What City Observatory did this week

1. Mystery in the Bookstore. In cities around the country, there’s been a noticeable rebound in the local bookstore business. After decades of steady decline, this is a pleasant surprise. One metric, the number of members of the national association of independent bookstores confirms this trend. But broader data compiled by the federal government suggest that overall the number of bookstores has continued to fall. Its a bit of mystery as to why these indicators are headed in different directions. We consider the reasons why this might be the case, and what it says about cities.

2. Immaculate conception of housing. It’s easy to take the existing housing stock for granted–it’s there, in place, and seems like its always been that way. But virtually all of the housing in our cities is the product of some profit-motivated developer building what at the time was considered large, unaffordable and even garish housing for the middle and upper classes. Case-in-point, the humble bungalows that until recently were part of most city’s stock of affordable homes, were, when new, housing for the aspiring households with above average incomes (the lower classes had to content themselves with crowded tenements and rooms in humble boarding houses). This historical context provides a useful perspective for many current housing policy debates.
3. What patents tell us about the geography of the knowledge economy. Most of our economic metrics are the legacy of an older, industrial economy. We know a great deal about the location of manufacturing employment, the occupational composition of large organizations, and the monthly volume of orders for new durable goods. But the knowledge economy–the creation of new ideas and products–which is playing a larger role in driving economic growth, has few well accepted metrics. One indicator we can examine is the location of patents. We’ve gathered data from the US Patent and Trademark Office to compute the number of patents issued in each of the nation’s largest metro areas, and to facilitate comparisons, standardized these by metro population.

Must read

1. Will wealthy parents ever choose to integrate schools?  Writing at The Atlantic, Patrick Wall, asks an important question: will wealthy families, those with the means to choose where they will live, and where they will send their children to school, ever voluntarily choose integrated schools? Wall relates the story of two adjacent public schools in Manhattan, PS 199 and PS 191, who though cheek-by-jowl, have attendance lines that are plainly divided by economic class.With wealthier parents and better supported and prepared students PS 199 is one of the cities best performing public schools, while PS 191 has more children who face learning difficulties and its parents lack the means to add much to the public budget for the school. When the city moved to rectify this imbalance by re-drawing the attendance lines between the two districts to more nearly balance the incomes of the two schools, many wealth parents balked at keeping their kids in the public school system. For them, part of the reason they paid high prices for their homes in this neighborhood was because it entitled them to send their children to a better school. Though this story is just about two schools in one city, it captures in a nutshell many of the problems confronting achieving economic integration, both in schools and in cities generally.

2. Ed Glaeser on reforming land use regulations. Brookings Institution has published a new essay from Harvard’s Ed Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, and a prodigious scholar on regional economics which offers a non-technical summary of his latest research on the connection between local land use regulations and housing affordability. He and co-author Joseph Gyourko used construction cost data for different metropolitan markets to compute the difference between current market prices and the cost of building new homes. They find that fully 40 percent of American homes are priced below the minimum cost of profitable production, their benchmark for cost. But in a few markets, representing about a tenth of American homes, the average price of home is more than double the estimated cost of production. In such a case, its surprising that the market doesn’t produce more housing. The reason, of course, is that local land use restrictions make it too costly to build new housing. And unfortunately, these markets tend to be among the most productive urban economies in the US, so constraining population growth by limiting housing supply in these markets implies lower national productivity. Glaeser argues for state enacted housing requirements that could override local zoning to allow more housing in high cost areas, and suggests states enact fiscal incentives that would encourage local governments to zone more land for housing.

New ideas

Walking, biking and health: New evidence from the UK.  The British Medical Journal has published a new study–”Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study”– of the connection between active commuting and key measures of health. The study followed more than a quarter million 40 to 69 year-old subjects in Britain over 3 years, and looked at the correlation between commuting mode and mortality from all causes, and indicators of cardiac health and cancer. They found that cyclists enjoyed a statistically lower risk of mortality, cancer and heart disease, and that those who walked to work enjoyed a lower risk of cardio-vascular disease. Cycling in particular exhibited a “dose-response relationship” meaning that the more one cycled (as measured by the length of one’s cycle commute) the greater the health benefits. (This was true of the effect of walking on heart disease risk). They conclude that measures to encourage additional active transportation, especially cycling, would improve public health.