Map Monday: Twin Cities “No Construction” Zones Over Time

Wow, check out this cool animated .gif time series. Via Planetizen, it’s a “housing typography” map of the Twin Cities metro showing two-decade periods. The map comes from a report by a California economist named Issi Romem called “America’s New Metropolitan Landscape.” It makes an argument that US cities are dominated by what Issi calls a “dormant suburban interior.”

By dormant, Romem is referring to a areas with a lack of new housing construction, and he made an amazing series of US metro maps to prove it.

Here’s the Twin Cities:


Here’s an explanation of the dark blue / “almost no construction” area:

The following map colors the residentially developed footprint of the Los Angeles metro area as of 1960 according to the dominant type of new housing built there during the 1940s and ‘50s. It distinguishes between single-family homes in light blue, 2 to 49 unit structures in orange, and 50+ unit structures in red, and assigns each Census tract a color based on the type of housing that accounted for the most new homes during the period.

The map reserves an additional color, dark blue, for areas that produced no new housing at all, or that produced it at a negligible pace, defined as less than 0.1 new homes per acre per decade. This pace is equivalent to less than one new home per acre per century, which means that transitioning a neighborhood from a stereotypical suburban density of 4 homes per acre to a borderline walkable one of 10 homes per acre at this rate would take more than 600 years.

The point of the paper is that, outside the greenfield fringes, it’s only very few areas in most US cities where any growth housing is happening at all.

Romem goes on to explain why in so much of our US cities, including much of the Twin Cities suburbs, the construction of any new housing has stopped. It’s a series of causes revolving around local land use controls, and Issa is arguing that we need to shift this political landscape if we’re going to make any progress towards solving the housing crisis.

Here’s the key point:

While cities continue to fight the battle for development in dense hubs, they also question the de facto exemption granted to low-density suburban areas from the onus to produce more housing. The dormant suburban sea is so vast that if the taboo on densification there were broken, even modest gradual redevelopment – tearing down one single-family home at a time and replacing it with a duplex or a small apartment building – could grow the housing stock immensely.

Go check out the whole thing!

9 thoughts on “Map Monday: Twin Cities “No Construction” Zones Over Time

  1. Steve

    I’m not sure why this is some sort of crisis. We consciously chose and agreed on this system. I get that some people don’t like it. Nevertheless, overall this is what people want.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      By “crisis” I mean a shorthand for a housing crisis, where the cost of housing is rising and quickly outpacing any increases in wages, leaving many people out of the market and out in the cold.

  2. Monte Castleman

    It’s not exactly shocking that most new housing happens on raw land where they don’t have to buy something and tear it down. Quite a few people absolutely hate the idea of living in anything other than a single family detached house and a cornfield is the only place to build them.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      But it didn’t used to be that way. We used to build up density in the city.

      If only we had better ways to sort those who only want to live in a detached single family homes surrounded by other detached single family homes out to the cornfield so that we could gradual intensify land use in the city and first ring suburbs.

      1. Cobo R

        People who want a single family home in a nice neighborhood closer to the city are willing to pay a premium for a small single family home closer to the city… I know I was.. I don’t understand what you mean by sorting out people like me to further out places?? Because that is obviously counter to what we want….

        I think the bigger issue is that its economically infeasible (and boarder line illegal) to build a small single family house on a small piece of land.

        A typical 1300 sq foot house on 1/8 acre of land, this is pretty standard for most of the city and older suburbs.

        The average size for a new single family home is 2300 sq ft on a 1/4 acre of land or more.

        Which means new houses are more spread out and consequently even more expensive and resource intensive.

        Infill development is always complicated and people spend a large chunk their earthly resources on purchasing a home. They want the neighborhood to improve (potentially subjective) or stay the same as when they purchased.

        1. Cobo R

          Also infill development was more common back in the day because largely due to 1 factor

          The home ownership rate was a lot lower… Home ownership was below 50% in the USA until sometime in the 1950s. And typically home-ownership then like now is lower in large cities.

          Its much easier to change a neighborhood filled with renters then it is with home owners.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          What I mean is that we cannot afford to have the city remain primarily single family homes because “that’s what people want,” in no small part because we can offer that slightly farther out, where it’s harder to make denser housing work.

          And yes, I too live in a small single family home on a small lot in the city.

          But you’re right that no one is building housing with the dimensions and lot sizes of ours any more. I suppose that’s an issue too.

    2. Justin D.

      Sure, and no one is saying that the detached SFH should go away, but you can have both types of housing in a metropolitan area. I think quite a few people are happy to live in non-SFH and if we built more of them, people would have more options for housing.

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