Ditching City Hall: A Saint Louis Development Story
We’ve said it on this blog many times before: Saint Louis has low population density. The population is widely spread among multiple counties in Missouri and Illinois, with a much-reduced core city and growing population and employment centers far away from downtown.
We have shown census tracts representing Saint Louis’ population distribution before. However, a different way to view the data is to consider metro population within certain distances from a central point (in this case city hall), allowing easier city-to-city comparisons. When we compare Saint Louis to cities of similar population, we observe that the city has abnormally low population density in its core. According to 2010 Census figures, Saint Louis had the 18th largest MSA population (2,812,896), but only the 31st largest population within 10 miles of city hall. For example, compared to Baltimore, with a slightly smaller population than Saint Louis (2,710,489 in 2010), Saint Louis has a larger metro area but much lower densities close to the city center.
In fact, the area within a mile of the Saint Louis city hall has a lower population density (5,020 per square mile) than most of the rest of the city. This is atypical among peer cities, which have their highest densities downtown (averaging 9,000 per square mile). The map below shows population density in Saint Louis in concentric one-mile rings radiating from city hall:
In addition, contrary to the narrative of a rebounding core, the city’s population density fell most in Saint Louis City from 2000 to 2010, as the map below demonstrates:
Population did increase in certain neighborhoods in the central corridor and in the heart of downtown Saint Louis. And the growth downtown is somewhat misleading because of the incredibly low base it grew from: in 2000, the population density less than one mile from the courthouse was a mere 3,870 persons per square mile. And in the city as a whole, notable neighborhood gains are more than made up for by loses in areas to the north, south, and east of those improving neighborhoods. Looking at the region as a whole, outside of the heart of downtown, population density only showed steady growth in areas further than 25 miles away from city hall.
Saint Louis’ low population density and abnormal population distribution has important implications for the provision of public services. For example, when the type of service provision relies on density (such as with transit), it may be better for the city to model its service on other cities with similar densities rather than ones with similar MSA population totals. In addition, the pretense that Saint Louis’ downtown is (or should be) the dense economic engine of the region that drives much of regional planning may be inappropriate and result in misaligned public services.
However, the abnormal situation of Saint Louis’ downtown is also a reason to hope. Other cities show that there is a market for downtown living, and perhaps if the officials focus on safety and service instead of big-bang projects, organic growth will take hold. Or maybe they’ll build a new football stadium instead.