Understanding St. Louis: Asymmetry of Job Counts by Distance/Direction

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Downtown St. Louis is the center of the region. Sort of. Downtowns, despite their long-waning position as anchor employment and shopping districts, continue to serve as a sort of ceremonial “center” in most metro regions.

Downtown is generally where City Hall can be found, as well as the tallest buildings, often the sports arenas, the courts, some convergence of transit, etc. Downtown is where a region celebrates. It’s where you find championship parades, conventions, the largest civic events, the marathons, festivals, that Arch, and more.

But downtown St. Louis is far from the actual center of the region. Our population center lies somewhere between Olive Boulevard and I-64 along I-270. While the combined population of St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County has grown just 1.6% since 1970, the population center of the region has fled west.

At the same time, the Metro East has continued to lose jobs and residents. From 2000-2010, the Illinois counties of the Metro East lost a greater percentage of their population than did the City of St. Louis (8%).

And while downtowns across the Midwest have lost employment and retail density, St. Louis may be unique in how displaced our downtown has become from jobs, retail, and residents. Looking at the cities of Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis highlights the difference.

Both Columbus and Indianapolis show significantly greater job sprawl than St. Louis, but their downtowns have remained very nearly the center of their respective regions. Pittsburgh is significantly more compact and centered. Cincinnati is heavily skewed but shows greater balance, and its asymmetry is created in part because of development along the I-75 corridor to nearby Dayton.

So what? Well, we can imagine downtown St. Louis as the center of the region but must recognize that it is not. How we understand this should inform policy and planning decisions regarding transit, retail, development subsidies and more. That is, you simply can’t create development strategy without recognizing the unique position of downtown St. Louis.

By income:




Employment dot maps: http://www.robertmanduca.com/projects/jobs.html

Jobs distance and direction radar maps: https://lehd.ces.census.gov/


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  • Adam

    Super depressing article. Take a look at the map of % jobs lost to automation by 2035. Circle size indicates total # jobs per MSA (unclear whether this is jobs as of 2013, jobs as of 2017, or predicted for 2035). The St. Louis MSA has a radius of roughly 50 miles centered on downtown (based on a quick Google Maps measurement). Note that the circle for St. Louis is larger than the circle for Indianapolis. This seems to indicate that St. Louis has more jobs within 50 miles of downtown than Indianapolis has in its entire MSA, in contrast to the data presented here.


  • Joseph Frank

    Of course, I agree downtown is struggling as an employment center, and of course the population center of the MSA trudges slowly westward. But I would submit the employment center is still somewhere east of Lindbergh. The job density in Earth City and West Port areas is nowhere close to that in Clayton and the Kingshighway medical campus. Downtown is less important than it once was, but we have also seen the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs in Hazelwood and Fenton. So I think the westward shift in employment is less pronounced. Also Express Scripts moved from Riverport to Cool Valley and grew significantly, although their headcount comes and goes due to their cost cutting. However hundreds of A-B and AT&T jobs left the City proper, many leaving the metro area entirely. Retail is going through massive disruption that 2014 data do not reflect.

  • This analysis is worthless, because it’s not regional.

  • StillGood

    A major jobs center may not be where the highest population (residential) center is located or even where the major social/community gatherings are held. Where people work, live, and gather for social purposes may vary widely.

    So what I understand is that the jobs center (bulk or concentration of jobs) has shifted out of downtown STL. The new center for jobs is “somewhere between Olive Boulevard and I-64 along I-270”. What is the significance if the bulk of jobs are not located in a downtown location? Downtown is still a major center for social/community gatherings (concerts, festivals, marathons, baseball/hockey games, holiday events). There are downtown jobs for sure but downtown does not have the highest concentration of jobs in the region is what you are saying. The jobs are still in the region so still good. There could be periods of dispersal and then concentration as part of a changing city/region.

  • Adam

    Alex, I’m still confused about these charts. If these are all primary jobs within 50 miles of downtown I don’t see how the numbers add up. 50 miles contains roughly the entire STL metro of 2.8M versus roughly the entire Indy metro of 1.5M, yet Indy has 225K more jobs within that radius? How is that possible?

    • STLrainbow

      My guess is the charts are showing where residents of the city have their primary job.

      • Adam

        That wouldn’t accurately indicate job sprawl though. You could have a resident of St. Louis County that lives 5 miles west of their job that is 5 miles west of downtown, and a resident of Indy that lives 10 miles west of their job that’s 10 miles east of downtown, and the Indy case would be counted toward the “primary job” total while the St. Louis case wouldn’t.

        • Adam

          sorry, i meant “20 miles west of their job that is 10 miles east of downtown” or “lives 10 miles west of downtown while their job is 10 miles east of downtown”.

        • STLrainbow

          Unless I’m missing something I don’t think the maps are particularly helpful for the post; which I think could use a bit of re-working.

  • tztag

    Can you please add a shot of the St Louis radar chart? Cycling too fast to see the data. Thanks

    • Adam

      It’s the first chart immediately after the cycling GIF.

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  • Chris

    Great analysis. As someone in commercial real estate I deal with this PROBLEM constantly. This reality has a major effect on businesses, both retail and commercial, locating in the region. Many just give up over time and put their resources in more user friendly cities. It has less to do with highways and sprawl and more to do with the internal competition vreated by our fractured governance and exacerbated by three rivers and a giant pile of limestone south of I44 for miles. Illinois inabilty to get their house in order chops off the east half of the region. Kentucky and Kansas have embraced their proximity to the larger cities. Hell even Merrilville, IN has capitalized on the Chicagoland region. Great topic and well reserched. This needs to be discussed and addressed more.

  • Adam

    How in the world do Indianapolis and Columbus have twice as many “primary jobs” as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati?

    • Alex Ihnen

      They have more than twice as many residents.

      • Adam

        So those numbers are based on city population? Your maps/colors extend beyond city boundaries so I thought they were based on metro population. I don’t think you specified anywhere, but maybe I just missed it.

      • Matt

        I thought these were metro analysis.

  • STLrainbow

    I wouldn’t say we’re unique… Downtown Detroit saw immense separation from the rest of the region in terms of jobs. retail and residents in the post-war era. Canada is to its south and the msa’s population center is far to the north. But downtown is coming back in a big way on all fronts and so can Downtown Saint Louis. Have to plan for greatness and make the CBD the “it” place where biz wants to be!

  • Matt

    Fascinating analysis. There is lots we can take from this in understanding metros. For example, Cincy shows what a difference it could make to St. Louis if Illinois were more pro-development. Cincy’s southern burbs are in Kentucky and enjoy much lower taxes, lighter regulation, and more development led local governments than would ever be possible in St. Louis’ Illinois burbs. Move Lambert to Edwardsville and metro St. Louis would see a big shift in jobs and make downtown more central.

    • Nat76

      I’m not sure how much Covington and Newport’s successes (vs. East St Louis’ failures) are due to regulatory environments. The Kentucky river cities weren’t carved up by freeways to the same extent. They were never as industrial. There hasn’t been a port over there in forever. The never had massive white flight. There are also a lot of fairly expensive, high demand neighborhoods on the KY side with killer views flanking Newport/Covington that naturally anchor the valley as a site for redevelopment.

      There’s a lot of natural positive momentum there regardless of regulations, taxes, funding will, etc. Kind of like OTR on the other side of the river, which in addition to fantastic building stock, has a lot of neighboring areas that were pushing development into the neighborhood. Downtown on one side, Mt. Adams on another, and Clifton on a third. Mt. Auburn to a lesser extent too. Nice building stock + some great views meant those areas were never as disinvested to the same extent as what we see in parts of St. Louis. There was strong opposition to a lot of the OTR development, but the economic tailwinds were too strong to curb it.

      • Alex Ihnen

        Right. Covington and Newport are old cities directly on the riverfront – like Old Town St. Charles. The Ohio River isn’t as wide as the Mississippi in downtown STL at that point too. East St. Louis was once quite a thriving community – have heard so many stories of WUSTL students taking the streetcar from ESTL to school, for example.

        But in the end, geography dictates much of this. The east side of the Mississippi is a massive flood plain for a river that likes to flood. As noted, the highways on the east side create a much greater separation as well.

        I’m doubt that any policies or subsidies would have created much of a different outcome in terms of investment on the east riverfront. The collapse of labor-intensive industries devastated the area.

        • Matt

          Cincinnati was never as heavily industrial as St. Louis. Cincy has always had a more mixed economy that is a legacy of it’s pre-Civil War development and economic connections to the South instead of to the Industrial Great Lakes.

      • Matt

        Taxes and the regulatory costs matter much more to investors than urban form. That’s why America looks the way it does.

  • Nat76

    Lots to think about here.
    1) There are two types of job sprawl. The first is service-oriented jobs that follow residential sprawl (retail, services like real estate, financial advisors, insurance sales, home care, medical care). The second is core employment centers. These don’t necessarily need to follow residential sprawl. St. Louis seems to have a greater propensity for this type of sprawl compared to Indy, Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, etc.

    2) Topography matters. Flat land is easier to develop, which is why we have sprawl in St. Charles county while Jeffco remains less developed. The older portions of MetroEast sit in what amounts to a giant flood plain between the river and the bluffs. It took awhile before we saw large scale development east of the bluffs (outside of Belleville) in places like O’Fallon. Consequently we skew west/northwest. This would account for the lack of “job symmetry” around downtown. It also leads to disproportionate residential clustering of professionals in those areas, which makes it easier for core employment centers to relocate. Columbus and Indy are flat, so their suburban development is more symmetric, leaving DT at the geographic center. Pittsburgh is hilly everywhere, which naturally funnels commuter activity to the confluence of the rivers. Cincinnati has more of the asymmetry that St. Louis does.

    3) Municipal boundaries matter. Percent of urbanized area living in their respective central cities in 1970: Indy 90%, Columbus 70%, Cincy 40%, Pittsburgh+STL 30%. A greater pop share facilitates planning to maintain CBDs as centers. Indy is a good example. An office core is slowly assembling north of the city in Hamilton county, but the city preemptively absorbed commercial demand in the north when the Pyramids and 8888 Keytone at the Crossing were built inside the city proper in the 70s/80s. If both weren’t built, then that’s probably a 700K sq ft head start for Carmel to build its own CBD…sending it on its way to becoming Clayton.

  • Alex P

    I’ve only been waiting for this article for about two years now 🙂
    Of course one of the greatest arguments against geography being a primary downfall of downtown (not saying that it is or that this article is) is the prosperity of downtown Cleveland and other coastal cities. I’ve said this before but I would to get first hand accounts / perspectives from those in our peer cities and determine how important a central location actually is. Cincy, Cleveland, Memphis, Indy, etc.
    Obviously we should be fighting for the success of East St. Louis but should we triple those efforts if the health of the City of St. Louis depends on it?

    • Jenna McGregor Jarvis

      We should be fighting for the success of East St. Louis, North St. Louis, downtown, all of it. I have yet to see a plan from the city to focus on any of these areas. Indy has focused on pockets of the city at a time, and of course a lot of residents doing the hard work of getting TIFs and development. Indy is choosing 3 new neighborhoods to focus on with Great Places 2020. It looks at infrastructure and facade improvements that can be made to spur local business and growth. Some of this is happening in the Near North, I haven’t read up on the east side much. Indianapolis for sure has geography in it’s favor; flat, no giant river on one side, easy to bike and drive everywhere.

    • Adam

      Is downtown Cleveland particularly prosperous?

      I think the donut of urban renewal surrounding downtown is its primary handicap. The destruction of the near north side and Mill Creek Valley, and demolition for/construction of the highways have cut downtown off from the rest of the city. It is virtually impossible to walk/bike anywhere from downtown without passing through a wasteland. We should, of course, be fighting for the success of everywhere but our resources are limited. Frankly I think the state of Illinois needs to step up to the plate for E. St. Louis and the City of St. Louis should focus on re-connecting (i.e. infill) downtown to the neighborhoods north, west, and south.

      • STLExplorer

        Great point. The central corridor in general is poorly connected. Cortex has done little to change this in the CWE, SLU/Harris Stowe/Wells Fargo hurt Midtown, and Downtown is consistently urban for only the few blocks between Chestnut and Washington (Olive and Delmar for Downtown West). We need to knit back the urban fabric to the north and south for downtown to fulfill its potential.

      • STLrainbow

        I’m not sure I’d say downtown Cleveland is particularly prosperous, but it is doing rather well; definitely ahead of downtown Saint Louis. As I mentioned above though, downtown Detroit is the one that has really been pouring it on lately… I definitely recommend downtown stakeholders take a tour to see what lessons maybe learned.