If Mpls & St Paul grow and add affordable housing and movie stars, will they be like Islington?

If you’re familiar with the Twin Cities, stretch your imagination with me and picture a city in which:

  • Both exceptionally very wealthy and very poor people live.
  • People reliably support liberal politicians.
  • There’s an area to the west that’s also wealthy, has less poverty, and leans further right politically.
  • Residents have a reputation for being creative (smug?) and highly-educated (snooty?).
  • People prize local, organic food and beer, argue about things like gentrification and bike lanes, and pride themselves on their urban lifestyle.

Well, reimagine that as a borough in a large city, and welcome to Islington.

Borough map
Islington and the other 32 boroughs of London. Graphic credit: http://www.cookercare.com/cooker-repairs-london/attachment/borough-map 🙂

This post is going to quickly establish what Minneapolis and Saint Paul have in common with my home borough of Islington and some key distinctions between them. As a reminder, the goal of this blog is to pose questions about whether urban planning/design projects that have been done over here could happen in MSP, so this post will establish the general frame of comparison.

Let’s Get Anecdotal

I believe that the people who choose to live in Minneapolis or Saint Paul versus other available options in MN have made a broadly similar choice to people who choose to live in Islington versus their other options in London and the UK. I also believe that the social filtering that leads similar people to the same neighborhoods/cities shapes community values and priorities. And the first bit of anecdotal evidence I have of the similarity between MSP and Islington is that we chose to live in both places.


Classic Islington terraced houses – if you love sideyards, look elsewhere, mate


We didn’t underthink where to live in London. Never a danger for me. If you ever send me a real estate listing, know that I’ll click to see where it is on a map first. Years ago, Kristin and I submitted an application to a Silicon Valley start-up accelerator for a real estate search tool that would solve for location quality of life factors (commute time, schools, amenities, etc) first. I still wish that existed!

I gather that other people can look at a property, decide if they like how it looks, whether it has the features they want, whether they can afford it, and if the location works for them *without* learning what choosing that location *means*. More power to them. I need to know the context. Combine that with Kristin’s close readings of floor plans and aesthetics, and you’ll understand why I’d estimate we looked at over a thousand rental listings here before finding a place in January.


The spreadsheet had 10 tabs.


I created an algorithm of sorts for understanding our location options. It included average prices, commute time for Kristin, quality of schools, proximity to parks, and social factors. But in retrospect, the things we were trying to solve for tells you a lot about what social tribe we’re in. We didn’t seriously consider areas where our budget would’ve put us on the top or bottom of the market for the area. We didn’t consider living in a part of town where the only good schools are private (which they call “public schools”, which seems deliberately confusing). We didn’t want to live in an area that was racially or economically segregated. We wanted historic architectural character if we could get it. We wanted to see if we could get by without a car. We wanted to avoid high crime areas, but while lots of violent crime was a deal-breaker, nuisance crimes are not a major concern. And all that research guided us here.

Of course, other people don’t go through the same thought process in deciding where to live in London, but – as a testament to how intuitively people understand one another, and an example of how social filtering happens everywhere – people I met in our look-see trip last year told me, “yeah, you’re going to want to live in North London.” And – lo and behold – the culture in Islington bears a strong resemblance to MSP.

Islington in a Nutshell

  • Islington is the densest borough in the UK.
  • It’s been home to several of the recent British politicians Americans would be most likely to know: Tony Blair, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn.
  • Second highest child poverty rate (38%) out of the 32 boroughs in London.
  • First London borough to institute a maximum speed limit of 20 mph.
  • Only 13% of Islington is green space – the second lowest proportion of any authority in England.
  • Enjoy the cinema? Famous residents: Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth, James McAvoy, Emma Watson, Kate Winslet, and Keira Knightley.


They call main commercial streets “high streets.” None have more than 4 lanes. Adjacent buildings aren’t generally very tall.

By the Numbers: MSP vs. Islington


Saint Paul Islington




Area (sq. miles)





7,660/sq. mile

5,948/sq. mile

40,575/sq. mile

Public housing units (% of total)




Poverty rate




Unemployment rate




Ethnicity: White




Median home price

$257,700 $211,700

£800,000 ($1,059,160)

Sources: https://www.mncompass.org/profiles/,  https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/data/boroughs/islington-poverty-and-inequality-indicators/http://www.stpha.org/images/annual-reports/AR%202016_17.pdf, http://mphaonline.org/about/agency-overview/, http://wikipedia.org, https://www.home.co.uk/guides/house_prices.htm?location=islington, http://zillow.com   


Islington has roughly a tenth of the geographic size of either Mpls or St Paul, 5-7 times the density, broad demographic similarities, a lot more public housing, and incredibly more expensive private market housing.

Council Estates – larger public housing developments, scattered throughout the borough


Where would you live if you lived in London? I have no idea. But I’m certain that the same factors at play in our housing decision would shape yours, and – if especially if you care about Minneapolis and Saint Paul – Islington offers a point of comparison to a place with similar appeal, but with dramatically higher density and subsidized affordable housing. These are two aspects of life in Minnesota’s core cities that are very much under consideration as both develop updates to their Comprehensive Plans. As we move into specific projects in subsequent posts, the question of whether it’s the density and wealth in Islington that makes those projects possible will be important to keep in mind.