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Bucking a trend, the Twin Cities have grown more densely populated in recent years

In the Twin Cities, an increasing amount of new development is also happening atop existing development, such as multifamily going up in the commercial corridors of yesteryear, like strip malls.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, blessed with beautiful vistas and plagued with high housing costs, it’s hard not to think about density. It’s always on the minds of residents, who pay some of the highest median rents in the country as the region struggles to accommodate long-time residents and wealthy tech newcomers alike in an area with little room for growth.

In San Antonio, a large and fast-growing metro area, it’s hard not to think about sprawl as housing and commercial development cascade into undeveloped land far from the main city center, and getting from one side of town to the other requires a farther and farther drive.

In the Twin Cities, well, we aren’t particularly well-known for urban density or suburban sprawl. Yet Minneapolis-St. Paul is one of only a few metro areas that became more dense, rather than more sprawling, since 2010. That’s according to a new analysis published recently in the New York Times' The Upshot.

More people, less land

Using population data from the U.S. Census Bureau and occupied housing data from the U.S. Postal Service, Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed.com, a job search engine, and a senior fellow at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that, contrary to the common belief that millennials’ preference for city living means all metro areas are becoming more urban, 41 out of the 51 U.S. metros with over a million people have become more suburban in recent years, with less dense Census tracts growing at a faster rate than more dense tracts (you can learn more about Kolko’s methodology here).

Change in average neighborhood density from 2010 to 2016
Source: analysis of Census population estimates and U.S. Postal Service occupied housing data by Jed Kolko

In the Twin Cities, average Census tract density increased by 0.8 percent between 2010 and 2016. That’s less than the 3 percent rate in Seattle, the metro gaining the most density, and 1.2 percent in Chicago. But it outpaces cities like Austin (-5 percent) and San Antonio (-5.3 percent) which are actually getting less dense.

These cities reflect divergent trends, Kolko found: cities that were already dense tended to get more urban, while cities that were less dense tended to get more suburban.

And then there’s the Twin Cities, which Kolko ranks 28th — middling — in density among 51 metros studied, yet the metro’s density trendline was in line with the dense and increasingly denser places of the East and West coasts.

Between 2010 and 2016, the Twin Cities metro area population grew by 6 percent. In the same time period, Minneapolis grew 8.1 percent and St. Paul grew by 6.1 percent, according to Census figures compiled by Kolko.

A will and a way

To add density, you have to have a will to do it and a way to do it.

The increasing density of the Twin Cities is largely driven by the choices of Twin Cities residents, said Libby Starling, manager of regional policy and research at the Metropolitan Council.

After the recession, millennials moved out of their parents’ homes, looking for rental opportunities. At the same time, baby boomers are moving from less dense areas to more dense areas as they downsize.

“We’re seeing overall increased interest in amenity-rich rental as a desirable place, whereas 20 years ago, rental was seen as a transitional stage on the way to home ownership,” Starling said.

Developers have responded to that shift in attitudes, with new construction fitting into a smaller footprint. Between 2010 and 2016, the metro area’s developed landmass grew by 91 acres per 1,000 new residents, compared to 291 acres per 1,000 new residents between 2000 and 2010.  New housing across the metro area is dominated by multifamily units like condos and apartments, which have accounted for more than half of new housing permits since 2012, according to the Met Council. Multifamily housing has gained traction particularly in Minneapolis, to a lesser extent in St. Paul, but even in the suburbs, Starling said.

In the Twin Cities, an increasing amount of new development is also happening atop existing development, such as multifamily going up in the commercial corridors of yesteryear, like strip malls, Starling said.

But, less built-out to begin with than many cities, it could also be that the Twin Cities have more space readily available for adding density.

A Census report from 2010, the beginning of Kolko’s period of study, found that the Twin Cities’ population-weighted density is about 3,400 people per square mile. That’s compared to about 4,800 people per square mile in the Denver area, 4,700 in the Seattle metro and 4,400 in Portland’s. New York is the most dense metro, with 31,250 people per square mile, by this measure. In other words, when it comes to density, the Twin Cities had plenty of room to grow.

Density-friendly policy

In the last decade, high-rise apartment buildings have changed the face and composition of neighborhoods across the Twin Cities, from Uptown and Dinkytown in Minneapolis to West Seventh in St. Paul.

It’s not just demand for these multifamily homes, a national trend, that’s driving density in the Twin Cities. Policies here have also favored denser development, said Ed Goetz, director for the center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are consciously working to grow their populations after losing residents for decades since the mid-20th century, he said. The mayors and city councils of both cities have backed density plans in efforts to grow the economy, ease a tight housing market and advance equity.

“We’re seeing a certain amount of greater acceptance of density, with the advent of transit-oriented development, the creation of the blue and the green lines,” Goetz said. “I think there’s an acknowledgement that there are parts of the cities that could appropriately see more densities than they’ve seen in the past.”

The metro area has seen growing density along transit corridors outside the Twin Cities themselves, as well as within them.

Could having more residents thinking, writing and advocating for urbanness cause cities to become more dense?

There’s scant evidence of a correlation, but Kolko makes mention of the fact that BLS data show some of the cities urbanizing the fastest, including the Twin Cities, like Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Boston, have higher concentrations of people employed as urban and regional planners. The Twin Cities metro has the fifth highest number of residents employed in urban planning among U.S. metros, and is the 16th largest metro area.

“Those who write about, advocate for and choose to live in cities really do see more urbanization around them,” he wrote in the Upshot.

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