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Shift in growth may be harbinger of good times for Minneapolis, St. Paul

The Riverview Cafe in the Longfellow neighborhood is a gathering place for young families

Cities seem to be coming alive again.

New numbers from 2011 Census estimates show that for the first time in nearly a century many large cities are gaining population faster than the suburbs that surround them. Twenty-seven of the 51 largest cities in the nation beat the growth rates of their suburbs. And the trend is visible in the Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metro.

Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution subtracted the percentage gain in population in so-called primary cities from the percentage gain in their suburbs. A negative number means that the city’s population growth overtook the suburbs’.

The Twin Cities registered -0.2 percent. That doesn’t sound like much but it’s a notable departure from the many long years when most cities, including ours, lost population. And that tiny number places the Twin Cities in 16th place. At the top of the heap is New Orleans, which grew 3.7 percent while its suburbs poked along at only 0.6 percent, a difference of 3.1 points. That’s understandable; Hurricane Katrina depopulated the city; seven years later people are returning.

“It’s a good time in the Twin Cities,” says Myron Orfield, executive director of the Institute on Race & Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School and co-author of  “Region: Planning the Future of the Twin Cities.” “We are pretty darn stable.”

Pushing the numbers up is an influx of young people who were raised in the suburbs and exurbs but find city life more interesting, says Alan Ehrenhalt, author of  “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City.” “This is the generation that grew up watching “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Sex in the City,” mostly from the comfort of their suburban sofas. I do not claim that a handful of TV shoes has somehow produced a new urbanist generation…But it is striking how pervasive the pro-city sensibility is within this cohort, particularly among its elite.”

The trend, according to Orfield, may be short-lived. A lousy job market, difficulty in getting mortgages, the burden of student debt all combine to keep young people (those under 30) renting city apartments. An improvement in the economy could propel some of them, particularly those with children, into the suburban housing market. After all, even Monica and Chandler eventually moved to Westchester County.

To get a handle on what’s going on with the young folk, I made the 10-minute journey to the Riverview Cafe, a cozy coffee house and wine bar in the Longfellow neighborhood. On previous visits to work on my misbegotten novel, I’d noticed passels of young mothers and fathers sipping coffee while they watched over toddlers lurching around a playroom full of toys.

City population growth chart

David and Mara Bernick, a 30-something couple, own the place. “David had the foresight to notice young couples moving into the neighborhood,” said Mara, as she supervised her 5-year-old daughter. (They also have a 10-year-old son.) “He saw the need for a place where young families could get together for coffee or a glass of wine.” That was back in 1998 when they bought the property, a former soda fountain in foreclosure. 

Are more young couples sticking to the city? “Yes,” said Mara. The reason: “They want a true sense of community.” People get bigger yards and more privacy in the suburbs, but in Longfellow, she pointed out, it’s much more neighborhly. “We really, truly know our neighbors,” she says.

David identified another plus. “Everything is within a mile of our house — schools, parks, playgrounds, movies, drug stores.” Mara chimed in: “When I see people commute such long distances to the suburbs, I wonder, ‘When are they ever at home?'”

Another group fueling the urban revival: affluent seniors. Since I am myself a member of this group, I can tell you that many empty-nesters relish downtown condo living where they can walk to the theaters and restaurants they didn’t have the time or money to patronize when they were working and raising kids. I suspect that the trickle of aging baby boomers into downtown will turn into a torrent once the housing market picks up and they can sell their suburban digs.

The tiny shift in the growth of the city may be a harbinger of good times ahead for the Minneapolis and St. Paul. If the trend continues and expands, the cities will be looking at a stronger tax base and invigorated neighborhoods. That wouldn’t be bad at all. 

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 06/29/2012 - 12:05 pm.

    growth of cities

    I love living in the city, exactly for the reasons given. Most of all, I can walk to at least three-quarters of my destinations, including my co-op grocery, my tailor, cleaner, hardware store, drugstore, several restaurants, and other places, even clothing stores and shoe shops..
    Which means I don’t have to pay for much gas, a real boon given today’s prices.
    I really don’t understand why people would want to live out in the suburbs. They have to drive great distances (often) to their jobs, and to any interesting things like entertainment.

  2. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/29/2012 - 01:05 pm.

    Never predict trends on an N of 1 Marlys

    I know the author is an urbanite by degree but with a masters degree she should know better to predict a trend from N =1.

    ” I suspect that the trickle of aging baby boomers into downtown will turn into a torrent once the housing market picks up and they can sell their suburban digs.”

    If we were going to do then I predict that cities will become unnecessary and decentralize communities of about 25,000 with excellent transit rail in between are the wave of the future for sustainability.

    If you look at the Statistical Abstract of the US you will get a bit better view of the preferences of a group of people, perhaps this might be a better indicator.

  3. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 06/29/2012 - 03:03 pm.

    moving to the city

    It’s good news. Development in our Marcy-Holmes neighborhood is booming…around the U and on the riverfront. And houses are selling on first day if priced right. Two nice ones lately to young families with kids. At bus stops every morning I see lots of young people heading off to work downtown; others going the other direction to the U. And the Stone Arch bridge is full of bikes and pedestrians at 8 am either off to work or out for fun. Join us and save on gas, get exercise. And, as Marlys explained earlier, everybody should learn that transportation should be factored in as a cost of housing.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/29/2012 - 08:34 pm.

    Not necessarily

    Within a mile of my house is a nursery/garden center, another greenhouse/nursery that specializes in perennials, a print shop, a uniform service, a very large General Mills grain elevator, some sort of General Electric industrial plant, an asphalt shingle factory, and a city trash truck facility. The NorthStar Line is 5 miles away, and light rail is even farther. The nearest bus that will take me downtown without having to transfer is nearly a mile away.

    Sadly, “living in the city” doesn’t necessarily bring all the stereotypical amenities of city living with it. Since my need for plants is limited by the modest size of my yard, and my need for commercial printing is minimal, it’s accurate to say that my city neighborhood contains none – zero – of the retail and commercial activity that Ginny Martin enjoys. I’d like to have those kinds of choices within a 15 or 20-minute walk, too, but they just aren’t there, and I see no sign that they will be.

    Just as there are at least occasional suburbs that break the stereotype with enough population, density, and economic activity to sustain themselves, there are genuinely urban neighborhoods that have, over the years, lost those very same things, or never had them to begin with. They’re the usually-forgotten stepchildren of just about any movement toward, or return to, “urbanization,” and if they weren’t already part of a larger city, they wouldn’t survive.

    Except for the wealthy, for whom any living situation they happen to find interesting is manageable, my suspicion is that it’s the “exurbs” that are going to have the hardest time surviving the next few decades. I doubt they’ll make it, though I won’t be around at the end to verify the conclusion. Inner-ring suburbs, especially those of sufficient size, seem to me likely to be just fine if – and it’s an important caveat – they’re relatively compact, and have access to transit both within their borders and between their “center,” wherever that is, and the larger city. Out-state communities of sufficient size – they’re cities, too, just smaller ones – seem to me likely to be fine. St. Cloud, Rochester and Duluth are but a few examples.

    A pedestrian bridge about half a mile from my front door will take me over Highway 100 to a soon-to-be-open Super Wal-Mart on the site of the defunct Brookdale Mall. I don’t enjoy shopping at Wal-Mart, and dislike the company for several reasons, but I have a feeling I’ll be spending money there regardless of my personal feelings, simply because it’s the closest to the sorts of amenities typically associated with a genuinely “urban” area. It will get my business by default.

    I should add that it will also get my sales tax dollars – or more accurately, Brooklyn Center will get those dollars. Zoned and built in the 1950s, the city has had ample opportunity to encourage commercial development in my neighborhood, but to my knowledge, little or no effort has been expended in that direction. I suspect many of my neighbors, not thinking of the cost of transportation, or conversely, the advantages of convenience, would still say they like the fact that there’s nothing here but housing. That attitude, if it’s as common as I suspect, would simply make efforts to create a more stereotypically “urban” environment here an uphill struggle.

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/01/2012 - 12:59 pm.

    Exellent Comments Ray

    The city of the rich or well to door their neighborhoods is a lot different than the city of those of modest means or poor.

    What Marlys adores is her neighborhood, is she equally comfortable in North Minneapolis or Nordeast as my father called it? The City is pretty big. To make it livable you need to identify with neighborhoods. And lots of people generally avoid those other neighborhoods.

    I can walk anywhere in White Bear Lake alone after dark even after 2:00 AM.
    Can you do that everywhere in Minneapolis. Ordinarily I don’t use Wikipedia as a source but in this case the table at the bottom is a reprint from the FBI.

    If you are going to advocate for cities you need to be realistic about looking what you are advocating for. If you are advocating for a neighborhood it isn’t much different than advocating for a suburb.

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