The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

CSY At Forbes: A New, Powerful Data Tool For Cities

Chicago skyline.  Source:

(Note: Every once in a while, publishing becomes a grind.  This is one of those times.   But while I’m working on new content that will appear both here and at Forbes, savor this piece that was published originally at Forbes last week.  I think many will find it valuable.  -Pete)

I’ve long believed that most cities don’t really have a good grasp on what they are. They most definitely know what they have: there are thousands of city officials across the country who can go into great detail about the housing, streets and highways, businesses and other data points about their city. But very few have any idea of their city in a larger context. How does one city’s aging housing stock, for example, compare to that in another city? What makes your city similar to, or different from, some other city?

Similarly, most cities generally have done a poor job of actually trying to find peers to compare themselves with, and establishing reasonable benchmarks based on their selections. Most urban policymakers usually evaluate cities that are physically close to them, or similar in population size, or culturally similar. That can lead to some misleading comparisons. The cities of Detroit, Washington, Boston and Portland are nearly identical in population, with fewer than 30,000 people separating them. Does that make them similar? Nashville and Memphis are similarly sized and located within the same state, but they’re vastly different cities in terms of economy, demographic composition, age, education, housing, and other factors. The same could be said about Cleveland and Cincinnati, or Kansas City and St. Louis. Ultimately this can result in misleading comparisons, pushing some cities to seek a policy path that was easily achievable and successful for one city, but a difficult task leading to failure for another.

That’s why I like the Peer City Identification Tool developed by the Community Development and Policy Studies department of the Chicago Federal Reserve. Released three weeks ago, the tool is a powerful online tool that allows policymakers, planners and researchers to truly identify cities facing similar challenges, and in the process find the ones that may have developed appropriate policy responses.

The tool is built on public data from 300 U.S. cities that had a population of 50,000 or more in 1960. It’s organized in four different areas: Equity, which examines economic and social measures of inequality; Resilience, which measures labor characteristics; Housing, which examines factors related to the housing supply and market; and Outlook, which compares general demographic and population dynamics. You enter a city, and not only does it return a map of the comparable cities in a given area, it produces tables and charts that show exactly how your chosen city compares with the peers identified, and to the median for all 300 cities in the analysis.

Chicago Fed staff members prepared this tool in response to frequent requests from community and economic development professionals, bankers and city officials, seeking information on localities facing similar challenges. The tool challenges policymakers and other professionals to look beyond traditional perceptions of a place, and foster conversations between places that often shared little on the surface. This is the kind of utilization of technology that broadens our understanding of communities. And the goal is that it leads to the type of interaction that leads to better policy at the local level.

The tool yields interesting results that sometimes confirms and other times challenges our notions of a city. Take Atlanta, for example. Atlanta’s peers in terms of its socio-economic composition is familiar as seen in the table below:
Equity Peer Table, Atlanta, GA

Atlanta seems to be similar to other cities in the Southeast in terms of its demographics, comparing favorably with New Orleans, Orlando, and Columbia, SC. Who are Atlanta’s peers when looking at its housing?
Housing Peer Table, Atlanta, GA

Atlanta’s housing stock, in terms of age, vacancy rate, value to income ration, and the percentage of rent-burdened households, mirrors that of other cities within its region. Orlando and Columbia can be found on this list as well, in addition to cities like Savannah, GA, Galveston, TX and West Palm Beach, FL. Atlanta seems to be fairly representative of its region, and doesn’t have to go far to look for comparable cities, whether big or small. In fact, the data seems to support the notion that Atlanta is a larger version of its Southern peers.

Now, let’s take a look at Chicago. Chicago’s peers in terms of its socio-demographic composition is also familiar, as seen in the table below:

Equity Peer Table, Chicago, IL

As might be expected, Chicago compares favorably with some of the nation’s largest cities, notably Los Angeles, Houston and Miami. However, a search of peer cities in terms of housing offers a startling result:
Housing Peer Table, Chicago, IL

Here, Chicago’s housing stock peers include a number of smaller Northeastern cities, like Providence, RI, New Britain, CT, and Albany, NY. That puts it in quite a different category than where many urban analysts might put it, in the select group of high-priced and displacement-anxious cities of the east and west coasts. Surprisingly, Chicago’s housing has less in common with not only major coastal cities like Washington, DC and San Francisco, but also its Midwestern neighbors like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis or Milwaukee. This result underscores the value of tool.

There are some early limitations of the tool. New York City is notably absent from the database, as are Indianapolis and Jacksonville. Perhaps data limitations (New York is a municipality comprised of five counties, while, Indianapolis and Jacksonville are consolidated city-county municipalities) played some role in their omission. Also, because the Chicago Fed staff elected to focus on cities that had at least 50,000 people in 1960, it misses out on some of the significantly sized cities of today. Many of the “boomburbs” that saw explosive growth over the last 30-40 years, like a Mesa, AZ, or Henderson, NV, are also not included. As these communities mature and become more urban in character, they may find such a tool useful in guiding their transformation.

The Chicago Fed is committed to updating the tool annually, and to adding cities and data with each update. Ideally, that means the tool becomes stronger and more meaningful over time. If so, here’s hoping that the tool can be the starting point for future discussions between communities, and appropriate solutions to their challenges.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: