Understanding Population Change and Density in St. Louis (UIC & nextSTL @ PXSTL)

Understanding Population Change and Density in St. Louis (UIC & nextSTL @ PXSTL)

City of St. Louis Population Change by Neighborhood 2000-2010

St. Louisans are keenly aware of the population decline in this city. St. Louis City has lost 63% of its 1950 population. In just the 1970s, the city lost 169K residents, 27% of the population at that time. The 2010 Census revealed a decline of 8.3%, the smallest decline since the exodus was first recorded in 1960.

It is both exciting and depressing to envision the city at its peak population of more than 850,000. While city leaders in the 1940s planned for a city of 1,000,000+ residents (a city in which the public housing towers of Pruitt Igoe would have been desperately needed), today we assume that the city was artificially dense and some decline was inevitable, but also that today’s density is artificially low.

It’s interesting enough to think about these issues, but we have to know more if we care what comes next. If policy is to be directed at growing the city’s population, we must understand more about the history of population decline, what factors led to the downturn, and what an increasing population would look like today.

As part of the Pulitzer Arts’ PXSTL project, UIC has compiled and examined population data for the City of St. Louis and is producing a series of maps to help us explore the issue of population density in the city. nextSTL is partnering with UIC to promote a larger discussion, and add narrative context to the issue. Titled Visualizing Density, the project will be installed at the PXSTL site for three days beginning Thursday, September 25.

PXSTL{the PXSTL site will host Visualizing Density from September 25-27}

What portion of the city’s population decline was “inevitable” or attributable to demographic changes? How much was due to macroeconomic trends? How much may be the result of local policy? It seems nearly everyone believes that the city should seek to add residents, but how, where, why? And of course the city needs to stop losing population first.

Whether the hoped for number is 600K, 500K, or 400K matters a great deal. From today’s population of 319K to 500K is a massive change. From 310K people in 1870, it took approximately 25 years for the pre-automobile city to reach 500K residents. It took just more than 30 years for the city to lose a like amount from the late 1970s to today.

American families have changed dramatically over the past half century. The average household size in St. Louis in 1950 was 3.1 and in 2010, 2.2. With every other factor held constant, the decrease in city population would have been 248K or 29%. This means that with the same number of homes, the same number of apartments, and the same number of families as resided in the city in 1950, the decrease in average household size could account for 46% of the city’s population loss.

American homes have changed dramatically over the past half century. The average size of a new single-family home in 1950 was 983sf, and in 2010, 2,438. While this number overstates changes in a long urbanized area, there has certainly been a large increase in the average size of the single-family home in the city. This could be new construction, but is also the common two-family to one-family and four-family to two-family renovations.

If nothing else had changed, and families had simply become smaller, and lived in bigger homes, the city would have lost hundreds of thousands of residents. What this really points to is that even if the city, or select neighborhoods reach zero vacancy – zero vacant lots, zero vacant homes – at today’s density, the residential population will not return to 1950, or even 1970 levels.

In addition to demographic changes, the physical city has changed. Interstate highways removed ~1.7 square miles of potential residential land in the city since 1950. Urban renewal cleared another square mile and 20,000 residents (5,700 housing units) with the bulldozing of the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood. Industrial areas have grown. Hospitals and universities have expanded onto former residential sites.

So if there’s is a population increase, what could that look like? If all vacant housing units in the city today were occupied at current household size, the city would see an increase of approximately 59K residents, for a city population of 378K. If 100% of the city’s residential area were occupied at current household size, the city would add 79K residents, for a city population of 397K.

The residential area of the City of St. Louis totals almost 35 square miles, or 57% of the land area encompassed by the city limits. To reach 857K residents (the city’s 1950 population), the city would need to see a density of about 24K/square mile. That’s the residential density of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood today (which itself was nearly twice as dense).

One dot per person recorded by the 2012 Census{it’s easy to see on this population dot map, that density varies dramatically across St. Louis City}

Today’s Central West End neighborhood in St. Louis has a residential area density of almost 14,000/square mile. If all of St. Louis mirrored that density, the city’s population would be 479K. Mirroring density of the Shaw neighborhood would yield 440K. For reference, the neighborhoods that most closely reflect the city’s average residential area density today are The Gate District, Fountain Park, and North Hampton. The municipalities of Maplewood and University City have residential densities very near that of St. Louis City.

At the density of today’s San Francisco, St. Louis City would have 1.1M residents. At the density of today’s Brooklyn there would be 877K residents. Boston’s density would equal 826K, Chicago 734K, and Indianapolis just 141K.

There’s a lot going on here, and there are 100s of interesting ways to look at the numbers. Some cities have annexed large swaths of suburban patterned development, masking the population decline of their urban centers, and yielding a low residential density (Indianapolis). Some cities are less dense than in the past, but are still considered quite vibrant (Boston). Other places have simply continued to add residents (San Francisco)

So what are we talking about? Ostensibly, we all care about abandonment, the disuse of homes, buildings and land, in St. Louis. What kind of city do we want to build? What is the impact of residential density on economic sustainability?

Another way to look at the issue is to consider what factors could change, resulting in a population increase. The residential area of the city could expand (rezoning industrial and other uses), vacant homes could be restored, vacant lots built upon, or existing residential replaced with more dense residential.

Some areas may be rezoned, such as the Praxair site in Lafayette Square, but other areas may disappear as have rows of homes adjacent to the Saint Louis University Medical School. Vacant homes are being restored, though more are likely headed for demolition. Building infill would seem to be obviously worthwhile, as well as increasing density when possible.

Yet, as much as we collectively bemoan the decreased, and decreasing density of the city, many like it just the way it is. Residents lobby against new apartments in the Central West End (too tall), infill housing in Fox Park (too low-income), and apartments in Dogtown (too much traffic).

To expect any population increase to be evenly spread across the city isn’t realistic. Then, if the city is to grow, perhaps more residential units should be added virtually wherever and whenever possible. It’s unclear that this is a goal of many St. Louisans and the city itself doesn’t have a population growth strategy.

If the goal is to grow the city’s population, policy should follow. Instead, decisions about zoning, demolition, and new residential projects are decided at the Aldermanic level (there are 28 distinct wards in the city, each represented by an alderperson). The status quo is powerful, even (especially?) in a declining city, and many are very happy with their neighborhoods today.

And it’s possible we’re asking the wrong question. From 2000-2010, both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh lost a slightly greater number and percentage of residents than St. Louis, and each is hundreds of thousands below their historic high. Are those cities talking about population loss? Is there consensus, and do they have a plan to repopulate?

Beyond the scope covered here, it’s very important to understand that there are three types of population change: domestic migration (American citizens moving), international migration (non-American citizens moving), and natural change (births and deaths). The history and affect of each on St. Louis is another needed discussion.

We don’t aim to offer conclusions, but hope to inform this ongoing discussion. At least when we say that we want to see St. Louis grow, or return to X population, we may have a better understanding of what that means. If adding population becomes a goal, we may better understand how policy can have an impact.


Presented at PXSTL, and part of St. Louis Design Week, Visualizing Density will create a series of interactive, three-dimensional maps of St. Louis in which multiple densities are explored over several days. During this program, St. Louisans will have the opportunity to build energy and generate discussion about our future city. Visualizing Density will be installed for three days beginning Thursday, September 25. 

What is PXSTL?
As a collaborative initiative between Pulitzer Arts Foundation and the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, PXSTL aims to promote dialogue about urban life and the impact of environment on everyday experience. PXSTL—an acronym that abridges the Pulitzer, the Sam Fox School, and St. Louis—is a direct outgrowth of the Pulitzer and the Sam Fox School’s shared commitment to rethinking the future of St. Louis. The first major project, Lots, was designed by Freecell Architecture, a Brooklyn-based firm, and establishes a temporary structure on an empty lot across from the Pulitzer building. This architectural intervention becomes the catalyst for further collaboration both locally and nationally, including performances, music, meditation, food, photography, and symposia.


City of St. Louis Population Change by Neighborhood 2000-2010


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