A Glorious Abstraction

bye bye baby bear

I recently lost my tiny little 15-year-old dog, and for the past week or so instead of her there has been a dark cloud following me around.  I have a tendency towards the embittered rant anyway, but I’ve found that any attempt to write lately has resulted in writing that would at least earn me a place on a no-fly list, if not suck the entire internet into a black hole of despair.  Transportation issues can be thought of as logic puzzles, but at the same time they often have a very personal impact that tends to draw emotions into the argument.

So I’m grateful to the ever-lovin’ government this week for bestowing on me the gift of a relatively abstract issue: Minnesota’s census results.  My excitement for these results has built over the past month or so as results for central cities in other metro areas have shown population gains in many cases, and in others gains in the central neighborhoods despite overall central city loss.

And the results show that Minneapolis may be more St. Louis than Seattle, unfortunately, although the population only declined by 40 people (an aside: that number is one of those that is eerily precise, like the old maybe Steven Wright joke that 42.7% of statistics are made up on the spot, suggesting that if they hadn’t forgotten some apartment building Minneapolis would have gained population).  Net Density has already shown that Downtown Minneapolis gained population, and from some skimming it appears to me that Uptown has lost population, suggesting that there wasn’t enough new construction to overcome shrinking household sizes:

CT Pop 2010 HU 2010 Pop 2000 HU 2000
77 2618 1632 2048 1050
1055 3733 2390 3967 2388
1066 2332 1319 2368 1328
1067 4913 3169 5224 3194
1069 2724 1561 3121 1452
1070 4063 2088 4490 2085
1080 3294 2034 3517 2018
81 3394 1972 3503 1976
82 4534 2251 4597 2169
1092 3414 2151 3916 2172
1093 3992 1977 4218 1994
78.01 1693 671 1813 679
Total 40704 23215 42782 22505

(This is roughly the greater Uptown area, from the lakes to 35W, and from 38th to Franklin, including Lowry Hill but not Stevens Square.)

I may post more on the finer-grain info later, but the rest of this post is going to focus on the regional data.  I want to start here because this year, like every decade, articles about the census results imply or outright blame the crumbling of central cities as the reason for population loss, implying that the suburbs are what really matter and no one wants to live in central cities anymore.

But many inner suburbs have not grown in decades, and even outer suburbs are declining in population.  In fact, half of the 10 metro cities that lost the most absolute population were outer or fringe suburbs:

Place Pop 2010 Pop 2000 Pop # Change Pop % Change Ring
New Hope 20339 20873 -534 -3% Inner
Crystal 22151 22698 -547 -2% Inner
Mounds View 12155 12738 -583 -5% Outer
New Brighton 21456 22206 -750 -3% Inner
Vadnais Heights 12302 13069 -767 -6% Outer
Shoreview 25043 25924 -881 -3% Inner
Anoka 17142 18076 -934 -5% Fringe
Minnetonka 49734 51301 -1567 -3% Outer
St. Paul 285068 287151 -2083 -1% Central
Bloomington 82893 85172 -2279 -3% Outer

And measured by % population change, the all but one of the top ten losers were outer or fringe suburbs:

Place Pop 2010 Pop 2000 Pop # Change Pop % Change Ring
Newport 3435 3715 -280 -8% Inner
Willernie 507 549 -42 -8% Outer
Lake St. Croix Beach 1051 1140 -89 -8% Fringe
Excelsior 2188 2393 -205 -9% Fringe
Woodland 437 480 -43 -9% Fringe
Birchwood Village 870 968 -98 -10% Fringe
Wayzata 3688 4113 -425 -10% Fringe
Minnetonka Beach 539 614 -75 -12% Fringe
Lakeland Shores 311 355 -44 -12% Fringe
Maple Plain 1768 2088 -320 -15% Fringe

What all these cities have in common, whether St. Paul or Lake St. Croix Beach, is that they’ve reached territorial limits to their expansion.  (For the same reason Minneapolis and St. Paul stopped growing in the 1950s and 1960s respectively, although decline was delayed in those cases due to housing shortages.)

So we need to stop thinking of growth in terms of number of heads.  Take a look at the top ten cities in terms of housing units added in the last 10 years:

Place HU 2010 HU 2000 HU # Change HU % Change Ring
Minneapolis 178287 168606 9681 6% Central
Woodbury 23568 17541 6027 34% Inner
Maple Grove 23626 17745 5881 33% Outer
Blaine 21921 16169 5752 36% Outer
Lakeville 19456 13799 5657 41% Fringe
Shakopee 13339 7805 5534 71% Fringe
St. Paul 120795 115713 5082 4% Central
Plymouth 29982 25258 4724 19% Outer
Forest Lake 7508 2897 4611 159% Fringe
Eden Prairie 25075 21026 4049 19% Outer

Two central cities are included because they’ve finally made a few selected areas available for dense residential development after many years of restrictions.  Minneapolis, for example, has reached a new high in total number of housing units:

Census Housing Units Change from previous decade
1940 147547
1950 155215 7668
1960 173155 17940
1970 167196 -5959
1990 172666
2000 168606 -4060
2010 178287 9681

I believe the population decline between 1950 and 1960 was due mostly to the replacement of dense residential units downtown with parking lots, and I posted a couple months ago about how the 1960s likely saw the most residential units constructed in the postwar era, but it was more than offset by the destruction caused by interstate construction.

Even “outer” suburbs are barely growing, according to a classification by several authors of a study on voting patterns:


Suburb Type Sum of Pop 2010 Sum of Pop # Change Average of Pop % Change
Fringe 746383 148764 33%
Central 667646 -2123 0%
Inner 666547 27538 2%
Outer 698274 40273 4%
Grand Total 2778850 214452 19%

Large “outer” suburbs like Bloomington and Minnetonka lost population (and have been for several decades).  The point is, population growth seems to have little to do with American preferences for suburban lifestyles over urban lifestyles.  Instead it is just difficult to add density to existing urban fabric anywhere.  There is an epidemic of NIMBYism in the USA, and only in certain cities, or “tabula rasa” neighborhoods -usually downtown- that have no residents to object, can enough density be added to overcome shrinking household sizes.

I’m going to post the spreadsheet I made from the census data below because I haven’t seen it elsewhere (the state demography office has some good tables though) and American Fact Finder may be the most annoying website in existence.  Feel free to come to your own conclusions – just don’t tell me that no one wants to live in central cities.

metro cities analysis

(PS sorry about the crappy-looking tables – apparently wordpress doesn’t really support tables unless you throw down big bucks or learn html)

Census Housing Units Change from previous decade
1940 147547
1950 155215 7668
1960 173155 17940
1970 167196 -5959
1990 172666
2000 168606 -4060
2010 178287 9681
This entry was posted in density.

6 comments on “A Glorious Abstraction

  1. Good stuff. A tip, try the wordpress tables reloaded plugin, it can import and makes decent looking tables (for free).

    • I don’t think you can use plugins on the free blogs, and I’m too cheap to pony up. I’m thinking about learning some html but looking at the code for a table starts me shaking in my boots.

  2. mulad says:

    Wow, I hadn’t made the connection before — That is a fascinating observation about total number of housing units reaching new records, even though the population remains off from 1950 levels by nearly 27%. Minneapolis declined from 3.4 residents per housing unit in 1950 down to 2.1 last year. There’d be 600,000 people in Minneapolis if people packed in the same way today as they did back then.

    Of course, “housing unit” probably doesn’t equal “household”, since there are some pretty decent vacancy rates at the moment, but it would be interesting to get more data to understand exactly what’s going on.

    I suspect it all comes down to smaller numbers of kids per family, more unmarried people, and a greater desire to live in a “self sufficient” way, but there might be patterns in how the square footage per person and per household has changed over time, or whether there’s been an overall increase in number of bedrooms that corresponds with the increase in housing units. Rental contracts (and, I presume, a number of laws) tend to limit the number of people who can live in a unit based on the number of bedrooms — could it be that such restrictions do more harm than good?

    At any rate, this definitely explains the feeling that people have that many cities are experiencing an “urban renaissance” even though the population numbers haven’t quite kept up.

    • Interesting calculation. I don’t dwell too much on household sizes because for me parking requirements are a much more useful enemy to blame for population declines. There has been some interesting stuff on household sizes at austincontrarian.com lately.

      Vacancy rates are really low now, but they were still pretty high at census time. Some tracts on the North Side had vacancy rates around 20% but in uptown at least they looked good, 5-10%. I’d guess the foreclosure crisis was a bigger factor than rental vacancy rates. For this post though I looked at total housing units because I think that gives a better long term picture.

  3. […] for Wieffering’s argument, the 2010 census showed that Minneapolis had a greater net gain in housing units than any other city – a much greater […]

  4. […] years).  This lead seems to have primarily resulted from the 70s and 00s, in the latter of which Minneapolis added significantly more housing units than anywhere else in the Twin Cities. Seas of purple and […]

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