Township Population Loss, Core City Resurgence

The pace of Minnesota’s population growth has changed over time and the geographical distribution of the state’s population has shifted, based on an analysis of county-level data presented in the first part of this series. An examination of county data, however, can overlook important population trends that are occurring within counties. The following analysis will explore two such trends: the population rebound currently being experienced by the two metro area core cities and the population decline that has occurred among Minnesota townships.

The two metropolitan center cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul experienced population decline throughout most of the second half of the twentieth century. Minneapolis’ decennial census population peaked in 1950 at nearly 522,000. Over the next four censuses, the city’s population declined significantly. By 1990, Minneapolis’ population had dropped by over 150,000 (29.4 percent) relative to the 1950 zenith. The city’s population increased during the 1990s, but remained essentially flat from 2000 to 2010.

Minneapolis’ population has increased steadily since 2010, based on annual population estimates from the Minnesota State Demographic Center. Minneapolis’ estimated 2016 population is nearly 420,000—37,000 (9.8 percent) more than it was based on the 2010 census. For most of the last 66 years, the Minneapolis share of total Hennepin County population has been in decline; however, since 2010 Minneapolis’ estimated annual population growth (1.6 percent) has exceeded that of suburban Hennepin County (1.0 percent).

Saint Paul’s decennial population peaked in 1960 at just over 313,000. The city experienced the largest portion of its population drop during a single decade: from 1970 to 1980, Saint Paul’s population fell by nearly 40,000 (12.8 percent). The city’s population increased slightly from 1980 to 1990 and more significantly from 1990 to 2000, although the city’s population dipped somewhat from 2000 to 2010.

As in Minneapolis, Saint Paul’s population has rebounded steadily since 2010, again based on State Demographer’s estimates. From 2010 to 2016, the city’s population is estimated to have increased by over 19,000 (6.8 percent). Long a shrinking share of total Ramsey County population, Saint Paul’s population growth has slightly surpassed that of the rest of the county since 2010.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, young adults (under 30) have been the largest single driver of population growth in Minneapolis and Saint Paul in recent years. Much of the population growth has been concentrated near the riverfronts in both cities. The proximity of downtown amenities—which can generally be reached without the use of an automobile—has likely contributed to the population resurgence along the river. While a significant share of the new central city residents are foreign born, just over half have arrived from elsewhere in Minnesota.

While post-1950 population trends in both cities are broadly similar—with an overall population decline spread over several decades, followed by a recent resurgence—there are some differences. Minneapolis’ largest population decline was spread over the thirty-year period from 1950 to 1980, while Saint Paul’s population loss occurred almost entirely during the 1970s. Since 2010, Minneapolis’ average annual rate of population growth (1.6 percent) has been significantly greater than Saint Paul’s (1.1 percent); however, because Saint Paul’s population loss in the second half of the twentieth century was far smaller than that of Minneapolis, Saint Paul could conceivably reach a new all-time population peak within the next several years. This is unlikely to occur in Minneapolis.

While the population of the two metro core cities has recovered somewhat in recent years, the population trend of Minnesota’s townships continues a long-term downward trend. Townships are one of two primary forms of municipal government in Minnesota (the other being cities); townships are generally organized* but unincorporated communities governed under rules promulgated in state law. In the following analysis, the total population of Minnesota townships for 1970 and 1980 was determined by subtracting the total city population based on annual State Auditor reports from the total state population. Township populations from 1990 to 2016 are based on interdecennial census estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Minnesota State Demographer.

Minnesota’s township population increased both in absolute terms and as a percent of total state population from 1970 to 1980. The township population increased from 1980 to 1990, but in every decennial census since 1980 the township population has declined as a percentage of total Minnesota population. For the most part, Minnesota population growth since 2000 has been driven almost exclusively by growth in city population. In every year since 2000, Minnesota’s township population has declined, with four exceptions. In each of the four exceptions, annual township population growth was slight, never exceeding 0.3 percent.

As with Minnesota’s total population change, Minnesota’s township population change has not been evenly distributed across the state. The chart below examines Minnesota’s city versus township population change within three regions: (1) the seven-county metropolitan area (comprised of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington); (2) nine “collar” counties immediately adjacent to the seven metro counties (Chisago, Goodhue, Isanti, Le Sueur, McLeod, Rice, Sherburne, Sibley, and Wright); and (3) the 71 remaining counties, referred to here as “Greater Minnesota counties.”†

From 2000 to 2010, Minnesota’s township population increased slightly in the collar counties, declined slightly in Greater Minnesota, and declined significantly in the seven-county metro area. A similar pattern is observed since 2010, although the estimated decline in township population in the seven-county metro area from 2010 to 2016 is slight in comparison to the decline from 2000 to 2010. (Townships comprised 3.6 percent of the total seven-county metro population in 2000 and 2.6 percent in 2016.) Meanwhile, city population increased in each of the three regions, both from 2000 to 2010 and from 2010 to 2016. From to 2000 to 2010, the largest percentage growth in city population was within collar counties; since 2010, it has been within the seven-county metro.

It is critical to note that Minnesota’s township population loss over time is not driven primarily by net out-migration or a higher death rate vis-à-vis the birth rate, but by the annexation of township territory by cities or by the reorganization of townships into cities. Since 2000, at least 14 townships—with a 2000 population of nearly 39,000—were entirely annexed by cities or reorganized into cities; furthermore, this estimate does not include the loss of township population occurring when a city annexed only part—as opposed to all—of a township. Most of the township population decline due to annexation or reorganization occurred within the seven-county metro area and no doubt explains most, if not all, of the total township population decline that has occurred in that region since 2000.

Excluding the effects of annexation and reorganization, Minnesota’s township population has increased slightly since 2000. Furthermore, township annexation and reorganization explains a small portion of city population growth during the current century.‡

The final article in this series will examine anticipated trends in Minnesota’s population change through 2050, based on projections from the Minnesota State Demographic Center.


*Some townships are “unorganized.” Unorganized townships have no township government; public services in unorganized townships are provided through county governments. In this analysis, the population of unorganized townships is included in total township population. Four percent of Minnesota’s estimated 2016 township population resides in unorganized townships.

 “Greater Minnesota” typically refers to the 80 counties outside of the seven-county metro area; in this article, “Greater Minnesota” will refer only to the 71 counties, excluding the seven metro and nine collar counties.

 In all likelihood, ten percent or less of total Minnesota city population growth since 2000 was due to annexation and reorganization. It is difficult to be precise regarding the impact of annexation and reorganization upon township population decline and city population growth because information on the township population loss resulting from the partial—as opposed to the complete—annexation of a township is not readily available.