Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated the USA Today. At first it was because they didn’t have comics, but as I’ve grown older I’ve gotten better at rationalizing my opinions in ways that make sense to adults, and now I just have to say that their stories tend to be extremely superficial.
Take their recent article about increased differentiation between suburban strata as portrayed by the 2010 census, using St Croix county as an example. The paper gets some credit for at least distinguishing between suburbs, noting that nationwide inner suburbs grew at a greater rate than middle suburbs, though not nearly at the rate of outer suburbs. This is an obvious statement. Outer suburbs are starting at smaller populations, so even if a lower number of people move there, it can result in higher percentage growth than larger cities.
USA Today doesn’t mention the absolute change number for these three types of suburbs, or even really describe how they differentiated between them. This is problematic for suburbs like Mendota Heights or Maplewood, which are relatively central in the metro area, but had substantial greenfield development through the 1980s. The paper credits Robert Lang – author of Boomburbs – for the data, but doesn’t link to any more detailed analysis.
But my real beef comes in when they start talking about St Croix county, which in the last decade grew by an astonishing 33.6% (or about 5 times less fast than the North Loop). This section really betrays their lack of knowledge of the Twin Cities metro. It claims the county is popular because of its “easy access to the Twin Cities (12 miles), more moderately priced housing, good schools and a quaint downtown in Hudson.”
St Croix county is only 12 miles from the St Paul city limits, but it is much further from the majority of jobs in the Twin Cities. As Orfield and Luce put it in their study of employment and commute patterns in the book Region, employment clusters in the Twin Cities “are more likely to be in the western and southwestern parts of the region.” And as the map shows, St Croix doesn’t have a particularly low average commute time, even for collar counties.
Surprisingly, USA Today is also off-base about the housing cost – although ACS 5 year data shows St Croix county’s median housing value of $224k to be a bit lower than the metro area’s median of $240k, it is actually higher than Ramsey County’s median and about the same as Anoka’s.
I’m not even going to look into the schools, because I don’t think there is a quantitative method of ranking schools, so I’ll give USA Today that point. And they can have one for crediting Hudson’s quaint downtown as a driver of growth, because I agree with them, and because it muddles their point (according to USA Today, Americans prefer to live in fringe suburbs, but only if they’re near a downtown).
Why are people moving to St Croix county? Because houses are being built there. But St Croix county isn’t even adding an exceptional number of houses. In the 13-county metro area, Hennepin County by far added the most housing units, 40,776, four times the 9,709 added in St Croix county. The foreclosure crisis reduces the increase in occupied housing units to only 2.5 times that of St Croix county.
So why is the USA today writing about St Croix county? It could be because the county was the only one in the 13 county metro to have a higher rate of growth in 2000-2010 than 1990-2000, and it thereby fits the story’s “stay calm, everything is fine, all growth is still on the fringe” attitude.
On this point, I’m humbled to have to agree with them. Although locally the suburban fringe grew at a slower rate in the last decade than in the 90s, inner and middle suburbs’ rate of growth decreased even more, meaning the fringe accounted for a greater share of the Twin Cities’ growth in the 00s than it did in the 90s (about 66% in 00s and about 45% in the 90s). That means that the region needs to work harder to focus growth inward, for example by encouraging more compact development in situations like the Brookdale site. It also means that this national paper may be more on target than the locals, which both recently posed the possibility of an end to sprawl. And that means I need to get more creative in rationalizing my hatred of the USA Today.