Everybody wants to know how they are doing. Cities are no different.
Rankings vary depending on the subject being considered and the thoroughness of the measurement. Whether it considers individuals, corporations, or metropolitan regions, the conclusions reached are only as valid as the information used to compute the ranking. Like any other metro area, what St. Louis is now and where it is headed is part of an ongoing discussion.
That discussion continues at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 14, downtown at the Central Library, 1301 Olive St., when a media panel weighs in on how some rankings tell the story of St. Louis, and other rankings misconstrue its reality.
The event is free and open to the public. It features Andre Hepkins of KMOV-TV, Maria Altman of St. Louis Public Radio, Alex Ihnen of nextSTL.com, and Deb Peterson of the editorial board of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri – St. Louis will be the moderator. For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/events/464144380377342 or http://www.ewgateway.org/research-center/where-we-stand/
Who’s on first?
Gauging a metro area’s performance, describing its personality, or ranking it compared to other metros is a dodgy business.
How do you measure the elusive and ethereal “quality of life?” Just what is an “economic engine” and what type of tachometer do you put on it? What about equity, fairness, and equal opportunity – how do you define those goals? Is that merely measured by income and education broken down by race, gender, and location?
New York City is larger, and different, than Chicago. Los Angeles is unlike San Francisco. St. Louis is not Miami, or even Memphis. Yet data exists and comparisons can be made based on population, income, cost of living, crime, housing, racial disparity, transportation, and a litany of other categories. In the 7th edition of Where We Stand produced by the research staff at the East West Gateway Council of Governments, there are 222 measures of the 50 most populous metropolitan statistical areas.
In 1900, the city of St. Louis was the fourth most populous city in the United States, behind New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Bigger often is considered better, and being number four in the “Top 10” had a certain status.
Today, sticking to the jurisdictional myopia of central city limits to rank a urban regions makes little sense. The city of St. Louis remains the core of the metro area due to downtown, the riverfront, and sporting events, but the city only has about 11 percent of the region’s 2.8 million people. Ranking cities as metro areas is more fitting today, and by that metric, 18 metropolitan areas have more people than the St. Louis metro area.
Does that drop in the population ranking make St. Louis a worse place to live or do business? Or does a 19th ranking for population provide St. Louis with size enough to compete without saddling the region with the burden of congestion, high prices, and increased demand on government?
The universal answer to those types of question is, it depends on what aspect of life in St. Louis is being measured and compared to other regions.
That St. Louis is one notch lower than Tampa and one notch higher than Baltimore for population does not make life on the banks of the Mississippi necessarily any better or worse than when St. Louis was a turn-of-a-previous-century boom town.
More than 100 years has passed since 1900, it’s not surprising things have changed. Based on that simple population metric, St. Louis does have an after-the-gold-rush feel to it. It no longer is a “Top 10” city when you count inhabitants.
Yet population is simply people, it says little about how well those people live and what the future holds. Other measures try to gauge that, and that was partly why East-West Gateway research staff started Where We Stand in 1992. The rankings are based on verifiable, reliable data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and numerous other sources. Where We Stand avoids the flaws of other city rankings that rely on anecdotal information, contrived surveys, and selective or erroneous use of data.
Often comparisons of urban crime focus only on data from within the central city of a metro area. For St. Louis, that would mean relying on the 61 square miles of the city. For a metro area such as Houston, its central city limits covers 627 square miles. The city limits of Kansas City covers 319 square miles. Comparing small central cities to much larger ones leads to unreliable rankings.
City residents, politicians, academics, business executives, and civic organizations want to find out how their metro areas fare when compared to others. That common desire leads magazines and web sites to produce attention-grabbing lists that rush to show which cities have the worst crime, the best places to work, the most bars, the fewest bicycles, the highest rents or the lowest cost of living.
Often these rankings are flawed due to unreliable sources, jurisdictional discrepancies, and conclusion jumping that circumvents rigorous analysis and study. These rankings are designed to draw readers to magazines or trigger clicks on web sites, and are not designed or executed to reveal any meaningful reality.
John Posey, director of research services for East-West Gateway, thinks the goal often is to get apparent certainty at the expense of credibility.
“Just because you grind a bunch of numbers through a mathematical formula doesn’t mean that you’re measuring anything of value,” says Posey. “Sometimes those who do these comparisons take a bunch of arbitrary variables, give each variable an arbitrary weight, give each city an arbitrary score on each variable, then multiply the arbitrary score times the arbitrary weight.”
What WWS is, and what it isn’t
The most recent of Where We Stand was released on July 29 at the East-West Gateway monthly board meeting. Since that day, the Mississippi River has not reversed its course to empty into Lake Itaska, there have been no reports of anyone changing water into wine, and the local nightly news carries on with few, if any, surprises.
In short, nothing miraculous has happened. The problems and peculiarities of St. Louis persist.
Releasing data doesn’t trigger miracles. There is a lot of useful and dependable data in the 7th edition of Where We Stand. Much can be learned by studying its 222 categories that measure how St. Louis compares to the nations’ 50 most populous urban areas. The document is accessible online at www.ewgateway.org/research-center/where-we-stand and in a 124-page print edition.
Readers will not find solutions in Where We Stand. No treatment is prescribed. WWS is not even a diagnosis of St. Louis. It certainly is not a prognosis. WWS is a collection of symptoms and measurements. WWS does not recommend how to get St. Louis to move in a better direction.
Subtitled the “Strategic Assessment of the St. Louis Region,” Where We Stand is intended to inform and ignite discussion. Here is some data:
- St. Louis is 44th in population change from 2010 to 2014.
- St. Louis has more senior residents than most large urban areas, ranking 8th among 50 for the percent of the population 65 and older in 2013.
- St. Louis ranks 19th in population in 2014 with 2.8 million residents and ranks 9th in land area with 7,863 square miles.
- St. Louis ranks 9th for purchasing power, which relates to personal income per capita adjusted for regional price levels in inflation-adjusted dollars.
- St. Louis is 2nd highest for owner-occupied units and 5th highest for housing opportunity, with 81.8 percent of homes sold that were affordable to families earning the median income in 2014.
- Crime is a mixed bag, with numbers for 2013 showing the metro area ranking 30th for total crime rate, 32nd for property crime rate, and 18th for violent crime.
- The murder rate in 2013 put the St. Louis region at 8th among the nation’s most populous regions.
- In 2012, St. Louis ranks 3rd among the top 50 metros for the highest number of school districts per 100,000 residents.
- Racial disparity continues to be a problem, as St. Louis ranks 5th highest in racial disparity for poverty, with blacks being 3.6 times as likely to be in poverty as whites.
- The median household income of black households in St. Louis is $31,200, compared to $61,200 for white households, putting St. Louis as 11th highest for that disparity.
- The unemployment level for blacks in the St. Louis labor force is 2.8 times higher than it is for whites. That ranks St. Louis 8th highest in that category.