Nov 2, 2023 - Economy

These 3 cities lead the post-pandemic downtown recovery race

Downtown foot traffic recovery, spring 2023
Data: University of Toronto; Note: Downtown defined as the central location with the highest concentration of employment in each metro area; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Las Vegas, El Paso and San Jose now lead the country in terms of post-pandemic downtown recovery among more than 50 major U.S. cities.

  • That's per researchers tracking how cities are emerging from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, and based on downtown visitors in March through mid-June 2023, as compared to the same period in 2019.

Driving the news: The updated rankings follow a change in methodology by researchers at the University of Toronto's School of Cities.

  • Most crucially, the researchers modified their definition of "downtown." They used to define it by ZIP codes with the highest job density, but now do so by broader areas with a high concentration of jobs.
  • They also shifted from using two location data sources to one and looked at a slightly more current time frame as compared to their last update.(These analyses are based on anonymized mobile device location data.)

What they're saying: School of Cities director and project leader Karen Chapple says the decision to change the definition of "downtown" came after pushback from some cities and business associations.

  • "We've looked at cities' own definitions of downtown, but those boundaries are historic and don't reflect where the current buildings are, or they're political, or they've been drawn to match census boundaries," Chapple tells Axios. "So they have the same flaws as using ZIP codes."
  • "We decided to go with job densities ... figuring that's what people really care about — these are the hearts of our regions and of our cities."

Zoom in: Here are two illustrative examples of how the researchers' new approach changed the area they're looking at, in Boston and San Diego:

Data: University of Toronto; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

What's next: Chapple's team is about to roll out a new widget allowing users to choose from different versions of "downtown," to illustrate how any given city's numbers might change depending on the chosen area.

The bottom line: Ask 100 people to draw you a map of "downtown," and you'll get 100 different maps.

  • That's the big challenge with analyses like these — but as long as they're grounded in sound logic and the approach is refined based on feedback, they're insightful nonetheless.
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