The economic and demographic energy that’s needed to keep Minneapolis healthy depends on a competitive metropolitan economy, an increasing city population and a healthy mix of household types.

When a metro economy languishes, the central city begins to die. Metro Detroit’s population dropped 3.5 percent between 2000 and 2010, but the city’s population plummeted 25 percent.

When metro Cleveland’s population dropped 3.3 percent during the same period, the city sank 17.1 percent. As metro Pittsburgh lost 3.1 percent of its population, the city lost 8.6 percent.

Minneapolis fared better because as metro population expanded by more than 8 percent, the city held steady after 2000, its numbers creeping upward in recent years.

So far, so good. But how can Minneapolis government and civic leaders improve odds for a healthy future? Can zoning and regulatory policy facilitate constructive adaptations of land use needed in the years ahead? I hope so.

Consider what we inherited: Minneapolis’s early Yankee leadership shaped civic legacies we now enjoy — schools, libraries, art, music, the university, participatory politics, and a park system that reserved waterfront for use by all instead of a privileged few, bestowing on us outstanding neighborhoods that attract and retain classes of residents long gone from other central cities.

Early business leaders worked with city officials on infrastructure to support industry and commerce at a time when people moved to jobs and found housing close to work. Today an increasing share of households decides first where to live, then travels to jobs, shopping and entertainment.

If the city’s challenge is attracting and retaining healthy and secure households able and willing to exercise stewardship over the city they’ve inherited, while maintaining and improving it for later generations, an effective way is by carefully managing the city’s housing inventory.


Transportation and land use

Since early days, the city has been a work in progress, continually retrofitting the old to accommodate the new. Before 1890, Minneapolis was oriented toward pedestrians.

Worker homes huddled near jobs; modest incomes supported only limited shopping and entertainment. Meanwhile, elite households settled upwind in pleasant settings, a carriage ride away from the riverside commercial-industrial core.

Then came electric streetcars in 1891, which meant rail lines and streetcar traffic crowded onto narrow streets designed for an earlier era. Tom Lowry’s streetcar lines radiated outward from the city center on 7th Street between Hennepin and Marquette, opening up nearby farmland for residential development.

Between World War I and the 1950s, streetcar traffic along major streetcar lines to and from downtown jobs, shopping and entertainment shaped seven residential sectors defined by the main lines serving them: Minnehaha; South Central (Nicollet, Chicago, Bloomington); Southwest (Hennepin, Lake District, W. Lake Street); Near North (Glenwood, Plymouth); North (Washington, Emerson, Penn, Broadway); Northeast (2nd Street, Central, Johnson) and Southeast (Como, Washington, University). Except for Lake Street, major crosstown traffic was limited and difficult.

Next came private cars, which were easily accommodated in new, outlying residential developments of bigger lots, larger houses, alleys, garages and wider streets, but cars heading downtown competed with streetcar traffic, and once entering downtown (designed for pedestrian movement), they found congestion and scarce parking.

After the war came interstate highways, initially envisioned as connecting U.S. metropolitan areas with high-speed limited-access freeways, but inevitably plowing through city neighborhoods and facilitating sprawling development in outlying areas.

But city remodeling continued: Lower Loop redevelopment, parking ramps at downtown edges, a skyway system for all-season pedestrian circulation.


Housing submarket

During successive transportation eras that reshaped earlier Minneapolis landscapes, the city’s residential sectors pushed outward, transplanting into successive suburban rings the socioeconomic character and tastes of each sector’s inner precincts.

Working-class sectors (Northeast) spawned working-class suburbs (Fridley). Middle-class sectors (South, Near North) spawned ­middle-class suburbs (Richfield, Bloomington, Burnsville, Golden Valley, St. Louis Park). The upper-income elite sector (Southwest) spawned upmarket suburbs (Edina and beyond).

But residential sectors of Minneapolis spilled outward at different rates after 1950. Middle-class sectors (South; Near North) were the most dynamic: They contained the largest number of households; those households harbored the strongest tendencies to translate upward socioeconomic mobility into geographical mobility, and postwar FHA mortgage insurance, VA mortgage guarantees and low mortgage-loan rates — plus decent jobs in the postwar economy — meant that households could translate desires for nicer housing into demand backed up by purchasing power.

Moreover, a range of federal, state and local subsidies encouraged middle-class households — more than the other classes — to buy larger houses on larger lots than would otherwise be affordable.

Today we understand that decades of those subsidies imposed big costs on cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul. As households relocated outward, they left behind large supplies of decent housing whose prices dropped, inviting low-income newcomers to enter. Housing was available and cheap, so neighborhoods south of downtown Minneapolis and in Near North were repopulated and transformed.

Working-class sectors were slower to expand, leaving behind fewer vacancies. Purchasing power and access to credit by residents were modest, while neighborhood attachments to family and institutions remained strong.

At the other end of the socioeconomic ladder, upper-income households typically enjoyed financial means to buy what they wanted the first time rather than climbing rung by neighborhood rung, so outward expansion of their sector was slow and vacancies left behind were few.


Today’s policy challenges

As important as Minneapolis is, it comprises just a fraction of the Twin Cities metro whole. So today’s planning question is: How can public policy exercised at the city scale affect the flow of households into and through the changing housing landscape in Minneapolis today and in years to come?

The city’s 55 square miles are only a tiny share of the 13-county metro area’s 6,364 square miles, and an even smaller fraction of the Twin Cities area’s 22-county daily commuting field. Moreover, Minneapolis’ 2010 population of 382,578 was just slightly more than 10 percent the greater metro total.

The Minneapolis population declined 23 percent between 1960 and 1980, but the number of occupied housing units (i.e., households) dropped by only 2.4 percent, because average household size declined sharply from 2.91 to 2.29.

Between 1980 and 2010, the city’s population rose 3 percent, but the number of households (occupied housing units) rose by 1 percent, because the average household size rose from 2.29 to 2.34 (up 2.2 percent).

But raw numbers, whether national or local, don’t provide much guidance on how Minneapolis can maintain its ranking and demographic vitality within a Twin Cities metro system of hundreds of cities. How can it remain attractive with older housing and aging infrastructure in the face of misdirected federal and state subsidies that flow into suburban edges while disadvantaging the central city?

For starters, acknowledge changes underway in household composition, housing needs and wants, consumer behavior and transportation preferences. Across the United States, married couples with children under age 18 fell to 20 percent of all households, from 40 percent, between 1970 and 2012.

Meanwhile, the share of people living alone rose 10 percentage points, to 27 percent. These national trends are showing up in changing patterns of local housing demand.


Housing is still the key

Demand for housing in Minneapolis is in constant flux. Immigrant households are expanding in number and average size, but once established often move to the suburbs. Domestic migrants come and go.

Older middle-class suburban couples and elderly singles increasingly say goodbye to big houses and upkeep chores in favor of nearby apartments and condos. Some middle- and working-class households have kids, worry about schools and pursue lifestyles common in the 1950s and ’60s, but their share of all households continues shrinking.

Young people often remain single into their 30s and beyond, buying less housing (often none at all when living with parents) but more of everything else.

On the supply side, new units are added annually, old units are remodeled, and some are demolished and replaced.

Market-rate multiple-unit housing with off-street parking (often with ground- floor commercial uses) is springing up on century-old commercial sites at transit intersections throughout —Minneapolis, St. Paul and first-ring suburbs, meeting pent-up demand for such housing in those locales. Zoning supports these land-use transitions, builders respond, and added residential densities support transit use as transit accessibility attracts an increasing number of city residents who don’t drive or prefer not to.


Zoning and regulation

The number of housing units in Minneapolis changes by only a few percentage points per year, leading and following change in the number and type of households living in the city. How those changes are managed by public action on zoning and by supportive regulatory action will determine to a large degree the variety of households living in the city in coming decades.

Variety is healthy; a homogeneous city is a vulnerable city.

We can’t reverse the forces and incentives that promoted a century-plus of low-density Twin Cities residential development through a series of urban transportation eras, but we’re clearly in the early years of the next era when we’ll accommodate the households of tomorrow by extensively remodeling parts of Minneapolis, St. Paul and first-ring suburbs with new transit options that support higher-density housing, which in turn supports transit — which is something that Minneapolis leaders can facilitate.

That scenario demands long-range thinking about what kind of legacy should we leave behind — as opposed to thinking short-term, clinging to a familiar past.


John S. Adams is an emeritus professor of geography, planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota.