Measuring the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metro Area, and Getting Real with the Map

Some of the many conflicts currently wracking the state of Minnesota

Metro vs. Outstate

Urban vs. Suburban vs. Rural

J. Crew vs. Hollister vs. Carhartt

Peel-and-stick brick vs. Beige vinyl siding

Cars vs. All else

Who in the metro is paying to repave roads in Koochiching County, or, to phrase it incorrectly, where specifically do the hard-earned tax dollars of Koochiching County go after they’ve left the paychecks of those Americans and entered the metro area DFL welfare kleptocracy?

Er, actually, what is the metro, anyway?

Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Statistical Area (Source:

Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Statistical Area (Source:

Metropolitan Statistical Areas

Metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the United States are defined by the federal government and are, broadly, a measure of the interconnected-ness of an area (see page 6) using commuting patterns to see who in what area works where. The math in the link is complicated (to me) but put simply, enough people in Scott County commute to Hennepin County for the two to be considered buddies.

The use of counties leads to some odd arrangements. St. Louis County, Minnesota, for example, is huge and stretches from south of Duluth to the Canadian border. As a result, Duckfoot Island in Rainy Lake right next to the (underwater) border is part of the Duluth-Superior MSA.

Fun facts: St. Louis, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; and most notable municipalities in Virginia are independent cities not part of any county, while some smallish-medium-sized cities like Jacksonville, Florida and Indianapolis, Indiana have more or less merged with their counties to include, respectively, virgin forest and farmland. Connecticut and Rhode Island do not have counties. In Alaska, counties are called boroughs, and in Louisiana they’re called parishes. In non-county-related oddities, some places like Seattle and Salt Lake City are wedged between water on their west and mountains on their east, and they sprawl in a north-south line. Out east, there isn’t just more population density, there are more metropolitan areas spaced more closely–and so the distant exurbs of one metropolitan area bleed into the next, and commuters in my parents’ exurban subdivision head north to Washington, D.C. but also south to Richmond, Virginia.

And so the borders we draw are weird, and measured very differently in different places. Looking at a map of the United States, counties get odder-looking and less intuitive as you head west–looking at you, Arizona.

Source: Census Bureau

United States Counties (Source: Census Bureau)

A Peculiar Local Arrangment

Here in the Twin Cities, we have quite a few municipal and other borders, more than the average metropolitan area. Probably as a result of us having had two cities to begin with, we didn’t do as much land annexation as other large cities in the west. We’ve got first ring suburbs like St. Louis Park, Columbia Heights, and South St. Paul that are legally separate from the central cities even though they were largely built out at the same time. This in itself isn’t that unusual, but we have many individual urban suburbs while very conspicuously not including large chunks of sprawl in the legal boundaries of our core cities, and this is uncommon among cities that did the bulk of their growing after World War II.

So Minneapolis proper has 400,070 residents on just 55 square miles, and San Antonio, Texas proper has 1,409,019 residents on a whopping 460 square miles. Forgetting for a second that I just said MSAs are weird, keep in mind that the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA has a hair under 3.5 million residents, while San Antonio’s has about 2.3 million residents. But, because of the way each city’s municipal borders are drawn, San Antonio, Texas gets to be 7th on the list of America’s largest cities.

Sorry for the long detour, but people are odd and like putting things in lists and ranking them in order of importance, and methinks Minneapolis is not the 46th most important city in the United States. (In fact, Minneapolis is the most economically important city in the Midwest without a Chili’s.) In any case, hopefully it helps explain why in the hell the bottom half of Lake Mille Lacs (an hour and a half drive from Minneapolis City Hall) is included in the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA, which you’ll see below.

A Better Measurement

What we’ve got here are a series of maps* featuring different official and self-generated definitions of our metropolitan area. Please click to enlarge each if that’s your thing.

A key, keeping in mind that each bullet includes all bullets below it:

  • The green shaded area is the Minneapolis-St. Paul combined statistical area, which includes the Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Cloud MSAs, as well as the Hutchinson, Faribault-Northfield, and Red Wing micropolitan statistical areas.
  • The yellow shaded area is the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA.
  • The orange shaded area is the seven county metropolitan area represented by the Metropolitan Council.
  • The red shaded area is based on census tracts and is, generally, the part of the seven county metropolitan area that was suburbanized around the automobile. This more or less lines up with the Census Bureau-designated “urbanized area” of the metro, though not quite exactly.
  • The blue shaded area is based on census tracts and is, generally, the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the parts of inner ring suburbs that were not suburbanized around the automobile.

CBSAThe overall overlay includes many, many farms, 21 counties, and something like 3.8 million people. Pretty large! Not particularly useful unless your goal is the make the metro look as large as possible to your aunt in New Mexico when she forgets whether Minneapolis is in Minnesota or Michigan.

The yellow overlay is a little more useful, as that’s the chunk that’s been designated as related to the central cities. Still a pretty huge area–a new tourism slogan:

Minneapolis-St. Paul: Tube on the Apple River, Ice Fish on Lake Mille Lacs, Look at St. Peter from across the Minnesota River with binoculars!

Met Council JurisdictionZooming in quite a bit, we’ve got the seven county metropolitan area represented by the Metropolitan Council, our governor-appointed and oft-maligned regional government. They do important things like plan land use and transportation, operate most of the transit system, and manage the wastewater of the core metro counties. Good things for a regional body to do, unless you want all 182 cities and townships in this area to have their own bus routes and wastewater treatment plants. These core counties include Hennepin, Ramsey, Carver, Washington, Anoka, Dakota, and Scott Counties, with the last five forming the “collar counties” that don’t contain either core city or much development from before the automobile era.

When the Metropolitan Council was set up by the Minnesota Legislature in the 1960s, the seven county metropolitan area would have seemed much larger than it does now, though there’s still plenty of non-urbanized land on most sides.

Metro GridHere in blue we have the parts of the metropolitan area that, back in the day, were not built to be accessed solely by car. In short, I went through and manually picked census tracts that were mostly laid out in a grid. Not a perfect system–some of the tracts are shaped oddly or include both types of development–but it’s pretty close to a reasonable definition. There are parts of Bloomington and Brooklyn Center and a couple other areas on the map that manage to make the cut but probably were built to be accessed solely by car, but by accident ended up a bit walkable.

St. Paul Park

Click to Enlarge

You’ve got the core cities, chunks of west metro first ring suburbs, the little tongue of southern Anoka County, the east metro suburbs south of Highway 36, and a little tail sticking out the bottom of St. Paul along the Mississippi River that I wasn’t that familiar with until I started putting the map together. I stumbled across this chunk of walkable grid in St. Paul Park that goes right up farmland in a very European way. Think of it! Kids there can walk to their middle school in one direction and into woods on the other. Not very common anymore.

So this small blue part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA is the area that’s walkable in any kind of useful way, there may be alleys, there will be surviving streetcar-oriented commercial nodes from 100 years ago, it’ll tend to have sidewalks, maybe neighborhood schools, parcels arranged to be easily reassembled for development, streets that almost never dead end, and all that.


There are many implications when you consider the difference between the land use patterns in the red and blue areas here. Land use underlies just about everything in America that’s both interesting and controversial. How might we use the differences in these two metro area land uses to shape public policy?

Here’s an easy illustration–on the left we have Minnetonka, and on the right we have Hopkins.

Minnetonka & Hopkins

Click to Enlarge

Assuming your funding is considerably less than infinite,

  • Where would you want to locate affordable housing?
  • Where would you want to invest in bike infrastructure?
  • Where would you want to route transit investments?
  • Where would you want to incrementally increase density?

Which isn’t to say “Screw Minnetonka” (though they appear to be losing the baseball diamonds per capita ranking pretty badly) but rather to ask why we’re making the investments that we are and whether or not we should arbitrarily throw money at some misguided idea of geographic parity. Reasonable people ought to be able to agree about most of these ideas, regardless of where they live. For example, we know from experience that, for many of the land use reasons listed several paragraphs above, transit lines in auto-oriented suburbs aren’t going to perform as well as those in walkable suburbs and central cities, even when the population and employment density is similar.

Metro vs. Outstate–or really, Metro Suburbs vs. All else

In fact, certainly do not Screw Minnetonka, for Minnetonka is part of a much larger group than Hopkins–about 60 percent more metro Minnesotans live in places like Minnetonka than places like Hopkins.

Source: 2013 American Community Survey

Source: 2013 American Community Survey

If we assume that Iron Range issues and interests are separate from Red River Valley issues and interests, which are both different from Rochester issues and interests, we can safely say that people who live in parts of the metro area like Minnetonka are the single largest demographic in Minnesota. They’ve got, give or take, two million people. They handily beat the million in the core cities and immediate suburbs, and that’s not even taking into account how many people in the core cities would just as soon tear down half their block for surface parking instead of paying a one cent sales tax to fund transit.

Which isn’t to say that “majority rules” should rule, and that we should pack up our toy trains and bike lanes and go home. There are plenty of people in Minnetonka (maybe fewer in Andover) who would support additional transit funding and such–but it’s going to be hard to reach them without some sort of compromise here. There are a lot of good, non-confrontational arguments you can make with your moderate Republican father-in-law in Plymouth. Point out that the inner cities, for better or worse, host acres and acres and acres of non-taxable state and regional amenities like the University of Minnesota, and many other colleges, museums, theaters, events, stadiums, hospitals, and such. Point out that, in many cases, government spending on transportation is going to be way, way more cost-effective in the blue area on the map above. Maybe even casually mention that it doesn’t seem like a great investment to build new stuff out in the orange area on the map–but no one in the city is going to be successful with “no new roads.”

(Though you are, of course, probably correct about the long-term fiscal issue here, but we’ll figure it out eventually)

Wrapping up a bit, lots of (good!) statistics and maps have flown around in the past couple months, showing how the metro area subsidizes all sorts of things that go on in the rest of the state, but it’s important to keep in mind what sort of political dynamics are at work. Minneapolis itself is a net contributor to Local Government Aid (which I hope you automatically bolded, italicized, and underlined in your head as you were reading) but the core cities and a handful of inner ring suburbs aren’t going to throw together a winning political coalition by themselves anytime soon. There is a long game here, and we just might come out ahead, but as someone who appreciates Minnesota as an idea, I hope it all works out in a way that benefits the whole state.

*Note: Many thanks to Elliot Altbaum for hooking me up with useful data and Glendon Haslerud for reteaching me $2,000 worth of ArcGIS in about half an hour.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.