St. Louis at A Million Residents, or: Population Ain’t Nothing But a Number

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The geographic size of the City of St. Louis is important to understand. Its 66 square miles, history, and current demographics means that it regularly lands on a variety of Top 10 lists. St. Louis ranks as a Top 10 literate city (number of libraries, bookstores, publications, etc. per capita), can boast more museums than New York City (per capita), is a Top 10 city in homicides and sexually transmitted diseases (per capita). Most often, these lists are not comparing like cities. To address problems like this, Belt Magazine has made an effort to standardize the size of the American city.

Belt is also challenging this notion: Conventional wisdom holds that the larger the population of a city, the more successful the place must be. If the population’s growing, that city must be doing something right. If it’s withering, it must be in decline.

The publication recognizes “cities are arbitrarily constructed entities with culturally loaded boundaries”, and asks, “so what would happen if every city shared the same geographic borders? Would population numbers reflect different realities? Would the perceptions of places change, defining which cities are viewed as declining or prospering?”

While noting that any alternative measure of a city is “just as capricious” as existing political boundaries, they settled on a “standard American city” of 355 sq mi by averaging the size of the ten most populous American cities.

In basic terms, the effort results in something closer to a proverbial apples-to-apples comparison. Another way to do this is to use urbanized boundaries (more or less metropolitan statistical areas) to compare cities on measures of poverty, job growth, cultural amenities, etc. This doesn’t standardize by size, but by form. Plenty of reports, and local and federal agencies do this, yet still too much value is placed on measures within specific select political boundaries. In the case of St. Louis, the result if too often to the city’s (and region’s) detriment.

Imagine St. Louis being compared to other cities with its 355 sq mi. We likely would fall on the list of “most literate” cities, but also on crime rankings, health issues, and other measures. Ignoring whether this would ultimately be good for St. Louis, it would present a more honest and relevant view of our city.

Belt’s 355 sq mi St. Louis could be better. Many cities have geographic boundaries that direct population growth in uneven patterns, and considering the larger St. Louis region, one would place the center of the 355 sq mi box on about the intersection of I-170 and I-64. That’s nitpicking a bit, but imagine Chicago’s numbers with it’s center on the lake front. Anyway, Belt’s work provides an interesting insight into an often misunderstand and abused measure of our cities.

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  • moe

    Standardized? Why would anyone want their cities to be a standard? There are plenty of small cities that have done amazing things with an amazing population, just as there are amazing cities that have failed to do anything. There are too many independent and variable factors that make a city what it is, what it prioritizes, it’s history, etc. I guess my point is that it’s fine to use comparisons to a point to gather data (and depending on how and who interprets it), but each and every city is and should be unique.

    • Alex Ihnen

      No one’s standardizing cities, they’re suggesting that comparing cities by existing political boundaries can be deceptive.

  • John R

    Alex, I’m not sure I understand your comment about imagining if Chicago’s numbers if they were centered on the lakefront… that essentially is where Belt placed the center of the box and it found the population would increase there by about 500K and surpass 3 million. (Looks like it centered STL’s box roughly around Grand and 40, btw.)

    • Alex Ihnen

      Just pointing out that it matters significantly where the box is placed – and it’s not safe to assume it captures the “city” as it functions. IMO – it looks like Chicago is centered quite a ways from the water, and that STL takes in a lot of the near east side. There’s no right way to do it, just an observation.

      • John R

        I agree there is no perfect way to do it but they specifically tell us they centered Chicago just a few blocks from the lakefront at State & Madison in the heart of the Loop so I was just confused about your comment,

  • John R

    I’m somewhat surprised by the competitiveness of “sprawl” places like Phoenix and San Antonio… under the 355 sq. mile box method they’d have 38% and 37% greater population density than Saint Louis. I think this underscores how so much of the sprawl here is just pure waste as opposed to an actually growing region where sprawl, while still problematic, is at least more understandable..

    • matimal

      It all has to do with the dynamics of water in Phoenix. San Antonio, I don’t know much about.

  • John R

    Pretty amusing maps for some cities…. among our peers, Cleveland and Detroit in particular get screwed as they are eaten up by Lake Erie and Canada, respectively. Yet both still surpass STL’s population w/ the handicap. (I believe Detroit would approach 2 million if it included more of Oakland and Macomb counties instead of the zero contribution from Canada.)

    In real life, Saint Louis, Cleveland and Detroit have an amazingly similar density of 5,100 ppl./ sq. mi. in the 2010 census.

  • Michael Lewyn

    If St. Louis had been 350 square miles, would residents of inner suburbs have necessarily stayed within those miles? Or would they have moved even further out (as many did in Kansas City) to avoid urban school districts?

  • Adam

    I’m surprised by the Pittsburgh numbers. Is Pittsburgh metro just significantly more compact than St. Louis metro?

    • moorlander

      Does the topography of Pittsburgh limit the sprawl?

    • Alex Ihnen

      What surprising? The numbers look almost identical to STL’s. I think downtown Pittsburgh is nearer that metro’s population center – so if the STL map above were centered on the CWE or further west, the numbers would be greater than Pittsburgh…or am I missing your point?

  • John R

    I think this would be even more interesting if they also were able to a comparison based on a smaller geographic area that would represent a core…. e.g. what would Phoenix (and St, Louis) look like at 52 sq. mi,, the geographic size of Minneapolis?

    • Interesting. Or instead of area, how about inner 1/5th of the metro population boundary.

  • This is a good start at normalizing rankings by trying to factor out big drivers of rankings that have nothing to do with the item purportedly being ranked. But it doesn’t quite work for old rust belt cities whose inner cores have been somewhat hollowed out and their residents have moved out beyond the 350M square, such as St. Louis. San Antonio and newer such cities have not gone through that yet, so their 350M square still l includes much of their population, newest housing, and low crime suburbs. But it is an improvement. I think they just have to take the next step of normalization, and make sure they match core to core and suburbs to suburbs, no matter how far sprawl has taken the suburbs from the original core, in order to get a fair comparison of crime safety. They could do this with zip code data. When visitors visit, the don’t know where city limits are, or 350 mile boxes. But they do know roughly where the metro area begins and ends. So so far MSA rankings are still the most accurate rankings.