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If St. Louis Had the Density of Other Cities

September 18, 2009 Planning & Design, Public Transit 11 Comments

Many think population density is all bad or all good.  To me it depends up0n how the population uses the land.

Much is said about St. Louis’ peak of 856,796 in 1950 and how over the last 50 years we lost over half a million people out of our small 61.9 square mile city.  We will never again be at that level but how we use our land with our current population level is important.  I think we can do better with the population we have.

For grins I thought it would be interesting to what the population of the City of St. Louis would be if we had the recent density of other major cities.  I picked 13 cities that came into my head and used density figures available from Wikipedia.  The results were both surprising and intriguing:

Portland OR has lower density than St. Louis?  Interesting.  I think they have a different mix — a very high density center transitioning to a very low density edge.  Oklahoma City is massive in total land area but with only a few rare exceptions it is uniformly low-density.  St. Louis of 1950 had greater population density of current day Chicago? Yes, St. Louis, in 1950, was more densely populated than Chicago today!

I’d like to think that with good planning (form-based zoning) we could aspire to a Seattle or Baltimore level of population density – at least 7,000 persons per square mile.

What this looks like is increasing the density along our major corridors such as Olive, Jefferson, Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, etc.

Goal posts should be something like:

  • 6,000/sq. mile (371,400) by 2020
  • 6,500/sq. mile (402,350) by 2030
  • 7,000/sq. mile (433,300) by 2040
  • 7,500/sq. mile (464,250) by 2050
  • 8,000/sq. mile (495,200) by 2060

This growth will not happen organically like it did a century ago. Our current zoning and other policies prevents such growth.  It will require hard work to create the plan & zoning for dense corridors.  These will need, and will support, excellent mass transit.  Our tidy streets of single family, 2-family and 4-family buildings need not change from their current density levels.  The growth will occur along the corridors that last century changed into to-centric.  Hell, basically.

I doubt I’ll be around for the 2060 Census but I want to steer us in the right direction so by that time we can reach this goal.  Plus the US population is expected to grow some 45% by 2050.  If we grew at the expected national rate we’d have 514,000 by 2050.  So to have 464,250 by 2050 (31% growth) seems like a reasonable expectation.

We have the vacant buildings ready for new occupants.  We have the vacant land for in-fill construction. Still need to work on the schools to educate the youngsters.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "11 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jimmy Z says:

    It looks like these numbers are based on city boundaries, not SMSA’s (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas). OKC is like Indianapolis, Louisville and Lexington, KY – they annexed the surrounding county, so they’re going to be both less dense and have plenty of room to grow. Portland is surrounded by their greenbelt, and both Seattle and San Fran are surrounded by water, so since they can’t sprawl they, by default, need to get denser. A better comparison for us are the older, eastern, urban areas, places like DC, Baltimore, Philly and NYC. And the two big ones that are missing are NYC and LA – yes, they’re a lot bigger, but they also contain many neighborhoods like ours.

    That said, I have no disagreement with either your goals or the concept of concentrating density along existing commercial corridors – Denver arrived at the same conclusion with their Blueprint Denver, defining most existing residential neighborhoods as Areas of Stability, and defining most commercial corridors and most former industrial areas as Areas of Change.

    The two challenges I see don’t really involve zoning, either our existing, antiquated zoning or new, form-based; they involve public transit and creating real demand for urban living. Without having a public transit system that both “works” (think Toronto) and is attractive to residents of every economic strata, we’ll continue to be an auto-centric region. And until people are willing to make the compromises* needed to embrace higher densities, the market will continue to focus on low-density solutions.

    *Paying more per square foot and/or getting less space to live in multi-family, mixed-use structures.

    “Trading” a yard for for a balcony or a deck.

    Having to explicitly pay for residential parking and/or having to walk or use public transit.

    Having to live with a more-diverse range of neighbors (race, orientation, age, etc.)

    One other challenge I see here with attracting people to higher-density urban living is that most of the product on the market simply ain’t cool. Whether it’s the faux tudor project on S. Grand (that burned during construction), the similar project on Lindell (ditto) or the one in Dogtown that replaced the lumber yard, we seem to be stuck on traditional architecture. In most of the other “cool” cities, the architecture skews much more contemporary, with more glass, avant-garde finishes, funky angles, etc, etc. Yes, we should find creative reuses for things like old schools, but we also need more stuff for people who don’t want just brick and double-hung windows.

  2. john w. says:

    Traditional vernacular endures for a reason, but I wholeheartedly agree that there is a frustrating resistance to architectural diversity in St. Louis. The obsession with disposable replicas is certainly discouraging, and the apparently felt need to dumb down design to appease, or not to offend, is maddening.

  3. john says:

    It’a about time you bust the density excuse. Unfortunately you must accept the fact that you live in an auto-centric culture. Any and all objectives like form based zoning will be rejected here as it will be characterized as leading to more traffic. Our inabilities to manage Metro and ineffective advocacy in supporting alternatives like cycling have serious consequences. These shortcomings will prevent reforms as the public sees Metro is an absolutely failure in providing a reliable and efficient alternative to private motorized vehicles.
    – –
    The only hope for change in this city requires that Peak Oil becomes a reality sooner than later. To be in control of our own future requires: 1. major highways to become toll roads, 2. higher tax rates and valuations on large parking lots, 3. properly managed Metro, and 4. effective advocacy. But what is our most likely future here given that MoDOT has gotten the big OK from the FHA? The state has applied for $200 million in stimulus money to build 30 miles of segregated truck lanes which would be the largest stretch of dedicated truck lanes in the country. The New 64, the Main Street of the Lou region, was designed to facilitate these goals.

  4. Jeff says:

    While the density has certainly shrank in St. Louis, another observation is to look at how many people inhabit a single residence. Many of those 2 and 4 family homes in the 1950’s had families living in them while today they are often occupied by singles or couples without children. From my own perspective I moved into a single family home that had 4 occupants (and now just 1). The size of the typical family has to play a small factor into population decline. We could certainly have the density of the 1950’s but not the population due to this.

  5. anon says:

    Many parts of St. Louis have similar densities now compared to what they had during the 50s. It would be interesting to compare density by neighborhood or census tract. That would show much of St. Louis as dense now as it was during the height of our population peak.

    Also, a four family that might have been filled in the fifites but is today a two family is a 50% reduction in density but still a multi-family dwelling. Relatively speaking, even with a 50% reduction in population density, the current arrangement is still very urban.

  6. studs lonigan says:

    I agree that density is neither necessarily all good nor all bad. Neighborhoods like Soulard and Lafayette Square were much more dense in population years ago, (during decades when “progressive” voices wanted to bulldoze them!) but there was also a preponderance of rooming houses, often with substandard plumbing and wiring. A dwelling built as a four-family might have been chopped up to accommodate eight families, with additional citizens flopping in the basement on cots and peeing in the drain. In my own neighborhood, Tower Grove East, such rooming houses existed into the late ’90s. In one case, the landlady lived on premises and had herself the plushest room in the whole flop. Its decor was like a train wreck between the Orientalia and “Gunsmoke”, with lots of wagon wheels, mirrors and grotesque little statues. She reminded me of a southern Missouri version of Lucille Ball, with more makeup on her map than the Joker and Tammy Faye put together. She’d sit on the porch in a kimono and smoke cigarettes from a holder. Occupants paid by the week and were not bad for the neighborhood, but the point is that the property was grossly overcrowded and dangerously noncompliant in terms of even the most liberal housing standards. One such rooming house on Pestalozzi has since sold and been converted to a luxurious single-family dwelling with a couple and their pampered child living there instead of 20 people. Gentrification? Maybe slightly, but the property’s current use is much more in line with its character and the intentions of its builders in 1905 than in its other incarnation as a squalid human warehouse.

  7. Tony Palazzolo says:

    I bought a house one “The Hill” in the nineties. It was the standard flat roof shotgun that measued at 1200+ square feet. It is a great house on a great street in a great neighborhood. When we moved to a much larger house I kept it and now rent it. What I found out after I purchased it was that it at one time was a two family. I lived there for several years by myself. At one time I’m sure they had two families of four or five living in it. It was a different time and people had different standards. This is what many Bosnian families did when they came over. They would buy a house and have four generations living in one house. I heard many complaints about two many people living in a house. I applauded them, they did what they needed to do to survive and didn’t complain.

  8. anon says:

    “Occupied vs. vacant” would be a good starting point in measuring density.

    Same couple apply whether we’re talking buildings or vacant lots or occupied versus empty buildings.

  9. studs lonigan says:

    Many two-families were initially owner occupied, which is often the case today. When built, they were often occupied by, in fact, two families, one up and one down, with grandma and grandpa on one floor and the younger folks on another. Houses on the Hill were at times expanded to accommodate new arrivals from the old country or a separate little house was put up in the back yard.

    I read about a house in Baden that totaled 300 square feet. As much as I love architectural oddities, I drove up there to see it. It was built in the 1950s, in the back yard of an older building. Sizewise it resembled a one-car garage. It was all brick, with a little porch and flower boxes built into the windows.

    I think this phenomenon falls more into the category of high density rather than overcrowding, but there’s no scientific method to determine where one leaves off and the other begins.

  10. bredon says:

    We should achieve more density by moving people in from the fringes. We don’t need more people, we need better utilization of existing land, especially in outlying areas. A St. Louis green belt would be nice, a la Lexington horse farms limiting outward expansion (well at least they used to…). For instance, we could actually make it easier to eat locally-grown food, or at least regionally-grown food, if we stopped vomiting sprawl-burbia on much of our farm-friendly, healthy-soiled land. We should aim to balance the population with our ability to support it with regional resources.

  11. Todd says:

    Portland’s density numbers are a bit skewed because it too has a Forest Park within its city limits, but it’s four times larger than St. Louis’s version. The airport is also within the city limits. But your basic point is right: Portland has a high density core (higher than anywhere in St. Louis, I’d wager), with low density fringes.


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