Failure of Fragmentation: St. Louis County Population Loss

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The last two generations have not been kind to many of the fragments in St. Louis County. The population losses of St. Louis City have been closely tracked and well publicized. The city lost 303,000 residents (-48.7%) between 1970-2010.

STL County pop 1_2

{Number of municipalities in each range of population change. Those incorporated since 1970 excluded.}

While there is endless discussion over the city’s plight and reasons for it, the area in the region mostly within I-270 and 255 has lost 317,000 (-33.5%) over the same period. The losses there should be of great concern too, but due to its fragmentation, it has received less attention.

The hope that consolidation could boost the perception of greater St. Louis is criticized as a means to paper over and ignore problems. This is an example of how fragmentation obscures them. If the area had been one city or a few, or one county, we’d know about it. And that government would have been in a stronger position to act.

Of course numerous factors have played into this outcome. Fragmentation is just one and not the strongest. But the purported attractiveness of our menagerie of munis hasn’t been and will never be enough to overcome them.

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  • Adelina

    Great article, thanks! (I find the graph a little confusing, but that could just be me.) I can’t see how consolidation is criticized as a way to “paper over and ignore problems”. Quite the contrary, fragmentation has allowed St. Louis to ignore social inequality by falling back on a false sense of separation from what happens in our own backyards. Fragmentation has created a patchwork of laws, that can be different from one mile post to the next. Consolidation may not boost the perception of St. Louis, but it would go a long way to allocating public resources in a fair way and building a community with justice for all.

    • rgbose

      The criticism of consolidation that results in for example crime statistics being reported for a larger area would allow us to ignore it more. Seems to me consistently being ranked high hasn’t been enough to ficus more resources on th problem.

  • Larry Guinn

    Saint Louis population has always been a “shockwave” from the central riverfront outwards. Since undeveloped land has always been so cheap, redevelopment behind the shockwave has been hard to do. These statistics only confirm what is already known.
    It’s always been a frustration to see these trends and know it’s government policy and public mentality that leaves a depressed area behind that shockwave.

    • John R

      You bring up some great points… I wonder how much of this sprawl could have been ameliorated had we had something along the lines of a Unigov type arrangement… I know Indianapolis itself grew a little bit since 1970, but I suspect almost all of that was in greenfields and I’d venture the core urbanized area in 1970 fell in population. Adjacent county populations have skyrocketed.

      Anyway, I guess my point is that while I think tackling fragmentation is worthwhile, it’s the dedication to sound urban public policy that is going to make or break our future.

      • rgbose

        Yes, and I don’t think were going to get it with so many fragments. We’ve gotten TIF wars, traffic ticket taxes, high variance in quality of muni services, deferred infrastructure maintenance, a weaker voice to steer policy and resources at higher levels, etc

  • It would be interesting to see if the same result exists with the number of households. I.e. how much of the population loss can be accounted for by the decrease in average household size?

    • rgbose

      That’s certainly a factor.

  • John R

    Wow, that is a stunning number…. let me make sure I understand this right. Saint Louis County and County combined lost 620,000 people within the I-270 area (and a greater raw # in the County) between 1970 and 2010?

    • John R

      * oops… County and City combined

    • John R

      And if I’m following things right, it looks like Saint Louis County had to have added about 365,000 people outside 270 between 1970 & 2010 to make up for the 317,000 fewer people within 270.

    • rgbose

      You are correct sir! The area is about 225 sq mi. The pop density in 1970 was ~7,000 /sq mi, now it’s 4200. No wonder so many munis are struggling, we don’t have a more frequent and more used transit system, etc. See the plot here https://nextstl.com/2015/12/st-louis-city-multi-family-building-permits-skyrocket-in-2015/

      • John R

        Thanks for that link. I couldn’t tell from my scan of those presentations, but do you have info on what the 2010 population was for within and outside 270? It would be interesting to see what it would like like if Saint Louis City rejoined the County and we had three cities in the expanded 1.3M person County: Old Saint Louis (319,000 of course), Middle Saint Louis (the current county w/in 270) and Outer Saint Louis (beyond 270).

        • rgbose

          It’s the graph on sheet 8, then subtract out Stl City. The map on sheet 7 shows the “study area” it’s mostly within 270, including some bits on the IL side. You’d have to examine the census tracts over the decades to get exactly the within 270 on MO side number.