Is sprawl over?

The Pioneer Press asks Is sprawl over?

In what is believed to be a turning point in American history, new figures from the U.S. Census indicate that suburban sprawl might be coming to an end.

For the first time in more than 60 years, the growth rate of Minnesota’s suburbs has plummeted, with some actually losing population.

“This movement outward is a trend that has been in place for the entire post-World War II era,” state demographer Tom Gillaspy said. “Now it has come to a screeching halt.”

And when experts look at the reasons for the decline, they say that sprawl might be gone for good. That’s because long-term trends indicate less population growth, the demise of the single-family house and higher gas prices.

Urban areas can easily adjust to such changes, with a variety of housing for a variety of people — rich or poor, young or old, families or singles, all serviced with mass transit.

But not suburbs. They specialize in one kind of housing: big houses with big lawns for big families. The census figures are a warning for suburbs betting on more growth, including Forest Lake, Woodbury, Lakeville and Lake Elmo.

Cities are scrambling to adjust, laying off employees and delaying public projects. Most home-builders are shrinking the size of their new homes or switching to cheaper townhouses or apartments.

But changes are hard to make, despite the ominous census numbers.

“I can only take that as banter,” snapped Jay Berger of Berger Built Construction, who just ended what he said was his most successful year ever, building single-family homes in places like Forest Lake.

“They don’t know Forest Lake. They don’t know my houses.”


The farther the suburb, the greater the slowdown in growth.

Growth in third-ring suburbs, including Afton, May Township and Scandia, was just 6 percent from 2000 to 2010 — a fourth of the percentage increase in the 1990s.

“What is really dramatic is the exurbs,” Gillaspy said. “You see developments with houses halfway built up, with nails halfway beaten in.”

Second-ring suburbs — such as Eagan, Inver Grove Heights, Woodbury and Blaine — surged 42 percent in the 1990s and just 23 percent in the past decade.

In first-ring suburbs, growth stopped in the past decade after a 5 percent increase in the 1990s. These include Maplewood, Roseville and West St. Paul. The populations of Minneapolis and St. Paul have been roughly flat for two decades.

The suburban growth slowdown reflects a metrowide slowdown, said Metropolitan Council research manager Libby Starling. Metro-area population growth was 15 percent in the 1990s and about 8 percent in the past decade, she said.

Immigration from other countries has increased steadily, from about 5,000 annually in the early 1990s to about 11,000 today.

But Minnesota’s population is like a leaky bucket — gaining immigrants but losing people to other states. In the 1990s, about 10,000 people a year moved to Minnesota from other states. But in the past decade, the state lost about 7,000 people a year.

Said Starling: “The key question is how the Twin Cities competes economically in the next decade and how Minnesota plays into immigration,” both domestic and foreign.


The suburbs’ growth also is declining because demand for their specialty — the single-family house — is falling.

That style of housing defines two-thirds of American homes — yet only one-third of households has children, said Charles Marohn, president of Strong Towns, a nonprofit that advises Minnesota cities on development patterns.

Props to my former student Chuck Marohn who is extensively quoted.