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Minneapolis-St. Paul is 'densifying.' So what does that mean?

Downtown Minneapolis (pictured) and downtown St. Paul (not pictured, but easily imagined) are both swelling with people-filled developments.

Downtown Minneapolis (pictured) and downtown St. Paul (not pictured, but easily imagined) are both swelling with people-filled developments. Carlos Gonzales, Star Tribune

 Maybe you’re as obsessed with urban data and local rankings as I am.

If so, you probably noticed the Twin Cities recent appearance in the latest urban growth rankings via the New York Times’ Upshot blog. According to the US census analysis, the Minneapolis metro area ranks No. 3 in the country for “change in average neighborhood density” during the last six years.

How exciting! Who doesn’t like a good “city rankings”?

Density, roughly defined, is the number of square feet per person. So a city like Hong Kong, China is one of the densest on earth, clocking in at almost 17,000 people per square mile of land. On the other hand, Saint Paul, where I live, has a pedestrian level of density of just over 5,700. Meanwhile, suburban Lakeville registers a definitely non-pedestrian density of 1,500 people per square mile.

But at least in the Twin Cities, that’s changing at the not-very-rapid pace of 0.8 percent every six years!

And, at least in the sprawling United States of America, that’s kind of impressive, good enough for third-fastest growth in the country. So how should the people living in the increasingly dense metro area feel about this one?

Here are three things to consider...

1) Take that, Denver!

When it comes to urban growth rankings, the Twin Cities often lags behind Denver, probably the best "comparable" (“comp”, for short) metro area in the country against which to measure our civic ambition. For example, Denver is building (much!) more transit than we are, legalizing more pot than we are, and growing faster than we are in general.

But here, for once, the Twin Cities comes out ahead, among the "most densifying" metros from 2010 to 2016. The Twin Cities lands between Chicago and Washington, D.C., two of the country’s largest cities, with a solid 0.8 percent growth rate. That said, we are way behind Seattle which laps the field, hitting double digits. (Seattle is another frequent "comp" for the Twin Cities, at least when it comes to population size and its diverse, growing economy.)

It’s worth pointing out that, according to the Times’, the numbers are calculated at the neighborhood level, using population growth and postal household information. Keep in mind that this data is for the entire MSP metro area, or Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which in the Twin Cities includes 17 (seventeen!) counties, and stretches into western Wisconsin. (So, you know, we’re talking about multiple distinct cultures here.)

This means that the metro-area density requires lumping all of the urban core together with distant suburbs of every stripe, and countless farm fields constituting billions of stalks of corn. It’s an impossibly large area, but somehow it’s getting denser.

2) Growth in Density is all Relative

OK, now for a bit of cold water splashed in your apartment-tower-loving face. If you're a fan of walkable urbanism, the numbers are surely good news. But remember, “growth” is relative. For example, if the town of Donnelly, Minnesota (population 241) builds a 500-unit senior living center, its density has increased 200%. But even after the old folks move in, it's still a tiny town in the middle of Southwest Minnesota cornfields where it’s big news when the red hats meet up.

So you have to ask where we’re coming from. By that measure, the Twin Cities has long been more suburban and sprawled-out than most other metro areas of similar size. According to 2010 census data, the Twin Cities metro was only the 42nd "most dense" metro in the country, lodged between Tampa and San Antonio.

By contrast, Chicago ranks No. 5, Denver’s No. 18, and Seattle is 20th. The takeaway: the Twin Cities might be becoming much more dense, but compared to this list, we're still really spread out and suburban.

3) Wowee, downtown is booming!

With that caveat out of the way, it's still impressive the Twin Cities does so well according to metro-wide numbers. Many other metro areas did not get denser during the last six years. (I’m looking at you, Austin, Texas.) One of the key dynamics is that within the Twin cities’ metro, there is a huge amount of intra-city variation. And our downtowns have been booming. Downtown Minneapolis added almost 3 percent to its already sizable population in just one year, and Saint Paul’s smaller downtown is growing too

To me, the solid No. 3 ranking suggests that Twin Cities exurban growth is slowing, and downtown growth is accelerating. The internal Minneapolis and Saint Paul population growth numbers back this up. Areas like North Minneapolis continue to lose population, while the city centers have swollen with new arrivals.

Meanwhile, developed suburbs like Saint Louis Park and Bloomington are also seeing population added in places like the “West End,” which is adding to the overall Twin Cities' density. (Side note: I can personally vouch for the fact that 22 bicycles will fit into a single parking spot at the West End Olive Garden.) For a city without any geographic barriers to limit development -- think oceans, mountains, big-city traffic -- it's impressive that our metro is ahead of the growth curve.

There could be a few different reasons for Minneapolis doing so well on this list. For one thing, maybe the downtown building boom came later to Minneapolis than other similar cities. Maybe we have a more effective urban "growth coalition" that's more actively trying to boost core-city populations. Maybe some thanks should go to urban mayors like Betsy Hodges and Chris Coleman for going out of their way to attract development. Maybe it's the Met Council that's been using regulatory carrots (and sticks) to encourage more density, whether the folks in Lake Elmo like it or not. (Spoiler: they do not.)

It’s probably a mix of all of these factors, combined with the fact that the post-war Twin Cities was never all that dense in the first place. For generations, the Twin Cities has been on the leading edge of suburbanization, malls, and “urban renewal” efforts that eviscerated our existent density. Along with pioneering food products and folksy Midwestern mythology, it’s our legacy!

But things are starting to change, and you have to meet people where they are. For the Twin Cities to rank in the top 3 for growth in density, it's a banner day for fans of Minnesota cities.

Bill Lindeke is a member of the St. Paul Planning Commission as well as the St. Paul Transportation Committee, and is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota. He blogs regularly at streets.mn