People walk through Central Park. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Cultural amenities like parks and museums attract young talent to big cities. But how do they work for smaller cities or older people?

For years, cities measured their success in purely economic terms—jobs created, rising incomes and wages, the number of corporate headquarters, or the extent of high-tech industries. Recently, other things have entered the picture. Place-making efforts in cities across the United States and the world have emphasized quality daily life.

Municipalities have invested in everything from better parks and bike lanes to arts and cultural venues, all to help attract and retain talent and bolster residents’ happiness. These quality-of-place amenities were once thought of as an afterthought or something that happens after places get rich. Now we know that amenities—not just restaurants and bars but the whole package of great museums and libraries—play a key role in drawing the highly-skilled knowledge economy workers back to the city, bringing economic growth with them.

Skeptics have questioned these approaches and urged cities to focus more on jobs and traditional economic development. Can quality-of-place strategies aid in building stronger, more economically vibrant communities, or are they a fad and a waste of money?

Two recent studies take a close look at the role of quality-of-place factors, parsing their effect on small and medium-sized communities and on younger versus older people.

Quality of place in smaller places

Quality of place is typically seen as the province of large cities and metro areas. That view holds that, simply by virtue of their size, larger places have more to offer.

A recent study in Urban Affairs Review by Janet Kelly, Matt Ruther, Sarah Ehresman, and Bridget Nickerson provides a detailed empirical examination of the effect of quality of place factors on small and medium-sized metros. The paper examines the effect of quality of place in 81 small metros (250,000 to 500,000 people) and 83 mid-sized metros (500,000 to 2.5 million people).

The study looks at 23 variables of quality of place—not just cultural amenities such as libraries, arts and entertainment, or restaurants, but also key quality-of life-measures such as crime rates and housing costs, plus population indicators like diversity or university enrollment. The study arrays these variables into six key quality-of-place factors: crime rates, entertainment, density, diversity, housing, and knowledge workers.

The study tracked these factors from 2000 to 2013, examining the effects on three key outcomes: the overall change in total population aged 25 and over, the share of adults with a college degree, and the size of the college-educated population between the ages of 25 and 34.

Overall, the authors find that quality of place plays a bigger role in medium-sized metros than in smaller ones. For medium-sized metros, the quality-of-place variables explained between 38 percent and 58 percent of the variance in outcomes.

When it comes to overall population growth, medium-sized metros benefit most from high levels of diversity and a large number of knowledge workers. Surprisingly, for both small and medium-sized metros, density was negatively associated with overall population growth.

But things change when it comes to attracting college-educated adults. On this front, both small and medium-sized metros benefit from greater density, while medium-sized metros also significantly benefit from having more entertainment options and lower crime rates. Density also benefits medium-sized metros when it comes to attracting college-educated young people.

But perhaps the most surprising and counter-intuitive finding is that having large concentrations of knowledge workers is negatively associated with the ability to attract young college-educated people in both small and medium-sized metros. This, the study notes, may reflect the simple fact that such metros already have high levels of college-educated young people and thus have experienced small rates of growth of them.

Higher overall population growth in mid-sized and small cities in the South and West relative to the Northeast and Midwest’s higher share of college-educated residents reveals a key component to talent attraction success. It suggests that amenities make a real difference in attracting young talent to cities, beyond the big name cities. For this group, amenities inform moving decisions nearly as much as low crime rates or housing availability.

Quality of place and happiness across age groups

Another study in Social Science & Medicine by Michael Hogan et al. looks at the connection between quality of place and happiness. It is based on a large-scale survey of 5000 people in 2007 of people between the ages of 25 and 85 in New York, Toronto, London, Paris, and Berlin. The survey asked questions about happiness and the dimensions of quality of place that are thought to effect it, such as availability of and access to good schools, parks, quality healthcare, transit, shops, entertainment, and cultural amenities. The survey also asked about safety, jobs, income, marriage, and family status, health, and the like.

This study focuses on the effects of quality of place factors on the happiness of four age groups: “young” (ages 25 to 34), “young middle age” (35 to 49), “older middle aged” (50 to 64), “older” (65 to 85). The study takes considerable care to tease out the effects of “place-based” factors like entertainment and cultural amenities as opposed to “performance” factors such as the quality of government services overall.

The chart compares the ratios for how much place-based variables or performance variables affected happiness of the different age groups.

Critical ratios (z-scores) for the path coefficients between place, performance, and happiness across different age groups. (Andrew Small/CityLab/Data from Hogan et al.)

While quality-of-place factors matter for all four age groups, they matter much more for younger people. As the study notes, “the happiness of younger residents is a function of having easy access to cultural, shopping, transport, parks and sport amenities and the attractiveness of their cities.” Meanwhile, older residents’ happiness with their city correlated more with their feelings toward government performance on issues such as schools, healthcare, and safety.

Furthermore, the study finds that place and performance variables work together in shaping overall health and the strength of social connections and relations, which are in turn strongly associated with residents’ happiness across the board. To ensure the happiness of residents across their lifespan, the study concludes, cities should focus on providing quality services while also emphasizing access to parks and amenities and bolstering local beauty and character.

Taken together, these two new studies shed additional light on the role of quality of place in our cities and communities. Quality-of-place factors matter, but different elements take precedence among different age groups and in cities of varying sizes. Ultimately, the studies suggest that quality of place is a useful and important element in attracting talent and building healthier, happier, and more prosperous communities.

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