How would you rank America's 300 cities?
There are different market tests that can economists can use to rank which cities are best, but there are some things those tests don't capture
Mathew is an economics professor at UCLA and has written three books: Green Cities (Brookings Institution Press); Heroes and Cowards (Princeton University Press, jointly with Dora L. Costa); and in fall 2010, Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter World (Basic Books).
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The U.S has roughly 300 major cities. Could all 300 million Americans agree on their rankings from A to Z or would different people have different rankings? Put bluntly, how much would I have to pay the people who choose to live in San Francisco to move to Houston and how much would I have to pay the people who choose to live in Houston to move to San Francisco?
As economists, Glaeser and I would agreed that a market test of the desire to live in a particular city such as San Francisco is to calculate your annual income if you live there and to subtract off your annual rent for a standardized home. If this consumption is large, then an economist would conclude that this isn't a desirable city to live in. After all, suppose there is a great city to live in that offers a great quality of life, high wages and low rents. If such a paradise existed, everyone would try to move there and this would lower market wages at the location and raise the rents at the location until people were just indifferent between living there or not.
So, in an open system of cities where you can migrate across cities --- the differences in a local city quality of life will be reflected in local wages and rents.
Now, I realize that "quality of life" may mean different things to different people. Economists have documented that young, middle aged, and old people have different priorities over what city attributes they care about. For example, older people reveal a taste for warm winters as they migrate to Florida for the winter while young people may care more about bars and nightlife that a specific city offers.
Another demographic determinant of ranking cities is income. New York City is a very different town if you are upper middle class versus poor versus rich. A poor New Yorker is more likely to live in the Bronx or Brooklyn rather than in Manhattan. Yes, these different groups are exposed to roughly the same climate conditions but they will have different access to Opera Tickets, fancy restaurants and stores and good seats at Pro-Sports games. So, the same city can be a very different experience depending where you sit in the income distribution.
Ethnicity is another determinant of city rankings. People tend to self segregate and live with people who look like them. If I am the only person of Chinese heritage in a city, then I am unlikely to find a Chinese newspaper or my hometown's cuisine in an American city. But, if there are 250,000 Chinese immigrants in my city then my U.S city will have the scale to cater to my tastes and I will be able to recreate my "old life" in my U.S city.