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What Would St. Louis Look Like With A Population Of 500,000?

The Arch from below
St. Louis Public Radio
The Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis.

Local architect Dan Jay is conducting a thought experiment: What would the city of St. Louis look like if it regained a population of 500,000? (That would mean an increase of 185,000 residents).

After decades of population decline in the city, Jay wants to think big about what a population increase would look like—and what it would take to get there.

“500,000, it’s a stretch goal,” said Jay, “‘Make no little plans’ the architect Daniel Burnham said in Chicago. And it makes us all … think differently. If I were to say to you make an apple pie, you would think about making an apple pie. If I were to say to you make 50 apple pies, you would think quite differently about apple pies. We don’t know when we will get back to that number, but it’s important to point out we’ve been there twice before.”

It’s an idea that has caught the attention of Mayor Francis Slay , inspiring a recent post on his blog.

“A half-million people citywide is within shouting distance of the St. Louis City’s density sweet spot,” the post reads.  “It is a reasonable point to start a conversation. It represents, generally, a higher density than our suburban neighbors. It encourages urban amenities such as street retail, public transit, shared roads, and housing diversity that a region's urban core should have.”

“Considering the size of the city – 62 square miles, considering the fact that we’ve had a lot of changes in the city all the years, particularly with highways coming through … 500,000 is probably a point that we can realistically dream about,” said Slay on St. Louis on the Air.

According to Jay, a population of 500,000 would put the city of St. Louis at a population density right between the density of Washington D.C. and Boston.

“What that density offers, we believe, is a broad diversity of housing types, of transit and transportation modes, of retail shopping opportunities, of entertainment opportunities, of lifestyle opportunities and of people,” said Jay. “What gets people excited, I think, is this mix of urban life that is only achieved at that kind of density.”


That kind of population density also creates a safer environment, said Jay. With more people around, it is safer to walk place to place.

“We experience that today in the Central West End,” he said.

But, as listeners pointed out on air and online, improving the perception of safety in the city is necessary to attract more residents in the first place.


Just like safety, the ability to offer high quality education is also an important factor in attracting residents. Mayor Slay pointed to the two-year extension of the Special Administrative Board (SAB) for St. Louis Public Schools as a step in the right direction.

“They provide a steady hand to help improve the quality of education in public schools. They have a long way to go,” said Slay of the SAB. “A dozen years ago we had three public schools in the city of St. Louis that met state standards. Today, I think it’s about 17 or 18 quality schools that are meeting standards. So now we have more quality seats for kids and we’re expanding those every year.”

Encouraging Immigration

Slay’s third priority for increasing the city’s population is to encourage immigrants to move to St. Louis.

“Other regions in the top 20 regions in America have four to five times as many foreign-born residents compared to what we have,” he said. “Foreign born bring talent, they bring specialization. They also bring diversity in terms of brain power to be able to compete internationally.”

Making the Dream a Reality

Although the idea is just getting off of the ground, Dan Jay says the organization Sustainable St. Louis has committed itself to promoting it.

“We hope we can engage on academic levels, on political levels, on neighborhood levels, a broad speculative discussion and really in the process turn people’s attention to the opportunities that the city offers,” said Jay. “And the glass half empty begins to be half full, and we begin to see the growing demand nationally for the urban lifestyle that our children are seeking out.”

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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