Chris Uggen's Blog: admitted suburbanite

Monday, January 16, 2006

admitted suburbanite

i was born in st. paul, minnesota but grew up in the inner-ring suburb of west st. paul -- onetime home of hamburger philanthropist joan kroc, oddly coiffed politician harold stassen, and polka king "whoopee john" wilfahrt, though none of them lived in my neighborhood. pictured is one of the finer (and actual award-winning!) homes on my boyhood street.*

as a self-confessed and admitted suburbanite, i'm amazed how academics think and talk about suburbs. most of us lament problems of "sprawl," assume a high degree of racial and socioeconomic homogeneity outside the urban core, and generally diss the burbs and our burb-bred students. most strikingly, however, we tend to forget one important fact: more americans now live in suburbs than in cities or rural areas. census 2000 showed that 50 percent of the u.s. population now lives in suburban areas, 30 percent in central cities, and 20 percent in rural areas. suburbs, rather than central cities, accounted for almost all twentieth century metropolitan growth. i thought of this while reading a minneapolis strib opinion piece last week: growth strengthens case for investment. here's the lead:

Minneapolis is growing quite a lot faster than the Metropolitan Council had expected, according to estimates released last week by the city's Community Planning and Economic Development agency. That's good economic news for Minnesota, and it strengthens the case for greater investments in transit and other urban services.

i concur! i'm a big downtown booster and would love to see minneapolis-st. paul grow some sort of transit system, redress inequities in central city housing and schools, and invest further in the arts and city infrastructure. in my opinion, this plays to the region's strengths, its values, and its competitive advantages over other metro areas. i've also noticed condos, albeit expensive condos, shooting up along the river, suggesting a growing housing market. so, i was a little surprised to see the numbers in the next paragraph:

Minneapolis' growth in households is running 20 years ahead of schedule. The city expects to surpass the Met Council's projections for 2030 within the next five years. Depending on the size of those new households, the city expects a population of somewhere between 417,000 and 435,000 by 2010, and expects to surpass 465,000 by 2030.

what? even under the best scenarios, it would take 25 years before the city even got close to the population levels it had when i was a kid in the sixties. meanwhile, the twin cities metro area is booming, approaching three million in population.

the chart plots the populations of minneapolis (in blue), st. paul (in red), and the suburbs surrounding these cities (in black). where's the growth? paralleling national trends, these suburbs now constitute 47 percent of the state population and 75 percent of the metro population, which should increase to 80 percent by 2030. and this only includes the seven-county metro area -- the picture is even more pronounced under census definitions of the metro (thirteen counties) rather than the seven used by the local metropolitan council.

the strib editorial rightly cites the new minneapolis growth numbers to push for redevelopment funding (and hot cutting-edge transit ideas such as streetcars). it seems kind of silly, however, to argue that the new numbers mandate shifting transportation and development monies away from the suburbs, which is the strib's next move:

Many policies, especially on transportation and development, are biased toward the suburban form. New efforts to subvert the eminent domain laws and the Livable Communities Act could, if passed, impede progress in both cities and exacerbate suburban sprawl.

i'd read these numbers as justifying both central city development -- a solid "core" is absolutely critical socially, culturally, and (for me, at least) morally -- and a transportation plan for the (literal) masses who live outside the central cities. such coordination is really the whole point of collaborative organizations such as the met council.

some sociologists and criminologists seem to be thinking about suburbs in a more sophisticated way today, or at least they are somewhat less dismissive than they'd been in the recent past. still, i'd guess that we're about two generations behind novelists such as john updike or filmmakers such as john hughes (or spielberg, for that matter) in making any sense of them culturally. perhaps busing professors in an "academic desegregation" program would spark some research. i'm hoping that someone's writing a sociological dissertation that will nail some aspect of suburban life half as well as fast times at ridgement high or american beauty. the numbers suggest to me that we're missing something big until we do.

*note - my chances of winning an "outstanding property award" for maintenance are just a hair lower than my chances of hitting the powerball. and i've never actually played the powerball.


At 6:41 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

I've been hoping that the overwhelming success of the Hiawatha line (light rail) would lead to expansion of that system. I've only heard proposals for commuter lines into north and south 'burbs. What about connecting Minneapolis & St. Paul? Maybe it's been proposed and I just haven't heard. In any case, I never could seem to get my clients to cross that damn river to take a job. Dunno if a train versus a bus would make a difference there. I know I'd be ridin' it!

As a fellow born-n-bred inner ringer, I can't boast polka king "whoopee john," but we did have jason behr. Graduated a year ahead of me!

At 6:43 PM, Anonymous sarah said...

I messed up the my clients link above. Sorry.

At 8:22 PM, Anonymous chris said...

hey, i hear the university avenue line is a'comin. they are gone now and were probably never in the same room, but i'm still dreaming of crashing a party at joan kroc's house with whoopee john and harold stassen...


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