Paper of the Day


The City Beautiful movement, which in the early 20th century advocated city beautification as a way to improve the living conditions and civic virtues of the urban dweller, had languished by the Great Depression. Today, new urban economic theorists and policymakers are coming to see the provision of consumer leisure amenities as a way to attract population, especially the highly skilled and their employers. However, past studies have provided only indirect evidence of the importance of leisure amenities for urban development. In this paper we propose and validate the number of leisure trips to metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) as a measure of consumers’ revealed preferences for local leisure-oriented amenities. Population and employment growth in the 1990s was about 2 percent higher in an MSA with twice as many leisure visits: the third most important predictor of recent population growth in standardized terms. Moreover, this variable does a good job of forecasting out-of-sample growth for the period 2000-2006. “Beautiful cities” disproportionally attracted highly educated individuals and experienced faster housing price appreciation, especially in supply-inelastic markets. Investment by local government in new public recreational areas within an MSA was positively associated with higher subsequent city attractiveness. In contrast to the generally declining trends in the American central city, neighborhoods that were close to “central recreational districts” have experienced economic growth, albeit at the cost of minority displacement.

More details:

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of variation in consumer-based amenities, conditional on city size. Regardless of their initial population, some cities have a comparative advantage in the production of consumer-oriented public goods, due to historic character, architectural variety, pleasant public spaces, or natural scenic beauty. Local public policy may also play a role. Policymakers and private investors are paying
increasing attention to the provision of public goods that are oriented toward leisure (Florida, 2002): museums, waterfront parks, open-air shopping centers, and other public spaces that are enjoyed by families and individuals to enjoy. Cities around the world (such as Barcelona and Bilbao in Spain; Glasgow in Scotland; and in the U.S., Oklahoma City, OK; Camden, NJ; and San Antonio, TX), have attempted to leverage public investments in leisure spaces and beautification to spur demographic change and economic development. Do these natural or man-made differences in leisure activities really matter for urban economic development?   In this paper we present evidence that supports an affirmative answer to this question.


Finally, we examine the relative attractiveness of neighborhoods within an MSA. The monocentric city model has largely focused on a neighborhood’s distance from its central business district (CBD) as the main determinant of its density and rents.  In this paper, we present new measures of centrality, based on a census tract’s distance to leisure areas within the city.  We alternatively define the central recreational district (CRD) either based on a tract’s distance to tourism information centers or access to historic and
recreational sites within the city.  We show that the evolution of CRD areas was very different from the rest of the central city neighborhoods that surrounded them in the 1990s. Despite worse initial economic conditions, CRDs managed to grow faster than other comparable neighborhoods. Rents, incomes, and education increased relatively faster in such “beautiful neighborhoods,” at the cost of minority displacement. Distance to CBD was mostly irrelevant to the economic and demographic evolution of urban neighborhoods in the US, once we control for access to leisure opportunities. While the American central city generally did not “come back” in the 1990s, the “beautiful city” within flourished.

Interesting stuff.


  1. Dan Staley says:

    Perfect! Thank you Ryan. Moved to the top of my reading list as I can use this in my Green Infra work.

  2. Kiril says:

    Very interesting stuff, but I would like to see more discussion of the “at the cost of minority displacement” refrain.

    When we talk about urban economic development, we are talking about actual people within those urban areas. How can those people benefit from development as opposed to becoming victims of it?

  3. jim says:

    I don’t know. What’s the CRD of Washington? Dupont Circle? 7th and G? The Mall?