Cities and Urban Structure

Working Papers

Abstract: We study the adoption of remote work within cities and its effect on city structure and welfare. We develop a dynamic model of a city in which workers can decide to work in the central business district (CBD) or partly at home. Working in the CBD allows them to interact with other commuters, which enhances their productivity through a standard production externality, but entails commuting costs. Switching between modes of labor delivery is costly, and workers face idiosyncratic preference shocks for remote work. We characterize the parameter set in which the city exhibits multiple stationary equilibria. Within this set, a coordination mechanism can lead to stationary equilibria in which most workers commute or most of them work partially from home. In these cases, large shocks in the number of commuters, like the recent lockdowns and self-isolation generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, can result in dynamic paths that make cities converge to a stationary equilibrium with large fractions of remote workers. Using cell-phone-based mobility data for the U.S., we document that although most cities experienced similar reductions in CBD trips during the pandemic, trips in the largest cities have stabilized at levels that are only about 60% of pre-pandemic levels. In contrast, smaller cities have, on average, returned to pre-pandemic levels. House price panel data by city show consistent changes in house price CBD-distance gradients. We estimate the model for 274 U.S. cities and show that cities that have stabilized at a large fraction of remote work are much more likely to have parameters that result in multiple stationary equilibria. Our results imply welfare losses in these cities that average 2.7%.

Abstract: We evaluate how anticipation and adaptation shape the aggregate and local costs of climate change. We develop a dynamic spatial model of the U.S. economy and its 3,143 counties that features costly forward-looking migration and capital investment decisions. Recent methodological advances that leverage the ‘Master Equation’ representation of the economy make the model tractable. We estimate the county-level impact of severe storms and heat waves over the 20th century on local income, population, and investment. The estimated impact of storms matches that of capital depreciation shocks in the model, while heat waves resemble combined amenity and productivity shocks. We then estimate migration and investment elasticities, as well as the structural damage functions, by matching these reduced-form results in our framework. Our findings show, first, that the impact of climate on capital depreciation magnifies the U.S. aggregate welfare costs of climate change twofold to nearly 5% in 2023 under a business-as-usual warming scenario. Second, anticipation of future climate damages amplifies climate-induced worker and investment mobility, as workers and capitalists foresee the slow build-up of climate change. Third, migration reduces substantially the spatial variance in the welfare impact of climate change. Although both anticipation and migration are important for local impacts, their effect on aggregate U.S. losses from climate change is small.

Journal Publications

Abstract: This paper studies the urban structure of Detroit - one that is clearly not optimal for its size - which features a business district immediately surrounded by largely vacant neighborhoods. A model is presented where residential externalities lead to multiple equilibria at the neighborhood level. Specifically, neighborhood development requires the coordination of developers and residents, without which it may remain vacant even with sound fundamentals. Given this mechanism, existing strategic visions to revitalize Detroit are evaluated within a quantitative spatial model that can rationalize Detroit's current allocations. Alternative plans that rely on "development guarantees" are also considered and shown to yield better outcomes.

Supplementary Material and Online Appendix

Replication Files

Abstract: We use a simple theory of a system of cities to decompose the determinants of the city size distribution into three main components: efficiency, amenities, and frictions. Higher efficiency and better amenities lead to larger cities but also to greater frictions through congestion and other negative effects of agglomeration. Using data on MSAs in the United States, we estimate these city characteristics. Eliminating variation in any of them leads to large population reallocations, but modest welfare effects. We apply the same methodology to Chinese cities and find welfare effects that are many times larger than those in the US.

Online Appendix

Replication Files

Analyzing Urban Systems (a related paper published in The Urban Imperative by Glaeser and Joshi, 2015)

Abstract: Using data compiled from concentrated residential urban revitalization programs implemented in Richmond, Virginia, between 1999 and 2004, we study residential externalities. We estimate that housing externalities decrease by half approximately every 1,000 feet. On average, land prices in neighborhoods targeted for revitalization rose by 2–5 percent at an annual rate above those in a control neighborhood. These increases translate into land value gains of between $2 and $6 per dollar invested in the program over a 6-year period. We provide a simple theory that helps us estimate and interpret these effects in terms of the parameters of the model.

Replication Files and Data

A related entry in the International Encyclopedia of Housing and Home

Abstract: It has long been recognized that the forces that lead to the agglomeration of economic activity and to aggregate growth are similar. Unfortunately, few formal frameworks have been advanced to explore this link. We critically discuss the literature and present a simple framework that can circumvent some of the main obstacles we identify. We discuss the main characteristics of an equilibrium allocation in this dynamic spatial framework, present a numerical example to illustrate the forces at work, and provide some supporting empirical evidence.

Abstract: We document several empirical regularities regarding the evolution of urban structure in the largest U.S. metropolitan areas over the period 1980–90. These regularities relate to changes in resident population, employment, occupations, as well as the number and size of establishments in different sections of the metropolitan area. We then propose a theory of urban structure that emphasizes the location and internal structure decisions of firms. In particular, firms can decide to locate their headquarters and operation plants in different regions of the city. Given that cities experienced positive population growth throughout the 1980s, we show that firm fragmentation produces the diverse set of facts documented in the article.

Abstract: This paper examines the effects of information and communication technologies (ICT) on urban structure. Improvements in ICT may lead to changes in urban structure, for example, because they reduce the costs of communicating ideas from a distance. Hence, they may weaken local agglomeration forces and thus provide incentives for economic activity to relocate to smaller urban centres. We use international data on city size distributions in different countries and on country-level characteristics to test the effect of ICT. We find robust evidence that increases in the number of telephone lines per capita encourage the spatial dispersion of population in that they lead to a more concentrated distribution of city sizes. So far the evidence on internet usage is more speculative, although it goes in the same direction. We argue that the internet is likely to have similar, or even larger, effects on urban structures once its use has spread more thoroughly through different economies.

Abstract: Most economic activity occurs in cities. This creates a tension between local increasing returns, implied by the existence of cities, and aggregate constant returns, implied by balanced growth. To address this tension, we develop a general equilibrium theory of economic growth in an urban environment. In our theory, variation in the urban structure through the growth, birth, and death of cities is the margin that eliminates local increasing returns to yield constant returns to scale in the aggregate. We show that, consistent with the data, the theory produces a city size distribution that is well approximated by Zipf’s law, but that also displays the observed systematic underrepresentation of both very small and very large cities. Using our model, we show that the dispersion of city sizes is consistent with the dispersion of productivity shocks found in the data.

Robustness Appendix

Abstract: This paper studies the effect of terrorist attacks on the internal structure of cities. We develop an urban framework with capital structures suitable for the study of this question and analyze the long and short term implications of this type of events. In the long run, the analysis shows that a terrorist attack will affect urban structure only modestly, relative to the potentially large decrease in the level of economic activity in the city. Land rents will not decline at all locations. In the short run, agglomeration forces will amplify the effect of the original destruction and will reduce urban economic activity temporarily.

Abstract: The paper studies the optimal distribution of business and residential land in a circular city. Once the optimum is characterized, we analyze the effect of changes in commuting costs and externality parameters. We also propose policies like labor subsidies, land taxes and zoning restrictions that can implement the efficient allocation as an equilibrium, or close the gap between the optimal and equilibrium allocations. The results show that business land is more concentrated at the center of the city in the optimum and that higher commuting costs increase the difference between optimal and equilibrium allocations.

Abstract: We prove the existence of a symmetric equilibrium in a circular city in which businesses and housing can both be located anywhere in the city. In this equilibrium, firms balance the external benefits from locating near other producers against the costs of longer commutes for workers. An equilibrium city need not take the form of a central business district surrounded by a residential area. We propose a general algorithm for constructing equilibria, and use it to study the way land use is affected by changes in the model's underlying parameters.

See the Updated and Corrected Numerical Computations and Methods by Dong and Ross (2014)

Books, Chapters, and Surveys

Analyzing Urban Systems: Have Megacities Become Too Large?

(with Klaus Desmet)

The Urban Imperative, World Bank Publications, The World Bank, May 2014 (Edited by Edward Glaeser and Abha Joshi-Ghani)

Citation, Bibtex