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How Peer Cities Are Chosen For Louisville's Downtown

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Louisville is often compared to a set list of cities in lists, reports and presentations.

That's what happened earlier this week. The Louisville Downtown Partnership presented the annual state of the downtown report, ranking Louisville among 17 other cities in categories such as median income to the percentage of young people living downtown.

These cities with which Louisville often duels are considered to be its "peer" cities. In these comparisons, the state of these cities can sway perceptions of Louisville from a stay-and-play urban area to a speed-through slum.

So, what are Louisville's peer cities? How did they become peers and, more importantly, do they even matter?

Janet Kelly, the executive director of the University of Louisville Urban Studies Institute, said peer cities are absolutely necessary.

"The most relevant question is: 'How are we doing compared to how other people are doing?'" she said.

Some, however, see it differently. In a recent exchange on Twitter, Patrick Smith of City Collaborative made these points in response to our story earlier this week on the State of Downtown presentation:


Kelly said a list of peer cities to compare strengths and weaknesses is "not about winners and losers," but rather seeking best practices that propel a city towards its goals.

"It's about identifying people who are best in class, but are comparable to you, and trying to learn from whatever innovative programs or activities they are doing," she said.

Smith said once the comparisons are out what's often missing is the next step—how cities can use the information to improve.

"That's the missing piece," he said. "Is this just a cursory consideration without thinking about the specific policies, the specific things that are on the ground, in these cities and what it meant for these cities to get where they are."

Kelly and a team of researchers the the Urban Studies Institute created the most current list of peer cities that has been referenced by city officials since April 2014.

Here is that list.
Birmingham, AL Charlotte, NC Cincinnati, OH Columbus, OH Grand Rapids, MI Greensboro, NC Greenville, SC Indianapolis, IN Kansas City, MO Knoxville, TN Memphis, TN Nashville, TN Oklahoma City, OK Omaha, NE Pittsburgh, PA St. Louis, MO Tulsa, OK
And here is a map posted by City Researcher comparing the 2012 gross domestic product of Louisville’s peer cities (sans Pittsburgh, which was $124 billion in 2012).


In developing the most current list, researchers went beyond the method used by Paul Coomes and Barry Kornstein—who developed the first list of peer cities that was used for nearly 20 years.

The Coomes and Kornstein list was developed strictly using data from the Metropolitan Statistical Areas of each city on the list, which is preferable when comparing economic data, Kelly said.

But peer cities are often used as benchmarks for non-economic data, such as educational attainment, immigration and health, she added.

"We decided it was worthwhile to load a whole boatload of data into the factor analysis to see if we could come up with a new set of peers that were like us, not just economically, but like us demographically," she said.

Researchers considered more variables in their work than Coomes and Kornstein did, according to a 2014 Urban Studies Institute report. In some analysis Kelly and the research team used as many as 190 variables, including economic and demographic data. Coomes and Kornstein used just 77 variables in their original study.

Also, instead of looking specifically at Metropolitan Statistical Areas—which "are simply economic regions comprised of interdependent counties"—the group looked at "core" county data for comparable cities.

Demographic, health and economic data is available at the county level, which can provide "apples to apples" comparisons to other areas—which isn't always the case using MSA data, Kelly said.

"We felt the core county comparisons across both economic and demographic factors would give us a set of peers that are most like us," she said.

Variables were harvested from U.S. Census data, as well as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis and "wherever we knew that there was high quality county level data," Kelly said.

Researchers analyzed data from 381 MSAs and 74 core county areas, according to the report. Four lists were presented to a focus group and the Greater Louisville Project board for consideration.

Cities appearing both on lists finalized by using MSA data and core county data were given priority consideration for being a peer city. Then other cities that appeared on just one of the lists (MSA or core county) were "examined for size comparability and all were ultimately included in the peer list," according to the report.

The Greater Louisville Project board was presented the final list for approval. The board originally voted to oust Pittsburgh from the list, but Kelly said the city was reinstated as a peer city for "balance."

"Geographically, economically, there are a lot of similarities between Pittsburgh and Louisville," Kelly said.

And then, a new list of peer cities was established.

Kelly said the list can remain relevant and credible for about a decade, but the data should be checked every five to six years just to make sure nothing drastic has happened.

"Things tend to change very slowly on both the demographic and economic side, there tend not to be a whole lot shocks," she said.

The research by Kelly and her team took about four months and cost $10,000, she said. It was paid for by the Greater Louisville Project.

Here is the entire report on determining peer cities from the Urban Studies Institute.
[scribd id=255590847 key=key-aPnZiEPEbx5rLsxvQgBo mode=scroll]

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.