Messages from the Council Chair

Pandemic and progress: A look at 2021

December 2021

Chair Charlie ZelleAs 2021 draws to a close, it would be understandable to focus on the negatives. Many families and businesses are struggling as the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic looms and as the impacts of climate change become more evident. But that would be a mistake. Even in the face of these big challenges, people are figuring out how to band together to create community and help each other out.

At the Met Council, we continue to reach out to partners to make a real difference in the lives of the people in our region. We’re making progress despite the pandemic.

I’d like to close out the year with a few examples of work that means a lot to me. The Met Council is involved in these efforts to one degree or another, but none of this progress would be possible without the help of local officials, neighborhood leaders, activists, volunteers, and nonprofit organizations. Together, we’re building a better region.

I’ll start with the story of Renisha and her two children. Renisha works hard, but she doesn’t make a lot of money, so she relies on housing assistance to make ends meet. In the past that meant she would have very limited choices about where to live, because of where rents are affordable.

For her family, Renisha wanted to move to a suburban community that had more opportunities in education, recreation, and employment. The Met Council’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority is able to help her with its Community Choice program. It helps families like Renisha’s find housing in communities across the region. Research shows that children who are able to grow up in high-opportunity communities consistently do better in school and become more successful later in life.

Another pandemic win of 2021 is our regional parks system, which is seeing attendance and use at an all-time high. People are finding that parks are a refuge during a time of uncertainty. As the number of parks visitors increases, so does the number of ways people enjoy the parks. Our region is growing more diverse and we’re seeing our park systems change their programming to adapt to new people from different cultural traditions. Ramsey and Dakota counties are doing innovative work to make parks and trails more inclusive to everyone.

The pandemic spurred innovation in the Met Council’s wastewater treatment division. Our Environmental Services scientists worked closely with the University of Minnesota’s Genomics Center to develop a testing protocol for identifying the presence of COVID-19 in our wastewater. This not only allows public health officials to get a look at how prevalent the virus is in our region, but which variants are spreading. This testing protocol delivers usable data and identifies trends as much as two weeks before it becomes apparent through traditional testing.

A person standing next to a newly planted tree, with an old stump in the foreground.One image from 2021 that really stays with me is Maxx La Tourelle, standing in her front yard after the group Frogtown Green planted a new tree — free of charge — adjacent to the stump of the century-old ash that had succumbed to the Emerald Ash Borer infestation. La Tourelle and her partner just brought home a new baby this year, who will grow along with the tree in their front yard.

In the next decade, Minnesota is expected to lose as many as a billion trees to this infestation, leaving Saint Paul neighborhoods like Maxx’s hotter and less livable. As a planning agency, the Met Council is keenly interested in addressing this challenge. We’ve been working in partnership with the Nature Conservancy and the Tree Trust. The three partners are developing an online tool to help communities track where tree canopies are thin, and then prioritize where cities and communities can get the most impact from new planting.

Certainly, this last year has had its challenges, fitful stops and starts. But that’s what we signed up for, and when I think of how the work we’re doing impacts the lives of the people we serve, I can’t help but feel that we’re making progress. It reminds me of the old Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”

Happy New Year!