've ever been to. The first council meeting that scheduled the adoption was cancelled, postponed, due to a big snowstorm. And somebody mentioned that it was the first time a city council meeting has ever been canceled. And so here we are trying to pass a Climate Action Plan, and we get canceled in the middle of a big snowstorm. So we come back next month. And you know, the room is filled with high school students, middle school students. When the Council adopted the Climate Action Plan, the room erupted. And, you know, I've not participated in a city government forum like that before or since where there's so much cheering and joy that comes from that. So, what message does it send to those young young kids who were in that room who worked so hard, and then they see this happen. What message does that send about working with city government, and their power?

Larry Kraft  09:14

Well, I want to point out one thing, too. By the time that the plan, the actual plan was developed and adopted, the students that initially started it, most of them had graduated because it took a year and a half, two years from beginning to have the resolution to actually having a completed plan. But what happened along the way was that the younger students in the environmental club took over as leaders. And so we're now on the fourth generation of leadership of that club. The results that they saw and the passion that they feel about it has been passed on. That's been really phenomenal to see. I think the message that it sent those students that worked so hard, was that their voice matters. They can look back and see how they've changed the course of the city. I mean, it is forever different based on what they've done. And not only that, what happened in St. Louis Park then had a ripple effect to other communities around Minnesota and even other places around the country. So they see that their voice matters. And I've already seen from many of them that have gone on, to do other things, in their lives and in the colleges, where they're at now, where they've taken leadership roles and then gone on to other things. So I think it's, it's incredibly empowering. And it also encourages further civic engagement.

Candidate for City Council

Abby Finis  10:45

That's great. So we'll fast forward a few years, the city has been implementing a number of initiatives from the plan and has been making some real progress. You are no longer the executive director of iMatter, but were recently elected to city council in St. Louis Park. Can you tell us about what you hope to achieve as a council member? What your priorities are? And how do you involve the youth as you go forward?

Larry Kraft  11:12

My journey to deciding to run for council really is based on what happened, was initiated by that meeting with Jayne Stevenson, back in 2015. I had no plans to run for St. Louis Park City Council. But, you know, I had made a shift now about about eight, nine years ago, from a tech oriented career to focused on trying to do something about climate change, mainly because I'm just terrified for the future that, that my kids are inheriting from us. As I was thinking about where I could spend my time to have the maximum impact on this issue, I looked at what was happening in St. Louis Park with this plan, and said, "wow, we have a tremendous opportunity now to work through the complexities and how to implement this thing, how to actually get there. Make the community stronger, more healthy, more sustainable. And because we're out in front of most of the rest of Minnesota and many other places in the country, we have an opportunity to be an example for others." 

That was the main thing that caused me to decide to run and my platform was really focused on three things. One being climate action and implementing this plan that these youth of our community have initiated. Two - to continue to involve them, youth involvement. And third was to strengthen the diversity of the community. 

Now, in terms of how to keep youth involved, I've remained an informal advisor to the Roots and Shoots environmental club, I continue to work with them and give them ideas and be a sounding board for them on how they continue to be involved. And it's been fun to see how their involvement evolves over time. A couple years ago, they decided to bring the same campaign to the school board and eventually convinced the school board in St. Louis Park, to sign on to the same goals as the city. After initial reluctance on the side of the school administration, they've now committed to putting solar panels on every building in the district. And that's all as a result of youth activism. That's how I try to keep working with youth, not instructing them on what to do, but listening and finding where their passions are. The current leadership is really interested in food and food sustainability in St. Louis Park. And so that's an area that more time is being spent on now.

SLP School District - Climate Action

Abby Finis  13:51

Can you give a little bit more information on the the push for the school district to do better on climate? Because a few years ago, they were pretty reluctant. So, what changed?

Larry Kraft  14:05

Well, initially, the club decided that they wanted the school district to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2025. And their view was, we want the city to get there by 2030, because that would be a great stepping stone to hit the net zero goal, net zero emissions by 2040. And they needed someone to be a leader. So they wanted the school district to commit to an aggressive plan. And so what they did was they then connected with younger students from the class of 2025, who at the time were I think, fourth or fifth graders. They developed this partnership and they went before the school board a number of times and presented to them and asked them to take action. 

Not only that, they did research, and I remember this one school board meeting where the students were talking about capital leases and lease structure to how to actually put solar and make solar financially viable in a cash flow positive way for the school district. And they just kept at it. You know, they kept working with not just the administration, but the superintendent, the guy that runs the facilities. You know, after some after initial reluctance, through persistence, eventually the guy that runs facilities did a bunch more research and got some on board to do it.

Abby Finis  15:39

That's great. Do you happen to know, how much money the school district will save over the duration of these projects they implement? Are they not quite there yet?

Larry Kraft  15:50

Oh, that's a great question. What I remember is that when that's all said and done, the solar that's gone on will supply over half of the electricity for the school district. And it is in the 10s of thousands of dollars. But I don't remember the specific number.

Multple crises and centering people

Abby Finis  16:06

Yeah, cool. Anything else you want to highlight from St. Louis Park.

Larry Kraft  16:13

I guess the other the other piece as we implement this, especially this past year, when we've had the COVID crisis, the financial crisis as a result of COVID, as well as the racial justice crisis that's been highlighted by the murder of George Floyd. And by the way, George Floyd was a resident of St. Louis Park. So you know, it caused introspection and re-examination everywhere, it did so quite a bit here. As that all has happened, one of the things that I've realized and I've pushed is that these are all crises that are happening now. And one is not more important than the other. They're all of equal importance. They're all crises that we need to address simultaneously. We can't say, hey, look, we need to fix the climate crisis. So we can't postpone work on racial equity, or COVID. And vice versa, you can't do that. Right, you need to find ways to address all of them. 

One of the things that I've been really happy about in joining Council in St. Louis Park, is that prior councils set a core set of strategic framework, strategic goals for the city. There are five but probably the two that we spend the most time on are racial equity, racial justice, and environmental sustainability. Ingrained in what we do as we think about how we implement this plan, it's not just how we lower emissions or how we get more renewable energy, but how we do that at the same time, in an equitable way, and trying to make investments in sustainability that also can help us address the racial injustice that's around.

Abby Finis  18:13

Yeah, you know, I've been doing a lot of thinking about reversing the approach. Where, you know, from a practitioners standpoint, we often come at it with, well, we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there's these co benefits of cleaner air and more equity and all these things. But, you know, if we look at it from the standpoint of centering people, and what's good for people, then the co benefit, is really dramatic reductions in emissions. Now, I think you're spot on, and it's encouraging to see more and more people start to get that and starting to center people and thinking through those actions that have that duality of, of making our lives healthier and making the planet healthier.

Larry Kraft  19:07

That's good. So your point on people is a good one. I mean, an example of that in St. Louis Park is, is work we're doing on something called Connect The Park. Which is a project that was put in place, I mean, the origins of it are over a decade ago, but of a way of providing different mechanisms for people to get around St. Louis Park, other than using cars. And we've been going through a rethink of that, to center more around people. I mean, the initial goals of it were, hey, we need a network of ways for people to walk and use bicycles, which was great. But one of the things that we've realized in taking a pause to do a rethink was that, quickly what happened was the network became the goal, as opposed to the outcomes from the network. And so we're trying to think a lot more carefully now about what are the outcomes we want from this? And how do you measure them. On usage, on giving people from all parts of the city in all walks of life, better access to things that make their lives better, right? Whether it be food or jobs or things like that. So really trying to really rethink about it on an outcomes for people basis. So I resonate a lot with what you said.

Abby Finis  20:27

Yeah, I don't think you mentioned it in the beginning. But one thing that I think is really unique about St. Louis Park as a suburb, is that it is a pretty dense suburb relative to most even inner ring suburbs of Minneapolis. And I think it's close to 50%, or about 50% is multifamily housing. And so there's a lot that the city can do to reduce vehicle miles traveled and think about alternative modes and you have light rail coming in. So it's really kind of an interesting time to watch what's going on in the park.

Larry Kraft  21:01

Yeah, you're absolutely right. And I did neglect to mention that upfront, but it's densely packed. We're pretty much fully developed. And yet, because of the desirability of being close to the city, but also yet still not a metro city feel, quite a desirable area. A decent amount of diversity. And the fact now that we will have three light rail stops coming in being built now coming online in early 2023. That is all combined to create a lot of development. A lot of interest in putting more multifamily housing in. We've set some goals for ourselves in terms of making a a large portion of that affordable. But with that we have challenges of prices going up. And how do you deal with that? Not wanting to price, the uniqueness of St. Louis Park out of the city as we develop. So it's an interesting time.

Abby Finis  22:07

Yeah, for sure. Well, we veered a little bit away from from the youth. And by the way, every time I say the youth, I feel a little bit older. But our young leaders, well, thank you for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the success in St. Louis Park.

Larry Kraft  22:26

Thanks, Abby.

Abby and Larry - episode debrief

Larry Kraft  22:30

All right. So Abby, what do you think? What are your takeaways?

Abby Finis  22:34

You know, I am most familiar with this project, I think, compared to some of our other episodes, I just continue to be impressed by the longevity of the youths involvement in St. Louis Park, and how they continue to be engaged. And there was a lot of momentum right from the start. And there have been a number of projects that they've worked on over the years. And they keep showing up. We did a solar project with them a few years ago. And I think a dozen or so high school students showed up to knock on people's door and let them know how much solar they have, and see if they could get them to put solar on their rooftop. And so to me, it's just a testament to how important it is to involve youth in climate action in your community, to not only provide the impetus for embarking on a Climate Action Plan, but also making sure that there's accountability and implementing the plan.

Larry Kraft  23:33

Yeah, I'm continually excited, inspired by the involvement of youth in St. Louis Park. And I think that one of the keys to that is that they feel a tremendous sense of ownership for what's going on in the city. And that ongoing connection to youth has been really important, through this environmental club at the high school. And the fact that we in St. Louis Park, have a couple of youth seats on all of our commissions that provides a mechanism for an ongoing relationship. It's really interesting to see how it's changed over the past four years where it started as pushing for action in the city, and then it moved to in the school district. And now, you know, the leadership now is very interested in food security in St. Louis Park. And so that's a direction that that relationship is heading. But it's that ownership that that you feel for what's going on here and by being authentically involved and having stuff that they can really do and push for.

Abby Finis  24:45

Yeah, I think that it's critical, and it's something that I hear a lot from cities is "how do we get our elected officials on board? How do we get people interested?" Well, have you talked to the youth in your community? Have you seen you know if they're engaged in this topic, if they're interested in this topic. Because if so, give them power, empower them to bring their voices into the conversation and you will see things start to happen for sure.

Larry Kraft  25:11

So true, it just, when a young person is up before city council and saying this is important to me and my future, it changes the dynamic, it changes the conversation, it changes the way people approach it. It happened in St. Louis Park, and hint hint for a future episode you should listen to when we talk about Goshen, Indiana, which is a more conservative place, but youth had quite an impact there as well.

Abby Finis  25:40

Absolutely. Well, I appreciate your work on this effort, and what you've done in St. Louis Park and galvanizing the youth there at least -- directing their desires and what they want to do with the climate in your city. 

Larry Kraft  25:55

Thanks, Abby. It's been incredibly rewarding to be a little bit of a coach and then let them take it where they want to take it.

Abby Finis  26:06

We hope you enjoyed this episode of City Climate Corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. If you’re able, become a monthly supporter through Patreon. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from this episode's guests on our webpage, If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at or find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Larry Kraft  26:28

City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finis and me, Larry Kraft. Edited by me. Music by

Abby Finis  26:35

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

Larry Kraft  26:38

Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.