A number of factors affect a city's economic growth... How important is a city's beauty in that regard? Two urban economists, Gerald A. Carlino and Albert Saiz, are here to say that it's hugely important. In their most recent study, these researchers came to the conclusion that the more beautiful a city is, the better it is at bringing in new jobs and residents, which often includes highly educated and affluent people.
Measuring a City's Beauty
In recent years, several studies have revealed connections between urban amenities and things like economic growth and population growth. The amenities that are often examined in such studies are parks, restaurants, art galleries, and museums. This study, however, takes a different approach in order to more closely examine the effects that the beauty of a city’s physical realm has on its economic success.
The two main metrics that the researchers decided to use to measure attractiveness of cities in this study were tourist visits and photos of picturesque locations. The data surrounding photos was collected using a now-discounted photo-sharing app called Panoramio, which was embedded in Google Maps and allowed photos of scenic places from all over the world to be geotagged, aggregated, and curated. The data collected about tourism came from a travel consulting firm called D.K. Shifflet & Associates.
The Beauty Premium
Once the data was collected, they then compared that information with established measures from amenities like parks, historic spaces, coastline proximity, bodies of water, mountains, etc. From there, they looked at connections between features of beautiful places, key indicators of economic growth, and the resurgence and gentrification of neighborhoods in and around the urban center between the years 1990 and 2010.
In doing so, several very important findings were revealed:
- A city with twice as many picturesque locations as another city experienced more than 10 percent growth in population and jobs from 1990 to 2010;
- ‘Urban Beauty’ is tied with ‘Lower Taxes’ as the most important predictor of overall population growth in cities;
- Beautiful cities disproportionately bring in more college graduates (cities in the top 25 percent of picturesqueness saw nearly 3 percent higher growth in the number of college graduates than those in the bottom 25 percent); and,
- Urban beauty results in higher housing prices and greater housing appreciation (housing values were 16 percent higher in the top 25 percent of picturesque cities than the bottom 25 percent).
Picturesqueness appears to have the most profound effect in nearly every category, even more so than tourist visits and other amenities.
Happy City, Happy Neighborhoods
In a broad sense, metros can greatly benefit from an urban beauty premium, but so can specific neighborhoods within them. A great number of studies have revealed that younger, more educated, and more affluent people are moving back to cities/urban centers. These studies often state that the majority of these newcomers usually head for neighborhoods near the Central Business District (CBD), the downtown commercial core of a city. This gentrification often occurs adjacently at nearby warehouse, factory, and logistics districts.
With that said, the two researchers in this study have identified a new type of neighborhood that is bringing in large numbers of newcomers: the Central Recreational District (CRD). CRDs are defined by a prevalence of parks, historic places, landmarks, and tourist destinations. These features are sometimes referred to as “Instagrammable” locations. According to the researchers, “Despite worse initial economic conditions, CRDs managed to grow faster than other comparable neighborhoods.” CRDs are continuing to draw in more and more people, making it a magnet for the back-to-the-city movement.
While some places are blessed with natural beauty, for most areas in the country, beautiful places must amount from public policy and investment. Fortunately, there are many options available to cities to increase their local beauty. One of the best things a city can do is invest time and money into existing features of CRDs, like parks, landmarks, and historic places.
“Oftentimes, communities finance public space improvements by soliciting area businesses to contribute to a park fund. Then each business is recognized for their gift with a stamped brick, plaque, or bench permanently installed in the design of the improved space, acting as marketing for years to come.” – Erin Moriarty, Planner, ms consultants, inc.
According to this study, investing 10 percent more in parks and recreation allows for a 2.3 percent increase in leisure visits and a 1.3 percent increase in employment in the tourism industry. In the end, rents, incomes, and education increase faster in beautiful neighborhoods. Why wouldn’t a city invest in urban beautification?
The Cost of Beauty
Urban beauty is a powerful tool for economic growth and urban resurgence, but it can also lead to gentrification and displacement of current residents or businesses. When pursuing urban beautification, urban policy makers must take into consideration all of the costs involved in the process of revitalizing.
Some proactive solutions include mandating that developers create new public spaces adjacent to their property or to pay a fee in lieu of this amenity, the revenue of which is funneled into a larger parks fund. Other approaches to offsetting social inequalities caused by development are to incentivize affordable housing, either as a portion or the entirety of a development, or to employ local residents in the construction phase of their projects.
By utilizing financing tools such as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) of Community Reinvestment Areas (CRA), cities can use the increased tax revenues generated by beautification projects to fund more initiatives in a district. This strategy then allows more of a community’s budget and time to be focused on affordable housing, workforce development, and the reduction of concentrated poverty. Carlino and Saiz note that concentrated poverty has a very negative impact on how tourists perceive a city’s beauty so cities must focus on reducing inequality to ensure they are more attractive for everyone.
When costs are considered and accounted for, urban beautification can bring about amazing benefits to a city, breeding success and well-being.
Improving Your Community
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