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Cascade: No. 60, Winter 2005

Spotlight on Research: Urban Success Stories — Reputation or Reality?

Across the nation, planners, city officials, developers, and community activists are hard at work trying to revitalize urban cities that once flourished. To accomplish this, they draw on many resources, including the experiences of cities generally thought to have made the transition successfully. But how much confidence should be placed in the identification of cities deemed successful? This concern was the subject of a paper by Harold Wolman and Kimberly Furdell of George Washington University, and Edward W. Hill of Cleveland State University.1 More specifically, they focused on the following two questions: Do the reputations of central cities that have reportedly been revitalized match reality and can reputation alone be used to select best practices in urban public policy? This inquiry was a follow-up to a previous study that investigated the same issue for an earlier period.

Previous Study

In the earlier study, a group of experts on urban public policy and economic development were surveyed and asked to identify those central cities that were distressed in 1980 but had been revitalized between 1980 and 1990.2 To provide a basis on which “to compare the perceptions of the experts with actual changes in economic well-being of the residents of those cities over the decade” the researchers constructed an index using census data. They chose as the counterfactual the central cities that were deemed to be equally distressed in 1980 but were not thought by experts to have been successfully revitalized. The authors found that cities judged to be distressed but perceived as “urban success stories” were not, in fact, successful as measured by the improvement in the economic well-being of their residents, since their performance did not differ from — and in some cases was inferior to – that of other cities that were distressed in 1980; but the difference was not statistically significant.

This led the authors to suggest that “policymakers be cautious in drawing lessons or deriving inferences from cities widely perceived to have experienced successful revitalization, since ‘perceived’ success might not agree with reality.” However, they offered three caveats. The authors hypothesized that it was conceivable that the 10-year period was not long enough for the revitalization to have taken place. They also speculated that the experts may have been applying different definitions of revitalization or that the perceptions of the panel of experts simply just didn’t mirror reality.

Current Study

In this paper, the authors replicated the previous study but convened a new panel of experts and used census data covering the decade 1990 to 2000. For this inquiry, the authors focused on 145 cities that had populations of 125,000 or more in 1990. They used several descriptive features of the cities — 1990 values of the poverty rate, 1990 unemployment rate, 1990 median household income, and percent change in population from 1980 to 1990 — to construct a composite index to indicate the level of a city’s distress. The cities were then ranked according to their municipal distress index score, with the 48 cities in the bottom third of the distribution designated as distressed central cities for purposes of the study.

The authors selected their panel of experts from members of the editorial boards of some well-known publications in the fields of economic development, housing, and urban affairs as well as members of the International Economic Development Council and the Urban Land Institute. The panel of experts was sent the list of the 48 distressed cities along with an explanation that the study’s purpose was “to identify those cities that are perceived to have experienced the greatest economic ‘turnaround’ or revitalization over the course of the past decade.” The panel was further instructed to “identify up to 10 cities that had experienced the greatest degree of revitalization between 1990 and 2000.”3 Based on the responses of the panel, the authors assigned the 48 cities to one of three categories as follows:4

  • Most successful: eight cities designated as revitalized by more than 33 percent of the respondents
  • Next most successful: eight cities designated as revitalized by 20 percent or more (and below 33 percent) of the respondents
  • Unsuccessful: 32 cities designated as revitalized by less than 20 percent of the respondents

A comparison of the cities perceived to have engaged in successful revitalization in both the previous and current studies yields some noteworthy features. Several cities, namely Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Miami, and Pittsburgh, appear on both lists of cities. One city, Boston, was considered distressed in 1980 and perceived to have been revitalized successfully during the 1980s but was no longer distressed as measured by the 1990 index. On the other hand, Birmingham, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Norfolk were characterized as distressed in 1980 but were thought to have engaged in successful revitalization in the 1980s; however, they continued to be distressed and were not perceived by the experts to have undergone successful revitalization during the 1990s.

In order to gauge how distressed cities actually performed between 1990 and 2000, the authors developed a “composite index.” As in the previous study, the composite index measured revitalization in terms of an improvement in the economic well-being of city residents. The following five variables were combined to form the index:5 percent change in per capita income; percent change in median household income; percentage point change in the poverty rate; percentage point change in the unemployment rate; and the percentage point change in the rate of labor force participation. The index allowed the authors to answer the following questions: Did a particular city do better or worse than the mean of the entire group of 48 distressed central cities and, if so, by how much?” And Did the cities perceived as successful, in fact, perform better on the index of economic well-being than those not perceived to be successful?

In contrast to the previous study, the current study revealed that the perceptions of the experts with regard to the economic well-being of residents of distressed cities were more in line with actual improvements in those cities – but the results were not statistically significant when the cities were considered to be a sample of all possible distressed cities. Moreover, “the rank order correlation coefficient between perceived success and the index of improvement in resident economic well-being was only 0.15.”6

The authors then constructed a more comprehensive performance index by incorporating variables that are indicators of income and education, demographics, poverty and unemployment, and crime. The perceptions of the experts were even more credible when applying this index than the more limited original index in that both the most successful and next most successful cities outperformed the unsuccessful cities in the former index, while only the most successful cities outperformed the unsuccessful cities in the latter index.7

A Concluding Note of Caution

Although the authors found that the perceptions of experts about which cities were successfully revitalized and their actual performance were somewhat in sync, the low level of correlation leaves room for pause. Short of formal evaluations or experiments involving policy innovations, the authors are hesitant to fully embrace the reliance on “best practices” as a guide for cities seeking revitalization, since perceptions generally serve as the basis for identifying cities to emulate. They question whether adopting best practices is really falling for the best pitch or story supported by the best advertising. The authors caution that “the danger is that falling for perception rather than reality can lead cities or states to adopt policies that might not work or to look for ways policies have been implemented where the implementation failed.”

  • 1 “Evaluating the Success of Urban Success Stories: Is Reputation a Guide to Best Practices?” Housing Policy Debate 15, 4 (2004), 965–97.
  • 2 Harold Wolman, Coit Ford III, and Edward Hill, “Evaluating the Success of Urban Success Stories,” Urban Studies 31, 6 (June 1994), 835–50.
  • 3 The authors received an overall response rate of 38 percent (115 responses).
  • 4 The authors used a t-test to test the difference of means of the 1990 municipal distress index for each pair of groups and found that there was no statistical difference between the groups in the level of their economic distress.
  • 5 Using data from the 48 cities that were found to be distressed in 1990, the authors standardized each of the distributions of these variables using z-scores and then combined the standardized scores for the variables for each city to make up the composite index.
  • 6 The authors also report the results of a further examination of the factors contributing to a city’s classification as most successful, next most successful, and unsuccessful and an inquiry into the primary benefits from an economic revitalization that might accrue to cities considered “successful” as well as a discussion of whether successful cities were simply lucky or a product of their actions.
  • 7 However, as with the original index, the correlation between reputation and reality associated with the more comprehensive index was low.