A View from the Twin Cities

Is MSP really Greater? A brief look at the Human Ecology of Minnesota’s Twin Cities reveals tremendous upside along with numerous challenges
Craig Helmstetter

This past August I was honored to participate in Thriving Cities’ own conference and workshop. Held over two days in Portland, Oregon, the event featured urban scholars and practitioners from all the across the country with topics ranging from the arts to economic development.

Since then, I have been thinking more and asking questions about how Thriving Cities’ methodology and its Six Endowment Human Ecology framework speak to own my organization, Minnesota Compass—an initiative that seeks to inform local efforts to improve communities throughout our state by tracking social, economic, and demographic trends vital to quality of life. Specifically, I have been wondering how might we incorporate qualitative and even subjective assessment with data, and how urban analysis could include entire realms of experience, not currently tracked by Minnesota Compass, like religion and the arts.

Below is my preliminary effort to answer these questions, by applying Thriving Cities’ framework to my own backyard, the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, also known as “Greater MSP” or simply, the Twin Cities.

1. The True: The Realm of Human Knowledge and Learning Quantitatively, the Twin Cities is among the most educated metros in the US, as 39 percent of adults in the region have at least a bachelor’s degree, ranking 6th among the 25 largest US metros. Additionally, the Twin Cities are home to over half of the state’s K-12 students, and therefore contribute heavily to the state’s nation-leading ACT results. On the other hand, data show deep and persistent “achievement gaps” by race, ethnicity, and income. For example, there is a 30 percentage point or wider chasm between the percentage of non-Hispanic White students and students of color meeting state standards on 3rd grade reading, 5th grade science, and 8th grade math.

Qualitatively, the Twin Cities are innovating. For example, we have implemented our own versions of Cincinnati’s nationally recognized Strive model (here called Generation Next), as well as the nationally heralded Harlem Children’s Zone (in the form of Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone and Saint Paul’s Promise Neighborhood). Institutional leaders and community advocates alike seem both aware of our challenges and willing to work hard to improve our enviable educational systems.

2. The Good: The Realm of Social Mores and Ethics

Quantitatively, if volunteering is a fair reflection of ethics, then the Twin Cities have ethics galore. We have the highest volunteerism rate among the nation’s largest metros, and that holds for older adults as well. We are also a relatively “churched” region as well—Pew reports that 77 percent of adults in our region claim some sort of religious affiliation, including 27 percent in the Mainline Protestant tradition—highest among the 17 largest U.S. metros.

Having been raised here as one of those Mainline Protestants and now working in a non-profit, I cannot help but (subjectively) see our region as a hub of “the Good.” Historically our region’s “good” has been somewhat insular in terms of race and class, but my observations are that times are changing with the proliferation of mosques and other places of worship, along with a new generation of more diverse leaders coming to the helm of many of our region’s nonprofit and governmental institutions.

3. The Beautiful: The Realm of Aesthetics

Aesthetics are notoriously difficult to measure quantitatively. Still, by several measures the Twin Cities thrive aesthetically. The City of Minneapolis’ Creative Vitality Index report ranks our region 5th among the nation’s 35 largest metropolitan areas. When looked at on a per capital basis, Minnesota also captures the 2nd highest amount of National Endowment for the Arts funding and has the 10th largest number of non-profit theaters. In terms of access to natural beauty, the Trust for Public Lands’ 2015 “Parkscore” rankings gave both Minneapolis and Saint Paul a score of 84—tying for top honors among the 74 cities they rank.

Although it may be easy for natives to overlook the aesthetics of their home, a quick comparison suggests that we in the Twin Cities shouldn’t. We may not have the beaches of Miami, but we do have the Chain of Lakes. We may not have the mountains of Denver, but we do have the Mississippi River Gorge. We may not have Broadway, but we do have the Guthrie. We may not have MoMA, but we do have Mia. And we may not have the Norte Dame, but we do have the Cathedral of Saint Paul. The Twin Cities certainly has a lot to offer in terms of arts and culture. We are after all, home to the artist formerly (and currently) known as Prince.

4. The Prosperous: The Realm of Economic Life

The Twin Cities are among the more economically prosperous metros in the US. Among the nation’s 25 largest U.S. metros we have the 9th highest Gross Domestic Product per capita, 6th highest median income, 2nd lowest poverty rate, and overall highest employment rate. Certainly, things are pretty good here economically. That is however, if you are white and/or highly educated. Poverty rates for people of color might be double those of whites nationally, but they are quadrupled here. Our ranking among the 25 largest US metros on employment plummets when looking at specific groups: Black = 12th, Asian = 20th, American Indian = 23rd. Opportunities are not yet abundant for all.

Qualitatively, are we headed in the right direction? Well, if economic disparities are among the greatest threats to our region’s continued prosperity, I would observe that our region might be responding in a way that is better positioning us for progress. For example, addressing racial disparities in employment is now firmly seen as a priority by several of the region’s leading institutions, including the City of Minneapolis, major foundations, and the region’s civic-minded CEOs and regional boosters. Very recently the Governor has established a new office of Career and Business Opportunity “to help workers and businesses of color find jobs and opportunity in Minnesota.”

5. The Just & Well-Ordered: The Realm of Political and Civic Life

The data suggest that the Twin Cities are thriving in terms of political and civic engagement, as our state ranks first in voting. In terms of being “well-ordered,” our crime rate has steadily declined for the past 20 years. In terms of justice, however, we find another stunning example of racial disparity. The ACLU’s analysis of Minneapolis police data shows that both African Americans and American Indians are nearly nine times more likely than Whites to be charged for low-level offenses. Even more extreme disparities exist in the enforcement actions of the Metro Transit Police Department.

These long-standing disparities no doubt contributed to protests that have erupted here in recent months. In November Minneapolis became the latest in a growing list of cities dealing with the death of an unarmed African American at the hands of the police. Jamar Clark’s death, resulted in a nearly 3 week encampment outside of the neighborhood’s police precinct along with several related marches and protests led by the local Black Lives Matter movement. These actions have helped to show me—an educated middle-class white guy—that the Twin Cities have a lot of work to do before everyone benefits from the same justice.

6. The Sustainable: The Realm of Natural Environment

On this front, the quantitative assessments are generally good. So far this century, the region’s air quality has steadily improved and recently ranked 6th best among the 25 largest U.S. metros. This may be in small part due to the strength of biking as a means of transportation—we are ranked as the top biking city in the US (and 18th in the world).

Our region’s transportation system, though often bemoaned as heavily car-oriented, actually stacks up well in terms of transit performance. We have the 11th highest ranking in terms of access to jobs via transit or walking (higher than our 12th ranking in overall number of jobs). Additionally, and surprisingly to most of my fellow local commuters, we have the 3rd lowest highway congestion.

Qualitatively, the Twin Cities seem to be making progress. LEED-certified buildings are proliferating, recycling is nearly universal, and composting is gaining steam (pun intended). Organic and locally-sourced food is increasingly available in restaurants, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets. It is not hard to live a green lifestyle in the Twin Cities. Like most metro areas, however, we are nowhere near full realization of this realm. Growth, development, and consumerism remain primary drivers of our region’s economy and way of life, leaving the sustainability of the natural environment in question.

In sum, I would say our region is thriving, though unevenly and with plenty of room for improvement. Racial disparities, for one, are a huge area of concern. White privilege still carries the day, and our region has yet to fully understand and embrace the assets that our increasingly diverse populations bring. For example, our newly branded cultural districts, including Little Mekong, Little Africa, and the American Indian Cultural Corridor as of yet have little cache compared to cultural districts in other major cities.


How has the Thriving Cities approach worked then in this preliminary test run for assessing the Twin Cities? It holds promise, as it brings together things normally not evaluated together, like the economy and ethical formation. This kind of cross-fertilization is exactly what retired 3M executive Alex Cirillo has described as an accelerant for social innovation.

While the brief remarks above are a far cry from a comprehensive application of the Thriving Cities framework (a longer foray would incorporate much more history and detail), it does begin to suggest areas of opportunity that I previously had not spent much time thinking about in relation to evaluating the quality of life in the Twin Cities. Recently the Minnesota Compass Governance and Steering committees asked us to add an Arts section to our indicators project, and the Thriving Cities framework has made me even more excited about this new addition to our work.

Beyond these benefits, a remaining challenge that I see for the framework is to become more meaningful in terms of practical application. Can the framework move beyond a compelling form of urban introspection toward something that will motivate action and actual on-the-ground improvement in people’s lives? That is, of course, a high bar for any assessment project, and to be sure it is among the stated goals of Thriving Cities.

Going forward, I am eager to seeing how this unique, multi-disciplinary effort delivers on its goals of not only helping stakeholders and practitioners understand what it means to thrive, but also helping us get there.

Craig Helmstetter, PhD, is Senior Research Manager at Wilder Research and is Project Director for Minnesota Compass.