Berg is back

“We scratch our heads when we see a Democratic governor and two senators pushing to build a big new bridge over the St. Croix River to encourage more sprawl into Wisconsin,” said [Ethan] Seltzer of Portland State. “That wouldn’t happen here.”

My favorite quote from Steve Berg’s commentary in the Sunday Strib.  I was delighted to see the piece prominently placed on the front page of the Opinion section, having suffered from Berg withdrawal since his hiatus from MinnPost turned into a permanent absence (although Steven Dornfield has been a capable replacement).  Of course I agreed with most of his points and enjoyed the comparative perspectives with Portland, Seattle and Denver, as good role model cities as any in the USA.

(My agreement has two caveats:  in his six-point plan for growing the center cities, he recommends “adopt[ing] form-based zoning codes” and “simplify[ing] bureaucracy.”  Form-based codes would certainly give developers “clear options on height and mass” as he asserts, but the NIMBY problem that he refers to repeatedly makes it uncertain that a form-based code that allows the necessary density to grow the city would be adopted in first place.  And while it’s easy to say that everything would be better if the dang gummint would just get out of the way, I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that it’s any harder to get approvals for development in Minneapolis than anywhere else.  My understanding is that the Mayor that I’m always ripping on has pushed through some reforms at CPED – one of which may be the single-point contact that seems to me about as simple as you can get – and Gary Schiff just got rid of the pointless CUP requirement for buildings with 5 or more units.  I freely admit to having no experience developing real estate in Minneapolis or any other city, however.)

My reproduction of the table that accompanied Berg's commentary

But as much as I enjoyed reading about those three urban success stories, I still think they’re the wrong cities to compare with MSP.  You might be able to make a historical case for comparison with our sibling cities of the Great Northwest, Seattle and Portland, but we took different paths starting in World War II at the latest.  In the post-war era, the Twin Cities have been more in line with other low-industry Midwestern cities, such as Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Columbus.   So on Berg’s metrics, MSP fares much better in the Midwestern conference (at least we have a lot of company in the Zero Club):

Big 10

I certainly don’t blame Steve Berg for aiming high, although there’s something to be said for setting realistic goals.  For example, the Ford plant is probably the biggest single opportunity for development in the Twin Cities, but it’s only 2.5% of the size of the Stapleton Airport site that provided the bulk of Denver’s growth in the last decade.  The city of Portland has over 25 square miles more land area than Minneapolis and St Paul combined (with around 80,000 fewer people living there than MSP) and can still annex land to the northwest and the southeast.

Seattle’s model would seem to be more attainable, since it grew more than any city that didn’t annex or build on greenfields except New York.  But is it really?  I hadn’t looked at poverty data much until Berg included it as a metric along with his commentary and advocated working on reducing concentration of poverty as a means of growing cities (or guarding against shrinking cities).  Seattle really is exceptional here, ranking third-lowest for percent of central city population in poverty, just behind famously gentrified San Francisco and its suburb that for some reason gets its own metro area, San Jose.  And looking at maps, it appears that poverty* really is dispersed throughout the Seattle metro:

From the NY Times 2009 5 year ACS map

And maps also seem to show poverty clustering in the central cities in MSP:


Suggesting that the Twin Cities do have the concentration of poverty problem alleged by Berg, a fact that is corroborated by national average central city poverty rate for metro areas of 1m or more, which at 21% is two points below the Minneapolis & St Paul combined rate of 23%.  We’re supposed to all be above-average here, goldarn it, which is reason in and of itself to work on this problem.  But what effect does poverty have on urban growth?  I made some quick graphs on Excel to try to answer that, using the data I collected on metro areas of 1m or more for my post on downtown population growth (or lack thereof).

First, thinking back to the Twin Cities’ underwhelming downtown growth, even compared to other Midwestern towns, I wondered about poverty’s effect on downtown population growth.  My amateur analysis found none:

Comparing poverty rates to central city population growth, however, shows a relationship:

The cities with higher poverty rates tended to grow less or shrink in the decade between 2000 and 2010.  This may be less about developers avoiding cities with high concentrations of poverty and more about the foreclosure crisis hitting cities with high concentrations of poverty harder.  So it’s more about resilience, which I think Berg is after when he recommends “Stabiliz[ing] poor neighborhoods not only for ethical and economic reasons but to stem population loss.”

One more chart, just for fun:

I looked at the relationship between poverty and density expressed as the percent of housing stock in multi-unit dwellings (defined by the Census as any structure with more than one unit within it, so not counting single-family attached units).  This would seem to suggest that denser cities tend to have more people in poverty, but may merely reflect the fact that center cities that are still annexing land are closer to their metropolitan average for both density and poverty than center cities that stopped annexing before World War II.

None of which really explains whether Seattle is a model that can be repeated (although I still suspect that they’ve exported their poverty to Tacoma).  And it doesn’t address other issues, such as retail health, that may affect the ability of central cities to draw developers.  But I had fun looking a bit deeper into the issues that Berg brought up, and I’m glad he started the conversation.

Every post should have a picture, even if you have to steal it

*Actually these maps show households earning less than $30k/year, which is different obviously but I haven’t been able to find maps of metropolitan poverty.

5 comments on “Berg is back

  1. Nathaniel says:

    How is poverty measured in relation to student populations? Dinkytown, Southeast Como and Marcy Holmes have high rates of poverty (if I remember correctly), but is it fair to clump this population into the poverty category? That being said, how does Minneapolis’ student population compare to Portland or Seattle? Is it larger? I’m curious.

    Good post, by the way.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks Nate. That’s a good question – you’re right about the high poverty rates in those neighborhoods, but I’m not really sure how to differentiate student from family poverty. I’d guess age or possibly family size would be an indicator (the Census distinguishes between household and family size but I’m not sure how reliable it is).

      The ACS estimates the number of people enrolled in “college or graduate school” but I’m not sure if there’s a way to tell how many are full-time students. The 2006-2010 ACS found 71,656 enrolled in Seattle, 53,675 in Portland, 51,440 in Minneapolis, and 30,395 in St Paul.

  2. I was going to blog on this at, but you beat me to it! (And did it much more thoroughly than I could have). Mind if I left your comparison table for my blog, which will link back to yours, with full credit, of course? — James Shiffer

  3. […] comes more laz-e-boy social science from Alex.  Following up on my response to Steve Berg’s Strib op-ed from a couple weeks ago, I dug up the poverty rate for the 50 […]

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