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Countdown: Has the metro area reached its limits?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 26, 2011 - In 1950, five counties made up the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA -- St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Madison County and St. Clair County. But since the 1960 Census, the region has added real estate every decade.

Until now.

In 2010, for the first time since 1960, it appears that the St. Louis MSA will not add a county to the existing 16, says Mark Tranel, director of the Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

"Maybe we have, without planning for it, at least for some period of time, reached some kind of a bounded region."

Tranel thinks no additional counties will be added because there hasn't been a significant change in commuting patterns beyond the counties at the outer edges of the current MSA.

The MSA is decided three years after each census is released by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. The next evaluation of boundaries will come out in 2013. Who gets included and who doesn't is determined by the percentage of a county's population that travels to another part of the region for work, says Will Winter, with Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

"In this regard, I would think that the region will add areas in the upcoming years only to the regional economy," says Winter. "Population in outlying areas is growing and the growth of those populations is tied to major employment clusters in the existing region. On both the eastern and western edge, the St. Louis MSA is ringed by smaller MSAs, which, presumably, could be merged together with St. Louis in a Consolidated MSA, but that seems very unlikely given the region's slow growth rate."

He thinks the region may have stretched as far as it can, but several factors could affect that in the future, including 2010 census data that haven't yet been released as well as the economy, regional planning and changing ideas about where and how people want to live.

Join The Club

Since 1960, the St. Louis MSA has added 11 counties to the earlier core of five -- Monroe, Macoupin, Clinton, Bond, Calhoun and Jersey counties in Illinois plus Jefferson, Franklin, Warren, Washington and Lincoln counties in Missouri.

During that time, the city of St. Louis lost population, from 856,796 in 1950 to 348,198 in 2000, according to a report from the PPRC entitled "A Brief Demographic and Spatial History of the St. Louis Region: 1950-2000."

The city's population in the 2010 census was 319,294.

Since 1950, the populations of nearly every other county in the MSA grew. St. Charles County, for instance, grew from 29,834 in 1950 to 360,485 in 2010. Madison Country grew from 182,307 in 1950 to 269,282 in 2010.

Also in 2010, St. Louis County's population declined for the first time, to 998,954.

John Posey, director of research with the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, says he doesn't have an opinion about whether the area has reached its limits or not, but he could argue it either way.

"On the one hand," he writes in an e-mail, "there are several MSAs that are larger than St. Louis: Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Dallas and Houston. Salt Lake City has less than half the population of St. Louis. So these examples suggest that metropolitan areas may not have natural growth boundaries."

That is unless they do have natural growth boundaries, like the desert and the ocean in Los Angeles' case, says Todd Swanstrom, Des Lee endowed professor of community collaboration and public policy administration at UMSL.

Many cities take proactive approaches to containing their MSAs, he says, adding greenbelts the way Portland, Ore., did. Often, though, development skips over those imposed boundaries and keeps right on going, as it did in Minneapolis.

Employment is another factor that could see the MSA keep growing in the future.

"St. Louis is one of the most decentralized in terms of jobs in the nation," Swanstrom says.

"It's not unreasonable to think that Wentzville, for example, could attract more commuters from Montgomery County or even Pike County," Posey agrees, noting that in 2009, about 800 people commuted from one of those counties to St. Charles County.

"On the other hand," he says, "some argue that gas prices are likely to go up in the years ahead, and as this happens people will want to live closer to where they work."

That could draw residential development and redevelopment back toward the city, he says. There's also some evidence that tastes are changing over generations and that young adults want to live in denser and more diverse communities.

"For example, the Old North St. Louis neighborhood grew 28 percent between 2000 and 2010, more than some of the high-growth counties in the region," Posey says. "If more home-buyers become interested in this kind of living, then you could see more residential development, or redevelopment, happening in the urban core, and less on the periphery."

Thin Still In?

When Swanstrom looked at county level data from the 2010 Census, one thing that struck him was the continued thinning out, or decreased density and increased decentralization, of the region.

The East-West Gateway's Renewing the Region blog looks at the issue of density in the region.

"Using the usual measurement of density, counting people per square mile, and gauging cities that are at least that large, Clayton tops that top 10 of the density rankings with 6,375.6 people per square mile," the blog reports. "In order, following Clayton, are University City, Maplewood, Dellwood, the city of St. Louis, Glendale, St. John, Shrewsbury, Rock Hill and Brentwood."

The spread of people and jobs has led to a job and housing mismatch, Swanstrom says. For instance, people who work at Chesterfield Mall likely commute long distances because of little affordable or low-income housing in the area.

In the long run, he says, that path is unsustainable. People spend more money on transportation and energy and that money does not stay in the local economy.

Posey sees some other reasons for the thinning out of the region.

"If you compare St. Louis County to St. Charles County, a couple of things stand out. First, St. Louis County is largely built-out now, so there's not as much room for the kind of new residential development that leads to big increases in population."

He also points to the aging of the population. Subdivisions that were robust in the '70s and '80s now have empty-nesters.

"This process creates a population decline in some areas," he says. "But in this case it's not a bad thing, it's just a change."

Communities with low-density have environmental costs, Winter says, economic costs for roadways and energy, and the loss of green space.

A report from East-West Gateway called "Potential Markets for Workforce Housing," points out that a daily commute of 20 miles in a car that gets 20 miles a gallon will use 500 gallons of gas a year. Assuming that gas is $3, that's $1,500 a year, or $1,775 at closer to the current rate of $3.55 a gallon. The report also notes the environmental impact of that commute. Every worker making that commute emits 4.9 tons of carbon, or 750,000 tons from 150,000 workers.

2020 And Beyond

To Swanstrom, the idea of the suburban frontier, that there's always a place to go in America, has persisted for several decades. But that could be ending now.

Other areas that have hit that wall eventually turn their attention to existing infrastructures, including redeveloping their urban cores and maintaining current systems.

East-West Gateway only offers projections for an eight-county area -- St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles, Franklin, Jefferson, Monroe, St. Clair and Madison counties.

"Our latest projections have the eight-county region going from about 2.57 million in 2010 to about 2.8 million in 2040," Posey says. "If these projections correspond to reality, then St. Louis will continue to be a slow-growing region in coming decades."

Other factors that could impact the speed of that growth are the economy and the housing market, Tranel says. "That's sort of the big unknown."

If the economy gets back to what it was, say five years ago, he says, development could pick up again. Or the current state of things could be the new normal.

Regardless, it may be time for the region to start working together, instead of counties competing against each other and big businesses moving around within the MSA, Winter says. And a grant from the Housing and Urban Development Department may be working toward that. HUD gave East-West Gateway and a number of partners a $4.6 million planning grant in the fall of 2010.

That grant, East-West Gateway's website says, "will bring over 36 local entities together to work collaboratively to engage in an inclusive and comprehensive regional planning process to achieve and protect sustainable, equitable and livable communities."

What happens next in the St. Louis MSA depends on several factors, from the economy to gas prices to the housing market, regional planning efforts and changes in the kinds of communities people want to live in.

Whether it's O'Fallon or St. Louis, though, Winter thinks the kinds of places people want to live in are getting more and more similar, and increasingly, he says, they're being linked by trails and greenways, creating a system that essentially ties the region together.

Outlying communities in Lincoln and Franklin county could continue growing, Winter says, but in the future, he thinks adding other communities to the St. Louis MSA would be a stretch.

"I do think it might be the case that, just in terms of geographic spread, we've spread as far as we can."

Analysis of census data related to the Countdown series has been provided by members of the Applied Research Collaborative, a joint project of three of the region's leading research institutions: St. Louis University (Department of Public Policy Studies), University of Missouri-St. Louis (Public Policy Research Center) and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (Institute for Urban Research).

Kristen Hare