Executive Summary

For decades, urban plan has concentrated on troubled cities—those losing population and advertisement activity. But in countless cities, the era of decline is over; today, we are seeing the development of prosperous, financially dynamic cities, regularly located top top America’s coasts. This “superstar cities”—New York, Los Angeles, the san Francisco bay Area, Boston, Washington, and Seattle—are amongst America’s largest, most productive urban regions. They have well-above-average per-capita GDP and also incomes and serve together the house bases the high-value sectors prefer finance (New York) and high tech (San Francisco). 

Despite your high incomes, these cities are farming slowly—or even, in the case of new York, shrinking—because of extremely high real estate prices and overburdened infrastructure. In short, the superstars space suffering the difficulties of success, no failure. 

There room a variety of reasons the these cities room unable to increase their real estate supply and also infrastructure:

Regulatory accretion and also changes in social attitudes A ns of civic capacity to grow in the wake up of an extended era of shrinkage—after years of stagnation or decline, these cities space no much longer organized to support growth

A belief, top top the part of ordinary present residents, the there room few significant marginal services to growth, or that the an unfavorable effects the growth, such as rising congestion, outweigh any kind of benefits America’s superstar cities must think prefer high-growth cities again, or the national economy will lose access to high-productivity locations. Preventing this outcome will require far-reaching liberalization of land-use regimes come permit an ext and denser housing breakthrough near transit lines and also areas v the many jobs, and also expansion of the urban footprint on the suburban edge.

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Because local resident awareness militate against growth, says should take into consideration preempting local land-use manage in a targeted way that balances expansion with other community goods. Even with preemption, neighborhood leaders require to clearly articulate and also sell to their existing citizens the benefits of becoming a bigger city.

In addition, these regions require to build credible to plan to expand their infrastructure, particularly transit and airports, to support the far-reaching new levels of expansion that a liberalized land-regulation program would enable. 



Much of timeless urban policy has been concerned with difficulties of public failure, together as population and project loss, poverty, low-quality housing, and crime. Yet today, countless urban problems are the an outcome of urban success. This includes, for example, high real estate prices and also the result concerns about gentrification. These difficulties are particularly acute in the superstar cities.

The hatchet “superstar cities” was popularized through Joseph Gyourko, Christopher Mayer, and Todd Sinai in their 2006 NBER paper of the same title.<1> They defined a superstar city in terms of real estate: high need (determined by price and also quantity growth) and inelastic it is provided (a high ratio of price to amount growth). These cities experienced rising housing prices loved one to mean incomes and income sorting towards a higher-income resident base.

The ax has obtained popularity and now refers normally to perceived “elite” urban on the coasts. Resources vary as to which urban they take into consideration superstars, however most lists encompass the adhering to urban regions:

BostonGreater Los Angeles/Southern CaliforniaGreater new YorkSan Francisco bay AreaSeattleWashington, D.C.

The four superstar cities that appear on almost every list are brand-new York, Los Angeles, the san Francisco bay Area, and also Washington, D.C. 

Today’s more comprehensive concept that a superstar city includes not only higher housing prices but also greater economic productivity and also incomes. For functions of this paper, I define as a superstar city a subway area with actual GDP every capita higher than 120% the the national average and a per-capita income better than 130% the the national average. This selects all the urban regions on the perform above, various other than greater Los Angeles / southerly California. Additionally, it includes the little metro areas of Boulder, Colorado, and Midland, Texas, both of which are very successful in their very own right.<2> These certain GDP and income thresholds are illustrative and demonstrate that cities typically referred to together superstar regions carry out outperform the rest of the country in financial output and incomes.

The crucial industries and institutions shaping the country and the world—finance, technology, media and entertainment, and also government—are focused in superstar cities. Superstar regions account because that 85% of every venture-capital dollars invested in the joined States.<3> Amazon, based in superstar Seattle, initially chose brand-new York<4> and also Washington because that its new “HQ2” offices.<5> In the web era, media has become even much more concentrated in superstar cities. According to one report, 73% of web publishing jobs<6> space in the Northeast Corridor (Washington to new York come Boston) or ~ above the West Coast.<7> and 62% that Harvard’s course of 2018 moved to the claims that contain most superstar cities: brand-new York, California, Massachusetts, or the ar of Columbia.<8> together Charles Murray the the American companies Institute observed:

t is difficult to hold a nationally significant job in politics, public policy, finance, business, academia, info technology, or the media and also not live in the areas surrounding brand-new York, Washington, Los Angeles, or mountain Francisco. In a couple of cases, it deserve to be done by living in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Dallas, or Houston—and Bentonville, Arkansas—but not numerous other places.<9>

Housing prices likewise remain high in superstar cities. The Demographia International housing Affordability Survey<10> classifies metropolitan-area home affordability by mean multiple, a price-to-income ratio in which the median house price is separated by the median household income in a region. A ratio exceeding 3 is considered unaffordable. As shown in Table 1, the superstar cities much exceed that, other than for Washington, D.C.

Notably, these are mostly very large regions. Ordinarily, the urban statistical area (MSA) is the best method to measure city regions; however for some of these cities, MSA does not reflect the true geography of the region. This is particularly true in the mountain Francisco only Area, i m sorry is consisted of of two significant metropolitan areas. The populations in Table 2 hence utilize the larger linked statistical area (CSA) or modified CSA to provide a truer picture of the complete scope of this superstar regions. Hereafter, all recommendations to superstar urban or regions will describe the regions in Table 2.

Notably, the superstars encompass five of the six largest CSAs in the U.S., excluding just Chicago, sometimes considered a semi-superstar. Seattle is the only superstar not among America’s very largest cities.

The difficulty of Scaling Superstar Cities

While numerous civic difficulties in superstar cities might be analyzed, this report focuses on the difficulties of growth and scaling.

The indigenous “scale” suggests economies of scale. Economic situations of scale are to reduce in median unit expense as output grows. The is, service providers become more efficient at manufacturing as they get larger. Yet the concept likewise applies come cities. Return municipal federal governments may not operate much more efficiently as cities grow larger, vital efficiencies can be acquired in the overall urban system. For example, researcher at the Santa Fe Institute uncovered that, for every copy of a city’s population, much of its physics infrastructure—for example, the variety of gas stations—grows just 85%.<11> The very same is true because that many species of infrastructure, consisting of pipes, roads, and also electrical wires.<12> 

Other, non-cost-efficiency services from scale are especially relevant in the era that the understanding economy. Cities space labor markets, and larger cities have actually thicker job markets—that is, a larger variety of employers and also employees. Thicker industries are more attractive because that workers and firms. According to economist Enrico Moretti: “In the situation of labor markets, together in numerous other aspects of life, dimension does matter.”<13> large markets specifically have an benefit in today’s era the two-career households, in i m sorry both pair must be able to find ideal employment. Economic experts Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn found that couples in i beg your pardon both spouses have college degrees have been increasingly concentrating in metro areas with a population of more than 2 million people.<14>

Larger cities likewise benefit from knowledge spillover and other agglomeration effects. If physical framework scales sublinearly v population, factors such as social interactions range superlinearly. Because that example, as soon as the population of a city doubles, its variety of patents increases, ~ above average, by 115%. The exact same is true because that a number of other indicators, such as GDP and income.

How cities Scale

The background of brand-new York City, America’s largest municipality and largest city region, demonstrates the importance of make the ideal decisions around development and also infrastructure because that a city that wants to grow. It climbed from a municipal population of 49,401 in America’s an initial census in 1790 to much more than 8 million in 2018, perpetually keeping its status as America’s biggest municipality and also urban region.

Though new York was very early adopter the zoning and building regulations, these to be targeted toward legitimate public-policy pertains to such as accessibility to light and ventilation because that apartments, or come ensure the sunlight would certainly reach the streets. This regimen allowed huge increases in the amount of arisen land, and high densities that development, permitting the building of a significant amount of real estate over an extensive period.

During civilization War II, points changed. Brand-new York began implementing a regime of rent regulation. And in 1960, it enforced a brand-new zoning password that properly imposed a “population cap” by limiting the constructed capacity that the city. Before the new zoning code, new York City’s populace had get an impressive from around 3.5 million in 1900 to 7.8 million in 1960. Subsequently, its population has grown come 8,398,748, an increase of only 7.9% over practically 60 years, despite really high housing prices indicating durable demand.

Additionally, new York frequently implemented big infrastructure alters to support growth. Several of them are highlighted in Table 3.

Table 3 highlights only significant events and is not exhaustive. Plenty of of these solution were constructed over the course of decades and also involved a series of major investments—some through government, rather by private firms. There space also significant infrastructural investments that may have actually been crucial for the economic success of new York yet were not specifically concerned the scaling of the city (e.g., the Erie Canal).

New York is not the only city that made these types of investments. Because that example, many huge cities undertook legendary and also controversial water-supply projects. Los Angeles acquired water from far watersheds, together famously illustrated in the movie Chinatown. Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River. Mountain Francisco controversially dammed the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite national Park for its reservoir.

The end of Rescaling

New York scaled by permitting the sector to provide much-needed housing and also commercial room and by making the framework investments required to support that growth. As detailed above, far-ranging intrusions into the market for real estate—particularly, rent control and the new zoning law—dramatically curtailed the capability of the city to rise its structure stock. Results of these plans were hidden for many years because they were applied when America’s large cities were experiencing declining demand. However today, the aftermath are totally visible, as cities like brand-new York struggle and fail to develop enough real estate at moderate prices.

Similarly, the era of successful significant infrastructural revolution largely pertained to an end with the perfect of the federal government highway system (approximately 1975–80), with the exemption of the largely invisible building of fiber-optic and also wireless telephone networks. Infrastructural growth today takes location incrementally, not on a grand scale (e.g., present freeways room expanded, but new urban freeways room not built).

Factors basic the failure to Scale

Why have actually cities shed the capacity to scale today? This report identifies 3 factors:

Regulatory accretion and social changeLoss of civic capacity come grow during the decades of weak metropolitan demandPerceived lack of far-ranging marginal benefits to growth by ordinary existing residents (and even the late of an adverse effects of growth, such as rising congestion)

Regulatory Accretion and Social Change

The rise of contemporary zoning laws—and, in the situation of brand-new York City and San Francisco, rent regulation—is only one factor constraining real estate construction. Other legal and social transforms significantly raised the complexity and degree of difficulty in undertaking significant infrastructure projects. In 1970, the National eco-friendly Policy act (NEPA) took effect, which required Environmental influence Statements (EIS) former to building and construction of significant infrastructure. The EIS procedure took about two years in the 1970s, yet has constantly grown since, reaching around eight year by 2011.<15> NEPA also listed a new legal system for enemies to avoid infrastructural tasks through litigation. Longer project timelines make for an ext political risk, together the planning procedure would now commonly span number of electoral cycles. Because that example, a proposed new York–New Jersey tunnel project, which had been agreed to by various parties in the two states, was canceled by kris Christie as soon as he was elected governor of new Jersey.<16>

A 2nd legal readjust was the expansion of historical preservation regulations. There had long been a preservation motion in the U.S., yet it acquired expansive legit teeth through the National historical Preservation action of 1966, as well as local ordinances, which come in the wake up of the commonly decried demolition of Penn station in new York City in 1963. By 2014, 27% the the lots, comprising nearly 20% of the floor area, in Manhattan were protected under historic preservation laws.<17> These policies restrict or complicate infrastructure development and curtail intense redevelopment in historic areas, which space disproportionately located in central city areas.

These legal alters reflected, in part, cultural change. In particular, the construction of metropolitan freeways catalyzed a protest activity that became part of more comprehensive upheavals in the 1960s. Building freeways in already-developed areas of a city required large-scale eminent domain, demolition of present structures, and also residential and also commercial displacement. In ~ the same time, eminent domain and demolition were put to controversial use in the company of city renewal and also “slum clearance” efforts.

Today, many of these tasks are viewed as mistakes. They produced a far-reaching and understandable publicly backlash. One of the most famed freeway revolts connected the proposed reduced Manhattan Expressway in new York, which would certainly have forced large-scale demolitions in Greenwich Village.<18> by the finish of the 1970s, building of brand-new freeways through developed urban areas had largely finished in the united States. 

These protest movements may seem favor things that the past, yet their impacts linger today. The protests assisted lead to the institutional structures, and increased political volume in neighborhoods, that inhibit real-estate development. Lock helped create an environment in i beg your pardon regulation, and political work to manipulate that regulatory environment, has fueled rising real estate prices as building-stock expansion fails to save up with demand.

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Loss of public Capacity come Grow

America’s superstars should remember exactly how to think prefer cities that are still in their growth phase. Countless of them experienced population loss throughout the era that suburbanization and also the “urban crisis.” san Francisco lost population for three straight decades. This regions concentrated on accommodating suburban growth, and then fell to a slow-growth plateau. When their urban centers began revitalizing in the 1980s and 1990s, they had excess housing, transit, and infrastructure capacity because they had actually previously seen significant population and job declines. Together they regrew, they can simply reuse this spare capacity without much new building.