It’s Not Really the Yards

Sitting around a firepit in a South Minneapolis backyard on a recent Saturday night, it was clear: It’s nice to have a yard. You can see stars south of Lake Street! The bike ride was a bit of a schlep–when you don’t have a car, Lake Nokomis may as well be Lake Pepin if you don’t want to transfer twice on a bus–but it was one of those beautiful cusp-of-fall-in-Minnesota-type-of-nights and so it was alright. It’s good to have land.

Due in part to the Twin Cities’ lack of a major geographical obstacle, like an ocean or a mountain range, we’re one of the sprawliest metropolitan areas in the country. Using the US Census Bureau definition (the one that doesn’t include St. Cloud) of our metropolitan area, we’ve got thirteen counties with about 3.4 million people, which works out to roughly 490 people per square mile. Also, six area codes. Our 490 people in a square mile compares to, say, the Chicago metropolitan area’s 1,318 people per square mile. Those density numbers are simplistic and prone to misinterpretation for a couple reasons. For one, county units of government in the United States aren’t always great for putting together statistics…looking at you, St. Louis County, Minnesota, which contains the some of the most isolated wilderness in the country, but also Downtown Duluth. But more importantly, looking at raw numbers of people and dividing that by total area doesn’t factor in land use.

Land use is important. Anyone who has driven on freeways on the outskirts of American cities would be familiar with things like apartment buildings plopped in the middle of surface parking lots hemmed in by freeways–freeway armpit apartments. I’d argue that, on the whole, the kind of low-density development in much of South Minneapolis where you put ~24 single family houses on a block with an alley in the middle is probably preferable to building townhouses without a town.

Since World War II, as has been discussed ad nauseam, we really went off the deep end trying to not build human-scaled grids anymore. You can see it as you pull away from the Hennepin and Washington intersection in Downtown Minneapolis and head north, west, or south. We’ll head south for this. All photos are from Google Maps, taken at the same scale from select representative spots throughout the south metro.

Minneapolis

Minneapolis

We start out in South Minneapolis. It’s the city. It’s not downtown, but there’s commerce in this snapshot. You’ve got about ~24 housing units on each block, and given what household sizes are now, there probably aren’t much more than 50 people on any given block (this is a high guesstimate) though that’s certainly a huge decrease from what it would have been when these houses were first built. These streets are easy to plow and easy to navigate on. Traffic can go many different directions. There are alleys with rear garages on all these blocks, though not all South Minneapolis blocks have them. And everyone still has an ample yard to surround their single family house. The houses are fairly close together, and you may even see your neighbor by accident.

Richfield

Richfield

Here’s Richfield, directly south of Minneapolis. The streets have the same names. The blocks are a little bigger, don’t have alleys, and have fewer units with bigger lots on each block. This is still easy to navigate. Yards are eaten up a bit by driveways. It’s not in the snapshot, but commerce is different here–Richfield doesn’t have the legacy of streetcar intersections and the leftover commercial density you get at those seemingly random points throughout Minneapolis, St. Paul, and suburbs like St. Louis Park. I should point out that, to Richfield’s credit, they’re filling in a decent high-density area along Lyndale.

Bloomington

Bloomington

Now we’re in Bloomington, and now we’re shooting for the countryside. Americans have been pretending to live in the countryside for ages, but now we’re at the point in history (late 50’s) where things start getting a little cartoonish. The density is getting lower. Which isn’t to say Bloomington is terrible, because it’s definitely better than most. You’ve still got Minneapolis street names! Land uses are more separated in Bloomington, and you’re going to need a car to do much of anything, though you could bike to Target pretty easily if you wanted to. Driveways are getting larger as we go further south, to the point where they actually take up a pretty significant portion of some of these lots.

Burnsville

Burnsville

Here we’ve jumped the Minnesota River and found ourselves in Burnsville, in Dakota County. I was hoping this would be a subdivision with a funny name, but it wasn’t. No alleys, though the houses look closer together side-to-side compared to the ones in Bloomington. The grid is gone. All the traffic is funneled through a handful of streets to a few stroads to things like chain retail in strip malls off of stroads, or to industrial-strength schools, or to the freeway to get elsewhere. More so than in places like Minneapolis, Richfield, or Bloomington, the kids in these areas are going to be glued to a TV or a parent with a car until they get their own driver’s license.

Lakeville

Lakeville

And this is where we end up, in Lakeville, past the Pizza Ranch but not quite to the exit we take to go to the gun club south of Prior Lake. I wanted to get those town-less townhouses in the shot.

So the point I’m driving at is that all these snapshots are full of single family houses with yards. If we’re working with a white picket fence version of the American Dream™, you can get it in any of those places. There’s this fantastic documentary put together by Twin Cities Public Television and the U of M called Minnesota: A History of the Land. There’s this part at the very end where there’s a young family and they’re thinking about where they want to buy a house, and the father mentions being interested in Elko New Market, because he wants “land.”

Most of Minneapolis and St. Paul are swaths of single family houses with yards. If we had continued spreading out the Twin Cities after World War II in a way similar to what we already had, the urbanized portion of the metro area would be far smaller and much easier to govern–and you’d still be able to have block parties with rented bouncy castles in front yards. Instead of freeway interchanges the size of lakes, we’d be able to live closer to nature in actuality, and not just in the names of subdivisions platted on forests that were clear cut. You may still need a car, but you wouldn’t necessarily need to drive three miles to buy a soda, and your neighborhood would be much more amenable to future transit service if density eventually increased.

And, most importantly, you still get your yard.

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30 Responses to It’s Not Really the Yards

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke October 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    awesome exercise, and good point.

  2. Dale October 1, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    Could not agree more. I think this kind of single family density does not get its proper due. You can also easily incorporate duplexes and fourplexes into this matrix.

    This kind of bread-and-butter density helps get Mpls to 7k/square mile which is not too shabby and matches well with, say, Seattle density.

  3. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary October 1, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    This is a cool progression.

    Although I will note a few minor corrections re: Richfield — about 30% of the blocks do have alleys. And blocks are the same size as Minneapolis. Lot size varies a lot by area. The blocks with alleys have 10-12 houses per side, per block. Some alley-less areas have as few as 6-8. That said, we actually have highest density of any major suburb, and nearly the same as City of St. Paul.

    In areas without alleys, one critical point is the location of the garage. Richfield’s original housing stock (and areas of Minneapolis without alleys) generally have a small garage in the back of the lot, and a long, very narrow driveway leading to it. Unfortunately, Richfield has been very lax about maintaining this standard for new homes, so many teardowns have resulted in unsightly snout houses. This seriously disrupts a row of front yards and has a negative effect on the whole block.

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino October 2, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

      I just grabbed a screenshot, didn’t check all of ’em, though it’s good to hear they have some alleys. Re: size of the blocks, isn’t it weird how the ones in Richfield look bigger on the map?

      https://maps.google.com/?ll=44.89206,-93.255129&spn=0.017786,0.042272&t=h&z=15

      I see that the streets line up so you’re correct, but something about that is like an optical illusion–must be the bigger lot sizes?

  4. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary October 1, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    I also think you’re basic point applies very well to commercial development, too. People I knew were so upset that the new Walker library was only one story, and didn’t have enough density — it needed density. But as you demonstrate, it’s not just about building up. We could be so lucky as to have lots fully covered with single-story buildings. Instead, we have the tower in the garden (of parking lots).

    • Cameron Conway
      Cameron October 3, 2013 at 8:54 am #

      While I do support the elimination of surface parking so that SOMEthing establishes that much needed urban continuity, I think it’s really important to not squander the opportunities that surface parking represents. Minneapolis’ potential in terms of infill development is quite unique compared to most east and west coast cities, if only because there are so many blank slates in the middle of existing urbanity. Clearly there are still tons of surface parking still even in Uptown, but that one story Walker library is a long term decision. There’s several stories of wasted real estate above that library, limiting the overall housing supply in the neighborhood as demand continues to rise.

      When it comes to the tower in the garden, I’d honestly prefer the current orientation, as the surrounding parking lots are large enough to feature developments of their own one day. One day!

  5. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins October 1, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    Great post. It’s not only about yards… but isn’t it still sort of about yards? A little bit? I have always thought that if a person is going to live way out in the ‘burbs, they had better have a yard. I’ve owned a couple houses in Minneapolis now. Both have had yards, but neither much bigger than a postage stamp. And I will admit that some part of me wants more yard. I’ve always wanted a stand-alone sauna in my backyard, but I just don’t have the space. I’d also love a nice large patio or deck. Oh, and a workshop. And probably a place to store a cargo trailer for the twice a year I need one. And more trees. The only thing I don’t want in my yard is more grass to mow.

    The last time we were looking around for houses to purchase, I thought pretty hard about buying this one, kind of an oddball lot near some railroad tracks where there is already a sauna and might even feel a bit country-ish.

    There is a question of who is reaping the benefits of the density of Minneapolis neighborhoods, and who is contributing. What is best for the individual may not be best for everyone else. I want to be the one house in Minneapolis on an acre lot while everyone else lives on 0.1 acres. I still reap the benefits of the density, despite not contributing.

    I agree about the townless townhomes – they seem like such an unattractive option.

    • Alex October 2, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      This is why I prefer square blocks to rectangular – the corner lots are always a mishmash of strange sizes and shapes, often with much larger lots than the rest of the block. This leads to a better mix of lots. For the same reason, they were unpopular with real estate speculators of course.

  6. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell October 2, 2013 at 8:31 am #

    Nick, great post!. Even my wife liked it. I agree with Reuben, different folks have different wants and needs. My wife is really in to gardening and wanted something with enough space and sunlight for all of her experiments. I wanted space for a couple of pear trees and a woodshop. I’d wanted to be somewhere between Mac Groveland and downtown St Paul, but these amenities weren’t affordable in the city, but were in the ‘burbs. Guess where we ended up.

    For the past few years we’ve considered moving. Quite a vigorous debate between Cathedral Hill and northern ‘burbs. Somewhat to my chagrin, ‘burbs won.

    I wonder if there’s another option though, what I call Little Urban Villages (LUV’s). Plopping Jane Jacobs down in the ‘burbs. Similar to New Urban Village concepts. Instead of one urban core like we have (or sort of two I guess if you include Minneapolis), we could have multiple little urban villages. A dense ‘urban’ core of mixed res/retail/office/light industrial, a slightly less dense ring of townhomes, then stamp lots, then midsize lots, then Reuben’s space. But all much smaller than a 7-county metro area.

    Can the Targets and Home Depots of the ‘burbs function in a more decentralized fashion with multiple smaller outlets?

    • Alex October 2, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      Your LUVs plan is similar to the concept the Met Council had for the region in the 70s. Satellite Cities I think was their shag carpeting name for it. I’m not sure of the details but obviously it didn’t come to pass. My guess is it was the reluctance to regulate land use much besides the MUSA line. I’m not aware of any other mechanism the Met Council used to influence land use except rubberstamp comp plan approval until the affordable housing grants of the 90s (and obviously these had no impact on morphology).

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell October 3, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

        Thanks Alex. Imagine how different our ‘burbs would be today if that had happened.

  7. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini October 2, 2013 at 10:22 am #

    I think it’s important to point out what amenities people want that dictate yard size, beyond just the things you can put in a yard like gardens, trees, sheds, etc that simply require more acreage. I don’t necessarily agree with or want/”need” each of these, but will explain the mindset:

    – Attached garages – not having to go outside in the cold/rain to put out the trash, grab a tool, bring the groceries in from the car, etc. This means the house either sits behind the garage (snout) or beside it. Either way, it necessitates a larger lot to allow for the space and resulting driveway if one wants a minimum amount of yard space.
    – Front-facing garages – being able to see the garage door from your house if it’s in the back yard (not facing the alley and prone to theft) or ease of access if it’s attached to the house. Necessitates a long driveway if in the back yard.
    – House layout – older homes are typically squares or even skinny and long with the yard. This is a sub-optimal layout for people who want grand, open entryways, and a living room, family room, dining room, and kitchen on the main level. Houses that are wider than they are deep allow for walls of windows facing the back yard, but end up forcing wider and therefore larger lots.
    – Privacy – people want their own space, and want to have it without the neighbors peering out their windows all shady like at them. Living “cheek by jowl” (which many people now define as less than a quarter acre, somehow) is not seen as a positive thing.
    – Dogs. Big ones. Small ones. They need ample space to do their business. I’ll also point out that many people want dogs but don’t want to actually deal with them, just to put them outside for exercise/etc (just my personal take…)

    I think it would be great if our neighborhoods, even in relatively dense Minneapolis areas, had been built without the fairly generous setbacks from the front property line. I’m not really sure what the function is other than distancing your residence from the public – we already have a decent amount of space from property line to street curb that has sidewalks and boulevards for trees and snow storage. But if we built to within 5-10′ of the line instead of 20-30′ (current R1 is 25′ I believe, though some streets are built a little closer), each residence would free up more space in the back yards for decks, porches, trees, gardens, etc. I so rarely see people actually using their front yards, in Minneapolis or in the ‘burbs. I’m not saying they should be outlawed, only that they seem to be more ornamental and shouldn’t be required by code.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke October 2, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      you’re forgetting the main amenity: a well-funded school system.

      • Morgan October 2, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

        Schools are actually making up less and less of the value of residential real estate. Our society is aging, people are having fewer children, and even those with children are only engaged in the school system for about 12 to 15 years while they are active participants in the residential housing market for more like 65 years.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell October 2, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

      Great points. Privacy is interesting because I think it comes out of our media saturated over abundance of fear and our loss of community. Everyone I know who lives in close quarters also knows their neighbors and once they get to know them they trust them (there is one semi-exception though). Interestingly, near 50th & France people are tearing down smaller houses on relatively small lots and building much larger houses that leave almost no separation to their neighbors house (and are also quite close to the street and foster dialog with neighbors). Maybe people around there trust each other more?

      The front yard thing is an aesthetic for most. Kind of like grand entrances with 3-story foyers. People like that expansive carpet of perfectly manicured, over-watered, over-fertilized green. Personally I’m relatively OK with things purely for aesthetic quality, expansive yards included, though I do grow more and more concerned about the costs such as sprawl and car culture, pollution, and wasted water.

      On the plus side, the grand foyers and great rooms seem to be quickly going out of style. People seem to more and more be desiring smaller cozier ‘not-so-big’ houses. Maybe the same will happen with yards.

      • Nick Magrino
        Nick Magrino October 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

        Based on my own anecdotal experience, people in very safe suburbs tend to be much more terrified of being outside by themselves at night than anyone in, say, Whittier.

    • Froggie October 11, 2013 at 3:32 am #

      I don’t see an issue with the house setbacks. Indeed, helped us neighborhood kids (on a typical South Minneapolis residential block as described by Nick in the article) have a “clearly defined” bounds for playing football, using various house sidewalks to define the endzone.

  8. Morgan October 2, 2013 at 11:57 am #

    Great point.

    But I think it would be better if lot size in Minneapolis and St. Paul was smaller. For phase 2 of your commentary would you like to compare South Minneapolis to Portland, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc?

    The single family lot in Portland is smaller and is noticeably less set-back from the sidewalk. This makes the city denser and the street-life and small business vitality better.

    Not much we can do about it now but I really hate set-backs. I think that all of the best neighborhoods on the East Coast in Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Montreal have residential buildings that are right up on the sidewalk.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke October 2, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

      I get your point about Boston and Chicago, but I found the housing and lot sizes in Portland to be very similar to Minneapolis. The main difference I noticed between Portland and Minneapolis was block size, particularly in their downtown.

      • Morgan October 2, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

        hmm, I disagree. But my observations are solely perceptive. Nick, you’ll have to do the analysis!

        I think that front yards in South Minneapolis are larger than they need to be in order for the residents to gain the greatest marginal utility from its existence. Especially on the Avenues. Almost nothing happens in that space ever!

  9. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel October 2, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    Nick – Awesome. Thanks. A fun exercise. -Nate

  10. Kasia McMahon
    Kasia October 2, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    Does anyone know of any “suburban” type developments built within the city lately? Curved road, big lots. Maybe if the K-mart land becomes available…

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary October 2, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

      Of course, depends on how we use the term suburban. The lawn-containing neighborhoods Nick described are, in a traditional sense, suburban. But let’s assume by suburban we mean auto/parking-oriented and/or limited connectivity.

      And it also depends on what you mean by lately. Suburban design has gone relatively rogue within the City of Minneapolis lately, like the Roat Osha building on Hennepin. It’s essentially a new suburban/exurban building, large off-street parking lot with exclusive entrance in the middle of the parking lot. It’s turned to frame the corner, but the back of the building frames the corner. If we’re to go back in time slightly, I’d point to the Minneapolis Convention Center.

      As for residential development, the only largescale one that comes to mind is the area around Van White Blvd, mix of subsidized and market housing. It’s sort of suburban-light — gridded but curving streets. Has alleys, but also has somewhat larger lots and open/green space.

      Note, incidentally, that many houses there do have attached garages (as per Alex’s post). So you can have your cake and eat it, too, but you don’t have much of a back yard left.

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino October 2, 2013 at 6:31 pm #

      Not super recent, but I’ve always thought this little anomaly was funny:

      https://maps.google.com/?ll=44.994714,-93.284698&spn=0.008938,0.021136&t=h&z=16

  11. minneapolisite October 2, 2013 at 7:14 pm #

    This touches on the whole false dilemma of the sentiment that not all Americans want to be crammed in shoebox apartment towers; some of them want to have a house and a yard. I’ve found this so very confusing someone who’s lived his life in the Midwest (Ohio & Minnesota),yet here this from people in mid-size Midwestern cities. We’re not talking NYC or Chicago or even San Francisco. This either-or scenario just plain doesn’t exist! Yet there are people who live in the burbs because Minneapolis is “too crowded” and they don’t want to *have* to live in a tall apartment building. As your pic of Mpls shows, most of the city, like other Midwestern cities around its size, is that much of it is made up of homes with yards. People are fleeing cities with lots of single-family homes with a yard to a suburb for…a single-family home with a yard. It’s even more confusing here than in Ohio where such a large ratio of urban neighborhoods are healthy and safe.

    Now, the whole sprawling because of a “lack of a major geographical obstacle, like an ocean or a mountain range” just doesn’t fly and I wish people would stop citing it. Tampa is up against an ocean and look how much they sprawl. How can this be? Shouldn’t Tampa be a miniature San Francisco? The answer is easy: poor urban design standards results in poor urban design regardless of the setting. You can have an ocean and mountains and all sorts of other geographical features where you can’t place development, but that won’t stop God-fearing Americans who have a right to live the American dream, which somehow along the way degenerated into living in a sprawling suburb, to fit in whatever sprawl they can manage. After all, nothing screams “freedom” like those freeway armpit apartments where you can’t walk or bike anywhere, but you have the freedom to own a car as your only option for mobility.

  12. Matt Brillhart October 3, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    I like where you’re going with this exercise, but I have to admit I’m a little lost on what you intended with the title “It’s not really the yards ____________”.

    What exactly did you intend the rest of that thought/sentence to be? You never really expounded upon it, although your intent may have been for the reader to figure it out themselves.

    It’s not really the yards (that are to blame for ugly sprawl)?

    It’s not really the yards (that define the difference between urban & sub-urban)?

    It’s not really the yards (it’s the grid pattern streets)?

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