Forget about being slightly above average. The Twin Cities placed in the bottom third of 51 U.S. metro areas in its efforts to combat ubran sprawl.

But critics agree that the real question is whether its No. 37 ranking in a study released Wednesday stems from development patterns that are now years into the past, and whether the winds are changing in this decade.

Once denounced as a cold Atlanta in terms of sprawl, the Twin Cities had more than twice as good a score as that Southern city. And Smart Growth America, the advocacy group behind the new report, said there are signs here of better things to come.

“Minneapolis-St. Paul is making significant investments in transit,” said Ilana Preuss, chief of staff for Washington, D.C.-based Smart Growth, which commissioned the study. It’s the kind of thing that can “catapult you guys forward.”

A local activist who has been working with the national group, however, said the report is “very critical of us,” considering the region’s rank among its national peers.

Zachary Zweifler, head of development at ARISE (Alliance to Re-Industrialize for a Sustainable Economy), said the area’s weak performance signals a need to move aggressively “on all the opportunities coming up for different types of development, such as the Ford site,” the 135-acre location once used for auto manufacturing that could be a place for an urban village with lots of living units and jobs.

Smart Growth America is an anti-sprawl advocacy group, but its research efforts have gained wide acceptance, acknowledging as they do the value of much current suburban development.

In this study of U.S. metro areas with a population of 1 million or more, it gave scores based on measures of compact development, so the higher the score, the better a metro area stood in combating sprawl. The scores range from around 200 for New York and San Francisco — extraordinarily compact metro areas by American standards — to 41 for Atlanta, with its vast plume of suburbs.

The Twin Cities area comes in at 89, not much higher than southern metros such as Houston.Preuss with no single deficiency to single out. Butshe said, The score is a composite of four main clusters of data, including such indicators as density (persons per acre), and the extent to which activity hubs such as company headquarters are grouped together or just flung randomly across the landscape.

The report comes just as the main Twin Cities regional planning agency, the Metropolitan Council, prepares to finalize a new long-range outline of what needs to be done on sprawl. A draft of the Met Council document speaks of a need to “pivot” from “expanding to maintaining our region’s infrastructure.”

No geographic barriers

Spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge said the agency’s staff did not get the same opportunity some reporters were given to review the study before its public release, and could not comment.

Unlike many of the nation’s metro areas, blocked by oceans, mountains and other physical barriers, the Twin Cities has been able to spill freely out over neighboring farmland, and it was long considered one of the most thoroughly sprawling of its size.

In 2002, however, Smart Growth America released an influential study arguing that a more nuanced approach was needed than just looking at acres of farmland devoured as a region’s footprint expanded. One also needed to drill down into details of how the place works: Were people located close to jobs, how did they get around, and so on. The Twin Cities didn’t emerge as quite so sprawled once that was done.

The 2014 version of the study is different enough in its approach that it’s meaningless to compare rankings between the two years, Preuss said.

One other caveat: The data date to 2010, too early to catch a powerful recent movement toward inner-urban development in the Twin Cities. The trend is national, but the shift has been abrupt here.

“I live downtown [in Minneapolis], and buildings are sprouting up all around us,” said Will Craig, associate director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. Nor does that seem to have much to do with regional planning, he added, as opposed to personal preference.

“My sense is, it’s all about not wanting to spend two hours a day on the freeway rather than hanging out at a brewpub. It’s sort of a case of, ‘What Metropolitan Council?!’ ”

Zweifler, who is not impressed by the Met Council’s draft plan, said it’s important not to assume that a millennial-driven urban apartment craze will redefine metro development for eons to come.

“We know what they’re doing in their 20s,” he said, “but what happens 10 years from now when they are having children and looking for schools? The old suburban patterns could reassert themselves unless we make sure that urban settings provide them with what they will need.”

Smart Growth’s Preuss is more confident.

“There is just an entire demographic shift going on,” she said. “Over 20 years we project three-quarters of households will be without kids, and a quarter will be single persons. That means a demand for different kinds of housing that’s not just coming from millennials but also aging boomers.”